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Interview: Tavi Gevinson

At first glance, a 17-year-old student living with her family in a small suburb of Chicago might seem, to Cherwell readers, as an odd choice for our Profile interview. I’ve reached this conclusion, because every time I tell one of my fellow students on the paper how giddy with excitement I am about my interviewee, their response is usually just, “Oh, isn’t that the teenage girl?”

Our Skype call is scheduled for 4pm CST, so that she has time to come home from school. Tavi Gevinson has an ordinary student schedule, but her extra-curriculars are a lot more exciting than any student I know.

She started out with fashion writing on her blog Style Rookie, which fast became phenomenally successful due to her eccentric style and dry humour, and saw her seated front row at New York Fashion Week, next to Anna Wintour. But she quickly tired of aspects of the fashion industry, as she “realized how that world can make you so caught up and anxious about how you come off that you can’t really see outside of yourself”. Now she’s Editor-in-Chief of her own publication, Rookie, an online feminist magazine for teenage girls, and produces a physical annual ‘yearbook’ of content with publishers Drawn and Quarterly. She’s starring in a Hollywood movie, Enough Said, which is enjoying a flurry of four and five-star reviews. In her spare time, she’s also going about the small task of completing high school and applying to college.

“It’s a bit of a stressful time. I really want to go to New York, so I can study and continue with Rookie and other things. You can get really impatient sitting in high school when like there’s so much else you have do in your life. I just try and appreciate that I can have that kind of experience as much as possible. It’s a good balance, and I mean I write so much about being a teenager that high school is an experience that I want to have.”

Although she’s keen to move on — the majority of her friends and her boyfriend have already graduated — Tavi has a keen sense of the future nostalgia she might experience after leaving school.

“I’ve found many ways to appreciate growing up in a suburb and there’s something very special about it. Being a teenager is a very precious time! Leaving that part makes me sad. This is going to sound name-droppy but I was emailing Lena Dunham, and I was like ‘Senior year sucked!’ and ‘Highschool’s dumb!’, and she was like, ‘I hated school, I didn’t really like college but I found myself missing them in ways I did not expect. So appreciate it as much as you can.’ I’m just trying to do that.”

The universality of these experiences is part of what makes Rookie a global success: the majority of its young audience are not just passive or casual readers. Though there is a dedicated staff of permanent writers, photographers and illustrators of all ages, Rookie thrives on submission, often showcasing work sent in by readers, and every piece is underscored by a stream of enthusiastic comments. There are regular events: last year Tavi and other staff members did a cross-country road trip across the states where they spoke to readers, held exhibitions, and signed copies of Rookie Yearbook One. Readers even set up meet-ups with each other of their own accord, in cities the world over. Rookie is not just a magazine, it’s a community of young feminist women with diverging interests and shared passions. I ask her what its like to be a figurehead for such a devoted group of young people.

“It’s amazing! Its the most gratifying thing! I worked for years behind a computer, just talking about myself, and then I was like ‘Oh! I should, like, not talk about myself! I should create a space for other people to talk about themselves.’ My blog was very much, ‘I don’t care what you say! This is for me!’, and with Rookie it’s for the audience, it’s the opposite. But even then, you still work behind a computer, and although you get to see all these responses online and it’s great, you don’t feel it on a human level. And then to see these people and just think, ‘Oh my god! They’re all humans and they have personal histories, and childhood memories, and, like, tastebuds and stuff. They’re real!’ It’s just so amazing.

“I can think of times when girls have said to me, ‘This article convinced me to tell my parents I have an eating disorder’, or, ‘This article helped me come out’, or, ‘I’m a sexual assault survivor and this helped me’. That’s when you realise this is actually much bigger than me and us, this is about these connections people create.”

Part of Rookie’s appeal lies in its diversity: topics covered range from ‘Literally the Best Thing Ever: The Sims’, to guides on how to call people out if they say something racist or misogynistic, from nail painting tutorials to personal essays on what it’s like to grow up transgender. Both these types of content, the silly and the serious, are given equal prominence, and there is no snobbery about pop music or fashion. There is a smattering of articles on style and beauty, but an even bigger focus on body acceptance and self esteem. Articles like ‘Do It Yourself’, a guide for young women about masturbation featured in Rookie Yearbook One, have received criticism for being ‘inappropriate’ for such a young readership.

“I’ve been at a book signing, or I’ve been sitting at book fairs with the Rookie Yearbook One in front of me, and a woman will come up with her kid and flick through it, then get to the masturbation article and be like,” she takes on a tone of po-faced, tight lipped sarcasm, “‘Okay, thanks…’, and put the book down and guide their daughter away.

“I once went on a talk show on Access Hollywood, so it was supposed to be very, y’know, light and sound-bite-ish. The male host was like, ‘Now I was sitting in bed reading this with my daughters; it can be a little racey!’ and I was like, ‘You’re reading it in bed with your kids? You put yourself in that situation!’

“I continually say these are things teenagers already talk about. In Yearbook Two there’s an article about sex and body myths, that answers questions like ‘Can a tampon get stuck up inside of you?’, things like that. You need a source for these questions that isn’t like, Yahoo Answers. The author, Lola, is an OB/GYN [gynaecologist] who studied at Yale. If teenagers are already talking about this, at least Rookie is a voice that speaks from personal experiences, and women like Lola are obviously very educated.”

The dedication and enthusiasm with which so many girls embrace Rookie’s content, the books and films and music praised on it, and the advice it gives, shows that although Tavi has a wonderfully original voice, and bags of wit and drive, it is wrong to consider her an anomaly — a rare mature or smart teenager – as many media outlets do, through labels like ‘wunderkind’. She provides a funny, warm, yet rigorously informed voice for so many intelligent young people who are often dismissed as hormonal fangirls. Why does she think this category of teenage women are so often sneered at?

“There will always be people who consider young female artists more self-indulgent than male artists, and I’ve definitely like dealt with that feeling of wondering if I’m selfish or arrogant or something, so I’m very happy to see someone like Lena Dunham exploring these issues. But when I interviewed Sophia Coppola for Rookie, I asked her why she mostly makes movies about teenagers, and she said that when you’re a teenager you have this luxury where you have this time to be really introspective and think about things, you don’t have the same obligations an adult does and you have a lot of free time.”

Tavi is a teenage girl who is starting to experience the obligations and time commitments of adult life a little earlier than most. Her debut acting role in Enough Said — which she calls “a really simply honest movie” that’s not “trying too hard to be gritty” — is just reaching audiences, and it’s an experience she’s said she’d love to do again. What creatively excites her most right now, and does she still have time for the introspective writing she built her name on?

“I’ve actually learned that journalling is a thing that I have to do to be happy. It just one of those things for me that I really have to do to keep your brain in like, a good place. I can see going to college and, you know, there are a lot of writing classes that I want to get on. Sometimes I do wanna write something and then I think it’s too personal for me to put on Rookie. But, in the future, I do think I’ll share those throughout the years again.”

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