Teenage girlhood is an awkward, transcendent time, an era of exploring new influences, falling on your face, and morphing into a more powerful version of yourself. There’s not much in the culture that can help you navigate this.
Except, for those of us that are old enough to remember, there once was a well of witty fervor and teen girl grit called Sassy Magazine.
In an interview in the first volume of Rookie Yearbook, Avengers director Joss Whedon told its 16-year-old editor-in-chief Tavi Gevinson that he had a subscription to Sassy in high school, despite not entirely being its target audience: “They talked about things like feminism, body issues, community, and diversity, but in context with teenage girls’ actual life and language.” Instead of dictating to girls about their politics or trying to get them to buy more makeup like its competitors, Sassy became a lightening rod for perceptive, thoughtful writing by women living what they were writing about. It was no accident that Gevinson initially conceived of Rookie as a joint venture with Sassy founder Jane Pratt, as Gevinson’s own blog has detailed. Sassy is a major reference point for Gevinson, and Rookie in many ways picks up where Sassy left off, a millennial take on the authentic teen girl experience.
Like any teen girl magazine ever, Sassy included, there is fashion. Lush photo spreads mash-up hyper-feminine pastels, Chantilly lace, tie-dye, Ziggy Stardust makeup, denim, grunge era band t-shirts, glitter, and more glitter. Gevinson shot to public attention with her fashion blog Style Rookie at twelve, and we are sometimes treated to a backstage look at a Rodarte or Meadham Kirchhoff show. There’s a bit of Diana Vreeland fairy dust in the exoticism of Rookie’s location shoots — a Mexican playa, mermaids on a beach, outsider artist Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain in a California desert, a dinosaur park — albeit it through a lens somewhat bleary with nostalgia for childhood. It’s a classic adolescent pull back towards true girlhood even as the fashion leans forward into adulthood. There’s a lot of references too, ironic ‘60s and ‘70s prints and the aforementioned ‘90s grunge, along with a nod to rockabilly or Frida Kahlo here and there.
There’s a witchiness to girl power at this age, a way the culture is uncomfortable with the moment a girl becomes a woman, and Rookie jumps right in to celebrate this unsettling transformation. How-to articles on casting spells, ghost-hunting, crafting your own personalized jean jacket, and communicating better with others, including how to fight for yourself fairly. An interview with rock star and Porlandia creator Carrie Brownstein veers into Brownstein’s own moment of becoming as a young musician: “I didn’t realize I could be this loud, and heard so far away.”
Brownstein is only one of many genuinely inspiring culture-makers to sit down with Rookie or contribute a piece. A short list might include Morrisey, Girls creator Lena Dunham, Miranda July, John Waters, Liz Phair, Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Silverman and Mindy Kaling. Ghost World cartoonist Daniel Clowes explains that he went against his art school teachers because he was “fueled by a sense of what he wanted to do.” Molly Ringwald and Emma Watson talk to the readers about having careers as very young actors. Essayist David Sedaris tells Rookie that for a creative person: “the crazy part is realizing that being yourself is key. For some insane reason, people like you.”
This thread of self-acceptance runs through most of Rookie‘s editorial content. Pieces on gender and sexual orientation, body image and weight, sexual awakening, surviving or fending off sexual assault, managing anxiety and depression, and meeting racism with humor all come back to a place of moving through whatever obstacles might come towards your own awesomeness. There are how-to articles on ignoring what other people think of you, surviving rejection by the college of your choice, and giving haters your “bitchface”. Israeli writer Etgar Keret outlines ten rules for writers that includes loving the act of writing, no matter what anyone else tells you.
The dominant tone veers close to memoir — again and again in almost every article, a very particular person is telling you a story that might just as easily segue into a lesson on building a computer or outline a battle with bipolar disorder. These are counter-narratives that lay out the minutia of simple everyday life, antidotes to the consumer culture found in the teen fashion glossies. This story-telling impulse nicely bypasses any monolithic ideas about American girlhood since each article expresses a very different experience. It’s also very much of a piece with our current fascination with the real, from reality TV shows to NPR’s This American Life.
In fact, This American Life creator Ira Glass is a mentor to Gevinson, an example of the credibility Gevinson builds up through her impeccable curating that undercuts any suspicion I had at first about Rookie as an aspirational publication. If Rookie is aspirational, it is in the best possible way, one that seems to speak to its readers without ever trying to corral them or commodify their experience. True, it is a fashion magazine of sorts, and it does present Gevinson and her staff writers, not to mention celebrity contributors, as a kind of avatar for her readership of a certain kind of girl — ultimately, one who knows women can be both smart and pretty, funny and feminine, awkward and absolutely fearless.