An Interview with Rookie Editor Tavi Gevinson
Grown women, if Tavi Gevinson makes you feel old and unproductive, take solace in the fact that you're not alone. The now–17-year-old founder and editor of teen-girl website Rookie has been an industry force since she started her fashion blog, Style Rookie, at the wee age of 11. Since then, Gevinson has mashed up her interest in style with Rookie's focus on friends, on feminism, on nostalgia, on culture, and on all manner of interests that, while targeted at a teen demographic, resonate soundly across the board.
The second edition of the Rookie Yearbook (which Gevinson edits and art directs) was recently published by Drawn and Quarterly, so this fall has found her on the road for a series of standing-room-only events across this Rookie-loving nation. Gevinson also found time to make her acting debut, in Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said—notable not only for Gevinson's lovely, natural performance alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but for being one of James Gandolfini's final film appearances.
Somehow, Gevinson manages to live a relatively regular life as a high-school senior, and last month I met up with her for a post-class snack at a vegan restaurant in her home of Oak Park, Illinois. At the end of our conversation, I asked Tavi a quick round of questions from a 1967 issue of Tiger Beat.
ANDI ZEISLER: How do you foresee things changing when you go to college, both the actual time you put into Rookie and the focus?
TAVI GEVISON: I think the focus of [the site] will remain, because it has a life of its own now. I’m very happy whenever I find that we have readers who don’t know that a teenager runs it, who don’t know who I am or about my blog or whatever. It’s its own thing now, it’s its own community, and that’s always been the goal.
There are a lot of websites for women in their 20s, and I don’t think there’s as much of a gap that needs to be filled there. And we have staffers of all ages, so it’s not that I think, you know, on my 20th birthday I’ll suddenly lose touch.
The second Rookie Yearbook recently came out. How many do you plan to do?
For me, one [a year] is the best for us, because of my schedule and because a lot of my favorite fashion magazines, when I was interested in fashion, were more like books, and I just loved that feeling of getting a portal into another world. And I like the yearbook, high-school thing, like the Freaks and Geeks special-edition DVDs. That’s how we got the idea to do those fake little signatures, you know, on the inside cover.
I think we’ll do maybe four total, so that there’s one for each year of high school. And also because, you know, by the time I’m 20, that seems like a good time to not still be focusing on being a teenager as much as I am now. But I’ll still be very involved.
How do you decide what from the site goes into the yearbooks? What’s your process?
There are some things, like, if we have a month of the site where we have extra content at the end, I’ll prioritize the [pieces] that I know we’ll want to use in the book and that go with the theme, as opposed to saving them for the next month. Like, this year I was actually bummed, and will probably just change it, but: The September theme was “Victory” and October’s theme was “Haunted,” and we had this amazing photo album of these girls who are in a dance troupe in New York, but we didn’t have room in September, so it went up in October, but I was like, “That doesn’t work for Haunted,” so I’ll change that for the book.
You know how the site is three posts a day? I just go through every day of the site and just make a list of everything, and it’s just [a] process of elimination and balancing things out.
Do you have an overarching editorial philosophy? What makes something feel like a Rookie piece to you?
I feel like we try to strike a balance between the more substantial content that deals with less talked-about issues, and the content that’s like photo shoots or DIYs. But they’re all guided by the same principles, so even when we have lighter stuff, it doesn’t read like a Seventeen piece.
I guess when we’re looking at writers, the stuff that always feels like Rookie to me is a piece that’s confessional and that also does some service to the reader. If there’s something that’s supposed to be funny, it’s not obnoxious, or if there’s something that’s critical, it’s not snarky. And with the lighter posts, about fashion and music and stuff, we just try to not have a binary between, like, alternative and mainstream and “you’re cool if you like this, but not this.”
I’ve heard readers say, “I feel like I’m not cool enough for Rookie,” and I’m like, “Really?” I just hate that, that’s not what I’m trying to do, I want people to feel included. So it’s mostly about just letting the audience know that they are already smart enough, cool enough, everything that they’re insecure about.
So it’s not as aspirational as other teen magazines. Or it’s aspirational in a different way.
I started Rookie sophomore year, when you start to get really insecure about how you look. I was finally just like, “Once I accept that I’ll never be happy with how I look—whether I actually look good or not—then [I could] be free, and focus on the parts of life that are more fulfilling.” We have stuff about beauty, and makeup, but it’s usually more about self-expression. I think it’s an aspirational for being well-rounded, for being yourself but without this weird recent Lady Gaga pressure to be super special. Because then you have all these girls being like, “But I don’t FEEL special,” and it’s like, “You don’t have to be special, you just have to be kind.”
The reason the headline is just, “A website for teenage girls” is because we don’t want to create a clubhouse feeling. I feel like, in the ’90s, it was really easy to look as Sassy and be like, “Oh, this is for different girls.” But now there are so many more blurred lines, especially with the Internet.
Speaking of Sassy: Way back before Rookie started, there was talk about you collaborating with Jane Pratt. Was that the seed of Rookie?
It was the seed. I had given a talk at an ideas conference in Toronto where I was like, “This is what a modern Sassy would look like.” Which was not, also, so much about that as it was, “These are lessons we can all take away from this weird, special thing that happened some years ago.” And I had written about it on my blog, just being like, “Why doesn’t something like this exist now?” And then Jane e-mailed me and was like, “I would love to help you.” So we had a few meetings, and it was like, “Oh, this could be a real thing.”
And I wrote on my blog, “We’re starting a magazine! Send in your writing and photography!” We got about 3,000 e-mails. This is when Jane was starting up xoJane, and there was a publishing company and we wanted to be independent. There was only so much she could contractually do outside [that], plus her schedule was crazy. And so it was just kind of like… we didn’t have a set schedule for when we would have it all figured out. She continued to be very supportive, but by that time I had also heard from Anaheed Alani, who was like, “I work at the New York Times, but I will work for you instead.” She helped me go through all those submissions, and it was really clear: “Oh she knows exactly what this should be, we’re so on the same wavelength.” And to this day—she’s editorial director—there would be no Rookie without her.
It’s interesting to think what might have happened if everything with Jane Pratt had worked out. Do you think you would have had that same editorial mind-meld that you had with Anaheed?
Jane had a lot of great ideas and she understood what [the site] should be. Like, we have these weekly diary writers, and that was her idea. I remember her saying, “You know, it shouldn’t be like when a women’s magazine does an occasional piece about a third-world country. It should have a certain kind of consciousness embedded in it.”
I remember it was a big deal to think that there would be a team of people running it, I could go to school, I [could] have my own life. But then [I realized], that’ll be more work, because then I have to convey what I want to a group of people. In those early days, it was really important for me to be able to go into WordPress and just change things. Sophomore year, that was when—I’ve been a good sudent all my life, and that was when I had to do a weird Tracy Flick thing of like, “Okay, I guess I have a B now. It’s fine! I’m fine! I’m fine!” But it was worth it. I knew it was worth it. And it was important at the time when the tone was really developing for me to be that involved just in something like the headlines. In those days, I read every single piece before it went up.
A big part of Rookie is wanting our readers to do stuff offline. I wouldn’t want a BuzzFeed, constantly updated thing… I just don’t think anyone should be looking at the computer that much. But that’s also part of the thinking behind the book. It’s nice for our readers to have. It’s a different impact to read something that way.
It seems like only a small number of interviews with you take on the subject of feminism. Especially during the early years of your blog, do you think it was difficult for people in the media to accept that a teenager could be as interested in feminism as she was in fashion?
I feel like I have been asked about it. I can’t remember ever feeling like, “Why isn’t anyone letting me talk about this?” I mean, I’m a feminist. Many of our staffers are. Some of them don’t identify as one, and I think that’s okay, because the content they provide for the site, for the book, is still in that sphere.
But for me, I think about an event we did last summer in Philadelphia where some girl, she had seen me on TV because I did a morning show—this is why you do morning shows—and she was in a super-religious household, homeschooled, and she had to sneak out of the house to go to our event, which was in the middle of the day, and had to wear her brother’s shoes because she, as a girl, did not own shoes that allow you to walk very far. I’ve never wanted [Rookie] to be filled with theory and jargon; I’ve always wanted it to be accessible, and it has definitely been interesting to figure out how to do that without watering it down. It’s always something that you’re evaluating and working on.
How have your own thoughts on feminism evolved since starting this work?
Oh, wow. I mean, the biggest thing is understanding that it needs to be intersectional, and that you can’t talk about just gender. I think for a long time, I thought, “Well, that other stuff, that’s not my territory, so I shouldn’t even touch it.” But there’s a way to be considerate without dictating. And that’s also why we have 80 contributors, and it’s not all me, and it’s a place for people to share their own experiences. That’s been the biggest thing for me, ‘cause I’m in a bubble here. And it took me a bt of time to process the flaws of Riot Grrrl, because of '90s nostalgia. I did realize that…because at some point last year, I had this moment of feeling like, “I’m not an activist, that’s actually not what I’m interested in,” so it was big for me to understand that I can be a feminist-minded creative.
You can be a feminist, but not everything you do has to be a feminist act.
Exactly. That’s important too, because if not you’d have a clump of feminist activists and then everyone in pop culture isn't. And that’s why, for as much as my archnemesis at school would like to tell me that Rookie is for a first-world girl, or that it’s not—that’s the wrong way of putting it, he’s a communist and he thinks on a global scale, and I’m like, Look, I’m just trying to put something good out into the world, it’s not going to solve patriarchy forever and ever. You just kind of have to accept that maybe this is the extent of what a magazine that isn’t about feminism can do. Even the other day at school, we read about a study that showed that people would read like a few minutes of literary fiction and then they took these tests on emotional intelligence and trying to see how other people feel, and reading literary fiction makes you more empathetic. There are all these kinds of small rippples that you can make. Last year, when the first book came, there was a lot of, like, “Is Tavi girl power’s last hope?” I had to just remind myself that it’s okay to not be saving the world. It’s okay if I decide that I want to eventually do something else. Like you said, that I’m a feminist but it’s not activism related.
That’s a media thing too, the idea that we can only have one feminist activist at a time that the media can focus on, so everything gets put on them.
And that’s dangerous! Roxane Gay, who writes for us, has a post called Bad Feminist, and I just wanted to plaster it everywhere. She says there’s danger in putting someone on a feminist pedestal, because they’re bound to fail because you can’t represent everyone and then you also make a lot of people feel bad because they don’t identify with you, so is something wrong with them? I think the point is that you want women to feel free to be themselves, there should be many faces of feminism, not just one spokesperson.
I was interviewed recently for an New York Post story about whether Lena Dunham should be on the cover of Vogue. The writer’s argument was that she should only do it if she has editorial control, and if she’s able to use it as a blow for feminism. And that’s a lot of pressure.
That’s so much pressure! I was telling Anaheed that I went to the Toronto Film Festival in September and I [had]—it’s not imposter syndrome, it’s guilt about not having imposter syndrome: a part of me that felt like I should feel guilty for wanting to get dressed up and go to the premiere. I’m really okay with asking a designer to borrow a dress and getting my hair and makeup done and all of that. And Anaheed was like, “Yeah, Lena Dunham will go to the Met Ball and get dressed up and no one is like [mean voice] ‘She’s fake!’” But maybe now they do? It’s silly. I would rather see her doing her thing than be like, “No it won’t be radical enough, she owes us something.”
Why do you think the idea that feminism and fashion are diametrically opposed is such a persistent one?
I think there are a few things going on. One is that feminism is for smart girls, and fashion is supposedly for stupid girls. I mean, I remember when was writing [both] about fashion and occasionally about feminism, it was like [annoyed voice] “Won’t she just give up this fashion crap and be smart already?” I just remember feeling, “What, the only people who write about fashion should be stupid?” So there’s that, that they both have these different raps. And then because fashion is always about appearance, the industry is deeply flawed, and something that dictates how a woman should look and what her body should be like doesn’t seem feminist. And it’s not. But a lot of fashion isn’t like that.
There was a really stupid piece in the Guardian—I was in 8th grade when it came out—called, like, “Why I Hate Fashion.” And it was like, “I hate ads for stores that tell me that shopping is good, I hate that models are skinny,” and all this stuff. And I was like, “Yes, but…that’s like a little bit like being like saying, ‘I hate food, because there’s McDonalds.’” It’s so broad. And I’ve definitely, when someone’s like, “You write a fashion blog?,” I’ve felt the temptation to be like, “Yeah, but it’s not about that, I’m [faux-pretentious voice] interested in the art.” But I think [fashion] can be a tool of self-expression. For me recently, it hasn’t been that. Honestly, it’s just kind of like, I want to be comfortable, because I’m putting all my energy into other stuff right now. But I don’t like to feel guilty because I’m not constantly subverting the beauty standard.
Despite not identifying as an activist, do you have an ideological hope of what feminism might achieve during your lifetime?
I haven’t thought that far ahead! With Rookie, it’s hard to think in terms of big goals. You can’t put something out there and be like, “Okay, I better get three comments saying it changed someone’s life.” It’s just day by day.
I want [feminism] to not have this stigma around it. For it to be more inclusive. For, to see more representation in TV and movies that we see so much of everywhere. For someone to send out a newsletter to all straight adolescent boys that porn isn’t accurate. Just stuff like that. I want positivity.
You mentioned an archnemesis at school, but in general, do your classmates know or care that you’re having this media moment? What is it like to be a person in high school who’s living beyond high school already?
I think people kind of know. When I was just doing my blog, people were kind of, “Oh, Fashion Girl,” and [they thought] I was stupid or snobby or something because that’s what I was interested in. But it was also, when I was a freshman, so many upperclassmen, once we became friends, would be like, “I totally thought you’d be a bitch at first.” Because I was at the bottom, a lot of my schoolmates were a little resentful of me. But now that I’m a senior, it’s like, “Oh, cool older girl,” and I enjoy that. [Laughs] Because I just never thought I would be someone that One Direction–loving lacrosse players would want to take a selfie with in the hallway.
The hardest thing is just the back and forth. Coming down from these trips where I feel like I’m in control and I have the life that I want and then to come to a place where [I] feel powerless. This morning I had to go to the nurse and lie down and just get my head on straight. I had seriously started texting my dad to be like, “I have to finish the rest of the year online!” And you don’t want to say that, because then you have people saying [obnoxious voice] “See, it’s not healthy for her!”
I was listening to an interview with Julianne Moore on Julie Klausner’s podcast, and she was saying that when women recognize her and ask, like, “What do you eat?,” she doesn’t want to be the actress eating a cheeseburger who’s like, “Oh, I can eat anything!” It would be a little evil for me to pretend this is effortless or doesn’t have its sacrifices. It’s weird, but it’s the life that I chose, and I feel like I’ve been able to have a pretty good balance.
I was trying to think of someone who wasn’t a movie or pop star who’s ever been embraced equally by their peers and by grown-ups, and couldn’t. Is it weird when adults gush over how cool you are?
What’s weird is when adults come to a Rookie event and cut in front of all the teen girls to give me their book that they wrote. And it’s like [motions] this thick and you have to get it home in your suitcase and you’re not even going to read it because you’re so put off. But those people are the exceptions. In general, It makes me really happy that adults read Rookie. Because what are the odds that something started by a teenage girl could be respected in this way?
I definitely know a lot of adults who really wish that something like Rookie had existed when they were young.
The best thing is knowing that no matter how the future looks for Rookie, it won’t stop with us. Even Lorde was a Rookie reader and read my blog, and that made me so happy. It’s just awesome that she identifies as a feminist, and if Rookie ever gave her some sense that that was okay and that there was a community or audience for that…it’s all these little ripples.
As you’ve become more recogniziable because of Rookie and the talks you give and the movie, how do you keep yourself to yourself?
I have a kind of gut feeling if something is too personal to share. I have a private Instagram for pictures of my boyfriend and of being in school and being a brat about it. It would be so anxiety-inducing to do these events and be like, “I have to be up, I have to put on a face.” I’ve been very lucky, so lucky, that people have been generally accepting of who I am as well as understanding that I change. Usually with things that I’m going to share and then I don’t, it’s less about, “This won’t look good,” and more of, “This is too special, this is for me.”
I gave a talk in Australia at the Sydney Opera House and then at the Melbourne writer’s festival in August, and I said, “My boyfriend and I broke up. Last year I was diagnosed with depression.” But the rest was more about the feelings and not the experience, because I feel like that’s the plane on which people will relate. And also, that’s the more powerful part. I don’t need to be be like, “And then he said this, and it was hard, and then my therapist….” The feelings are there, and that’s what helps me in my writing or talks to connect with people, more so than My Story.
BONUS TIGER BEAT QUESTIONNAIRE
(taken from a 1967 issue of Tiger Beat)
How would your mother describe you in one word?
The first thing I heard of was just my mother saying “Tavi” in her accent. It kind of speaks for itself. But, um… “cynical.” She claims that I came out of the womb and looked around at everyone in the hospital room and made a face like I was disappointed.
What’s your favorite flower?
What’s the oddest question you’ve ever been asked?
Well, in Australia—I don’t know what it is about Australia—but [at] both of my talks, there was a lanky white grad-school dude. One asked me if I’d read Walden, and the other guy started his question by saying, “I’m an ultrarealist.” And when I did a radio interview there, the guy asked me if I believed in God. So probably either, “Do you believe in God?” or “Have you read Walden?”
What word in the English language do you wish you’d invented?
For some reason, the word “steadfast.” It just sounds the way it should.
Where would you like to live?
Big Sur, eventually.
What’s the first quote that comes to mind?
Last night I was listening to Charlie Kaufman’s BAFTA speech, and he cited an e.e. cummings quote that I then looked up today. [Pulls out journal] I have it here, if you want to get specific. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being could fight.” And I liked what Kaufman said afterward. He said, “The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties. These books exist and they’re tempting, but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying ‘I don’t know’ and being kind.”
What animal describes the kind of person you’re interested in?
I like dogs. They just have a spirit to them.
What do you miss about your childhood?
Just not having a sense that there’s an outside world.
If you could change your name what would you change it to?
One of our Rookie writers, her mother’s name is Dawn, and on all of her records, she would draw a sunrise and write Dawn. Dawn would be nice, so I could adopt that.
What is the main fault of your character?
Don’t open that door, Tiger Beat! I think I bite off more than I can chew sometimes.
Who is your favorite historical figure?
I was really into Eleanor Roosevelt when I was little. I still think she’s the tops.
And this is my favorite one: What in the world do you least desire?
To covet youth. It can’t just be youth. It has to be to covet youth, because that’s what’s dangerous. I’m glad that I spent ages 12-14 trying to dress like a grandma and gaining understanding that I desire a life well-lived instead of, like, romanticizing purity. Having all these role models where it’s like, “Oh, she’s awesome because you can tell that she’s done so much and she’s lived such a life, and her wrinkles show that.”
And that’s one thing when people were like, “Fashion is bad for a young girl to be into,” I was interested in the interestingly dressed editors, not the models. There’s a lot there. I just wrote something for Rookie, because next month’s theme is “Forever,” the time when you’re a teenager does feels like it’s its own forever, and I had to write it because I was getting all sad, but it was a good way to work out, “Well, this is why you don’t want to be stuck in your teen years.”
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