Arts & Pop Culture

Playing the Rookie

Tavi Gevinson and new creativity

By Maura Thomas

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Tavi Gevinson, 19-year-old artist, actor, and writer, has alternately described herself as an elf and a feminist. In both respects, she’s perfectly serious: it’s possibly her combination of intelligence and self-awareness that has gotten her so far, so fast. Tavi started a blog, Style Rookie, at age 11, and her popular website for teenage girls, Rookie, at 14. She later spoke at TEDxTeen, lectured at the Sydney Opera House, and most recently starred in a Broadway run of This is Our Youth. But wait: she’s also guest-edited an issue of Poetry Magazine, written articles for Elle, interviewed the likes of Lorde and Adrian Tomine, and been on the covers of New York and Nylon.

What’s more impressive than this list of accomplishments is the fact that thousands of girls like me watch her interviews, anticipate her monthly editor’s letters on rookiemag.com, and scroll longingly through her Instagram feed. In short, we pay very close attention to what she’s doing. She started Rookie through an impulse to treat teenage girls as a multifaceted, thoughtful group “still figuring it out,” feeling under no obligation to accept the kind of top-down, deductive, or restrictive representations of girls in magazines like Seventeen. She began to write in her bedroom in Oak Park, Illinois. Her solution was to launch a website that is horizontal—overwhelmingly, the contributors are young and female, too—informal, and invitingly visual. It’s written, y’know, like THIS. A recent post explains “How to Talk About Yourself (Without Feeling Gross).” The digital pages look like, and in fact often are, glittery or decorative journal or diary entries. The categories range from “Fiction” to “Eye Candy” to “Sex + Love.” The content is emphatic and easy to read, which often betrays its weight and complexity.

I’m stating the obvious, but I want to give a sense of Tavi’s character, or what I’ve constructed of her character through what she writes and how she presents herself. She’s what the avant-garde artist Kenneth Goldsmith might call an “uncreative writer” or artist, frequently citing other artists’ work in her own. She doesn’t appropriate anything directly, but she references influences constantly, citing the validation and direction they provide her life. For example, she ends one of her talks by telling the crowd to “be Stevie Nicks.” She has talked at length about how movies and shows including Ghost World, The Virgin Suicides, and Freaks and Greeks have informed her sense of the way she would like to live. In “Tavi’s Big Big World,” she confesses, “Part of what worries me is the fact that all of my references are traceable: everything I do or say could be tracked down or exposed as being heavily influenced by a book I’ve written about before. I’ll never seem like Bjork… who came out of nowhere with impeccable taste, and a never-ending set of skills, and incredible artistic ability, and no one to credit for any of it.”

Instead of cursing her supposed “Lack of Originality,” or its equally discouraging cousin, “It’s All Been Done Before,” she’s skilled at mapping influences and resources into an ever-growing web of self-definition. The Internet has provided her with the platform for her career—first with her fashion blog, which featured a clever 13-year-old in avant-garde outfits, and then later with Rookie. She’s become a master parser and analyst of pop culture, music, fashion, movies, and art, which has garnered her the friendships of Taylor Swift, Hilton Als, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and other people of whom you’d be equally jealous.

We were talking about what it means to be creative in my poetry class, with little success. Tavi is so successful as a creative because she’s a filter—Rookie has formed a kind of constellation on the Internet where people congregate to discover and share new influences, celebratory of both the alternative and the mainstream. Maybe the new creative is the person who can take an enormity of information and make it accessible. In much of her work this is a main focus, not just a technique peripheral to the “original artwork” of other artists. It’s one of the reasons she’s so popular—she’s affirming that as a young woman, you don’t have to be a solitary genius to be creative or successful.

“The digital pages look like, and in fact often are, glittery or decorative journal or diary entries.”

It’s this notion of an “uncreative genius,” of a person who makes meaning out of the meaning of others, that is rightly gaining currency in the digital age. In “The Creative Apocalypse that Wasn’t,” The New York Times confirmed that “writers, performers, directors, and even musicians report their economic fortunes to be similar to those of their counterparts 15 years ago, and in many cases they have improved.” The cost of producing culture has also dropped. The pond is basically infinite, but there are far more niche outlets through which you can be paid for making or offering content, if you’re well aware of the relentlessly evolving landscape.

My sister and I go back and forth on the merits of Instagram as a creative platform—for what reason (and usually, for whom) do we share things really? On social media, you’re both an editor and a consumer. So I’m following Tavi (@tavitulle), for example, and she’s posting pictures of books she’s reading (Speedboat by Renata Adler and Babe by photographer and friend Petra Collins), of outfits she’s wearing (pom-pom earrings, Rachel Antonoff dresses, gold skirts), and of various Rookie readers and friends. In a recent post, she’s pictured addressing an audience onstage in a long white shift dress, with the caption “Brainwashing the youth into keeping diaries and talking about their feelings.” Essentially, an Instagram account is a visual attempt to brainwash others into understanding or sharing your point of view. It’s about trying to take what’s “original” about your life and market it in a way that is both intimate and collectively enviable.

That Tavi knows exactly how to balance her presence as a professional and a 19-year-old means she feels like both a leader and a peer. This is one of the great features of social media in general: whether you’re Taylor Swift, Tavi Gevinson or anyone else, everyone works under more or less the same creative restrictions within a given platform. From this mass of essentially “uncreative” output comes inventories of personal choice, influence, and transition: exactly the stuff of Tavi’s appeal and success.

When Jonathan Safran Foer visited Cornell in September, he talked about the project of writing novels as the process of simply figuring out your preferences—he said, “We really don’t know what we like.” If we’re active on social media, it’s usually because we’re trying to achieve and broadcast some sense of a stable self. Tavi started a publication that is steadily ingraining in a new generation of young women a sense of agency to figure themselves out in the midst of transition, while affirming that pursuit as a creative project. For that, I am grateful a certain woman came out of nowhere with impeccable taste.

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