Over drinks with a friend last week, talk turned to our fumbling sex lives. She mentioned an advice column—it detailed how to deal with body insecurity while having sex—that had helped her gain a new perspective on things. The piece was not written for pushing-30 ladies like us—it was published in Rookie, 16-year-old Tavi Gevinson’s online magazine for teenage girls. “I’m 27 years old, and Rookie is catching me up on things I should have learned when I was 17,” is how my friend put it.
This week, Rookie is capping its first year in publication with a week-long series of age-appropriate activities in Los Angeles—a flower crown-making night; a viewing of Clueless; a TV-marathon sleepover; a school dance-themed final party. And many of my peers are lining up for the show. We’re a decade out of Gevinson’s demographic, but we’ve been following the site’s thrice-a-day updates (posted “after school, before dinner, and before bed”) religiously since Rookie’s September 2011 launch. There’s a lot for women my age to appreciate about Rookie—it’s stylish and intelligent, treats teen girls like adults, and trades in ’90s-era cultural touchstones like Clueless, Sassy, and Freaks and Geeks (even though Gevinson was born in 1996).
So is Rookie for us? An early review in the New Republic sniped that women like me see the magazine as a “representation of the values and aesthetic of their formative years,” that we’re using Gevinson as a “last chance to grasp at youth.” But my pal’s love of Rookie doesn’t feel like nostalgia so much as it does regret. Outlets like Rookie give us a chance to relive our teen years, not because we loved them, but because we hated them. We want to attend Rookie’s school dance because it will be better this time—cheeky and inclusive, not socially awkward and painful. We want to watch Clueless again because now we can enjoy its irony without falling into obsessive aspirational desperation over wanting to look just like Cher. And we want to read sex advice for teenagers because we can finally begin to recognize ourselves in the “after” section, not the “before.”
This is not the nostalgia of the high school jock who thinks those were the best years of his life. It’s a cathartic experience for adult women who grew up on corporatized “girl power” like Cosmogirl and She’s All That and Alanis Morissette and are still reeling from the insecurities they produced. (I missed Sassy by a small window—it folded the year Gevinson was born, when I was 11). The teen boy demographic is so heavily targeted by the mainstream that their cultural products—Comedy Central, Sports Illustrated, endless Hollywood superhero reboots—are rarely coded as explicitly “for teens.” This must take some pressure off. SI isn’t telling 14-year-old boys what they should look like, or how they should dress. At least not overtly. But so much pressure is put on a woman’s image in her teens—and the products she should buy to fix it—that those expectations continue to reverberate in our adult lives.
Rookie’s teen readers are, in theory, afforded a critical distance from those pressures: Gevinson says the L.A. celebration is informed by “the cheesy, marketed idea of girlhood.” Then again, Rookie’s own series is sponsored by Urban Outfitters. Even ironic takes can function as endorsements—Gevinson recently told an interviewer that she still finds herself picking up Tiger Beat because she feels “somehow obligated to keep up with that world.” And even the most empowering media can be difficult to parse when you’re a teenager.
As for us adults? Rookie allows us to believe that had it been around 10 years ago, “maybe I wouldn’t have done half the self-destructive shit that I did to myself at the time,” my friend told me. “And maybe I wouldn’t be so fucked up about some of these things now.” Or maybe, like any other consumer product, Rookie cannot fix everything that we think is wrong with us.