Creating an alt-girl utopia: Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Yearbook One

ROOKIE1.coverReviewed in this essay: Rookie Yearbook One, ed. Tavi Gevinson, Drawn & Quarterly, 2012.

At 16 years old, Tavi Gevinson is already an accomplished writer, editor, and pop culture icon. She quickly became a darling of the fashion industry at the age of 11, when she launched her fashion blog “Style Rookie.” In September 2011 she founded Rookie, an online magazine for teenage girls. Rookie Yearbook One is a collection of the best articles, interviews, and art that appeared on the Rookie website in the 2011-2012 school year, and the 350-page book should effectively silence anyone still complaining about or second-guessing the youth of its editor.

Drawing on the talents of a host of writers and artists, the book synthesizes images, words, and moods into something like an alt-girl utopia. Rookie Yearbook One features photo sets of female skateboarders, Cindy Sherman-inspired film stills, and so many girl gangs, as well as essays that cover everything from street harassment, feminism, and deep sea life to pragmatic how-to pieces on giving bitchface and applying mod eye makeup. Gevinson has an uncanny ability to be sophisticated and knowing in her approach to the cultural landscape, without exhibiting the kind of irony or condescension you might expect from someone who sat next to Anna Wintour at New York Fashion Week and counts Miranda July, David Sedaris, and John Waters among her fans. All, save Wintour, appear in the Yearbook.

When Gevinson writes in her first editor’s letter that “Rookie is a place to make the best of the beautiful pain and cringe-worthy awkwardness of being an adolescent girl,” she means to follow through on the promise. Her success in capturing that beauty and pain and awkwardness—sometimes overlapping experiences here and sometimes not—is what makes the book so remarkable. Gevinson is utterly steeped in the Nineties adolescent canon, which is partly why she attracts so many older fans and readers, including this one. She is self-reflexive about what it’s like to live through rites of passage already intensely familiar through repeated viewings of shows like Freaks and Geeks, Daria, and My So-Called Life. But this self-consciousness—this awareness of being mediated—makes her writing about teenage girlhood no less sincere. In a December 2011 editorial on the theme of “Home,” for instance, Gevinson reflects on a time in her life when she loved Bob Dylan, loved him unabashedly without considering that drunk frat boys and her own father also felt a special connection to his music. Now, she writes, “I get a little homesick for that first phase of being a person who absorbs things and thinks about them… It was the last time I would feel totally childlike in my outlook on something.” Somehow this premature nostalgia only intensifies the zest with which Gevinson and her fellow Rookie writers take on the excitement and weirdness and horror of being a teenage girl in a world eager to sell a simplified version of that experience.

If there is any tension at work here, it is in the shaky line between the book’s avowed DIY aesthetic and feminist politics, and the fact that Rookie’s primary corporate sponsor is Urban Outfitters, a company that commodifies indie youth culture and donated some of its profits to the presidential campaign of right-wing homophobe Rick Santorum. But the point of Rookie is precisely not to be an underground zine written by and for a small cadre of insiders. The website and book aim to touch a much larger community of young female “rookies,” all of them readers, commenters, and participants in an expanded girl culture.

About the author

Laura Fisher

Laura Fisher teaches American Literature at New York University, and fixates on girl culture on the side. In August, she will move to Toronto to join the Department of English at Ryerson University.

By Laura Fisher