Feminism and the 14-Year-Old: Tavi Gevinson Says Do What You Want

"Lame, lame, so very lame." Tavi says, articulating the frustration she's felt arguing about feminism. Debates are especially difficult when, thanks to the Internet, there are just so many people to fight with.
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Tavi Gevinson started high school this fall. She also runs a fashion blog, Style Rookie, that gets a million and a half hits a month. I ask her what it's like, as a semi-professional fashion critic, to walk the halls observing her schoolmates and their various fashion senses. Tavi says she knows girls in sweatpants aren't trying to make a statement. "I think it would be sort of ridiculous if I was like, 'Well, this person is really nice, but their t-shirt really puts me off.'"

Style Rookie stays fresh through multitudinous fashion seasons thanks to Tavi's wry and frank writing. (One post features Tavi modeling freshly dyed blue hair. Her caption: "I was told I look like an Oompa Loompa during lunch and it made my day increasingly better.") When I ask if her blogging style came naturally, she says, "It definitely took a while, I'm still working on that."

Over the course of our conversation, Tavi reminds me of this a lot. She recently styled a shoot for BlackBook and was a guest blogger on Jezebel. She's written for Harper's Bazaar, she was recently profiled in the New Yorker, and she's got 54,000 daily readers. But she's 14, so fair enough -- she's still working on it.

In June, Tavi gave a presentation at Toronto's IdeaCity and focused her talk on Sassy, the now-defunct cult teen magazine that Tavi describes as "the best thing ever." Launched in 1988, it had a lot going for it -- honesty, humor, covers featuring stories like "Smells Like Prom Spirit." But Tavi argues that its greatest legacy is feminism.

Too many girls of her generation, she says, shy away from identifying themselves as feminists for fear of association with negative stereotypes. But, explained Tavi at IdeaCity, "You're doing something just by identifying yourself as [a feminist] because you're changing the stereotype. You're showing that a bunch of different people can be one."

She says, "I have a lot of friends who are feminists but they don't know it," and she quotes the ever-vexing starter, "'I'm not a feminist, but, dot dot dot.' That's a bummer, but they're familiar with the stereotype more than they are the actual word... that's why I excuse the initial wrong impression. " She goes on, "the really ironic thing is that, at school there are a lot of liberals, but they buy into that [feminist] stereotype and as a result can be demeaning. And I'm like, 'Rush Limbaugh and other horrible people like him, who you don't like, are the people who propagated those ideas.'"

She's planning her own zine -- its first issue is not yet complete -- to be called Joey Ramona Quimby: "Like Joey Ramone and Ramona Quimby [of Beverly Cleary's Ramona series]." A sample of prospective content: "I took looks from the Fall 2010 season that reminded me especially of Kathleen Hanna and Courtney Love and Kim Gordon [of Sonic Youth], and I drew them wearing the respective outfits." I ask her what she hopes her future girl reader will take from JRQ. "I hope she likes it. I hope it inspires her to make her own zine."

Kathleen Hanna is an idol of the 90s Riot Grrrl movement and leader of Bikini Kill (the name of both Hanna's underground zine and her band). She's a hero of Tavi's, and now a friend. When I ask Tavi about Hanna, she seems to get tripped up trying to express herself. "I don't even really know how to explain it, I felt like -- I mean, it's just, such like -- I just started high school, and the more that it goes on, the more I find the need to, like, really listen to her music."

Tavi mentions a line in one Bikini Kill zine: "Lame, lame, so very lame." She says it articulates the frustration she's felt arguing about feminism. Debates are especially difficult when, thanks to the Internet, there are just so many people to fight with.

"It's moments like those when you're arguing, arguing, and some people can just be very narrow-minded or apathetic, and that's when it is really nice to listen to Bikini Kill, and hear girls scream. And basically be the opposite of what girls are told to be, which is, you know, loud."

It's rarely made explicit, but young women I know -- myself included -- sometimes fall into the trap of equating a no-makeup, I-could-care-less look with an Authentic Feminist. It's tough, when feminism fights an uphill battle promoting women's minds over their bodies, to embrace an industry that is appearance. I ask Tavi how she handles skepticism about women, like herself, who are just as eager to dissect the latest Marc Jacobs collection as The Feminine Mystique. "I think you have to take the approach that feminism is ultimately about freedom."

"[Hanna, for instance,] wasn't allowed to be like, hot, and a feminist. Maybe one could argue that there's nothing very radical about wearing lipstick and shaving your legs and wearing more makeup. But feminism is not about an obligation to look like you're above what some might call materialistic things, because none of us are, really... [if you dress down just to look smart,] you're still compromising your own interests for the sake of what someone else finds suitable, when really the most subversive thing you can do as a girl is just do what you want."

I ask Tavi if the success of Style Rookie has taught her anything about herself. "Oh, my god," she said. "Yeah." For the last two seasons of New York Fashion Week, Tavi went to parties and rubbed elbows with celebrities, and always obliged photographers who wanted her picture. This year was different. "There was a moment when one woman [photographer] said, 'Oh, just one photo.' Then obviously a bunch of other photographers crowd around. And I just left, I headed straight for the door and I left. And it felt so good."

She paused. "I'm sure this all sounds really like, 'Oh life is so hard -- photographers!' But it's confusing... I don't want to make anyone's job hard for them. But if I do the photos it's [perceived] like, 'Oh I love getting my picture taken.' And if I don't do them, it's like I think I'm too good. There are so many instances like that where I just cannot win. So I just try to do what I'm most comfortable with before I consider the way it will be perceived."

When I begin to tell her that this kind of wisdom is rarely gained in 14 years, Tavi quickly replies. "I'm still working on it."