How Fashion and Feminism Became Bedfellows
A former Teen Vogue editor explains how Tavi Gevinson's new magazine proves that the two are no longer mutually exclusive.
Among the twenty- and thirtysomething women who populate the New York publishing world, there's a near-universal love for Sassy, the offbeat 1990s-era teen magazine, which they excitedly read along with their Plath and Didion as precocious adolescents. So it's no surprise that Rookie magazine, billed as the new Sassy, got so much press in places like the New York Times Magazine and nymag.com when it launched last week. Sassy was unlike its contemporaries, prissy Seventeen or lascivious YM: It made fun of celebrities, talked to its readers in teen-speak, and assured them that getting into a good college was as important as getting a date. Fifteen-year-old Tavi Gevinson, the founder and editor of Rookie, is known for a similar brand of down-to-earth quirkiness. A smart, stylish girl from Chicago who charmed magazine editors with her fashion blog, Style Rookie, Gevinson is what those who work at teen mags refer to as a "real girl." This is the kind of girl that Sassy was known for portraying and the kind of girl whom adult magazine editors believe Rookie could speak to now that Sassy is long gone. (Gevinson charmed me as well; I met her this summer when we were part of a Sassy-related event.)
But Gevinson's online-only magazine is less notable for its real-girl content (though a "School Spirit"-style story features girls who look less like models playing the girl next door than actual girls who might live next door) than for who Gevinson imagines that real girl to be: someone who, like herself, is unapologetically interested in both fashion and feminism. In Rookie's first week, Gevinson ran an article called "Getting Over Girl Hate" that includes a flowchart addressing how American culture encourages competition between women. "The good news is that it is very handy to know when you've internalized a societal problem," says Gevinson, assuring the reader, "You're not a sexist pig, you've just been raised around a bunch of them." It's explicit feminist theory done via references to the Sweet Valley High book series and the Disney Channel. Meanwhile, that "School Spirit" style story featuring girls in super-short plaid skirts and lacy knee socks is just a click away.
Rookie isn't the first teen magazine to address both fashion and feminism, but it's the first to toggle between the two in a way that isn't at all fraught. Conceived after World War II as vehicles to advertise clothing and beauty products to adolescent girls, magazines like Seventeen and the now-defunct YM had always run fashion stories. The latter, one of the largest circulation teen magazines of the 1980s and 1990s, lived up to the genre's reputation as a repository for dimwitted boy advice and diet tips. Seventeen would occasionally sprinkle in a profile of a NOW president, but in those years, fashion and feminism mostly lived in different worlds. Many vocal feminists disdained fashion; Ms. magazine famously refused to placate potential beauty advertisers by running stories about makeup.
Sassy, which launched in 1988, was the first teen magazine to explicitly and consistently try to advocate for both cool teen-girl style and women's-studies-worthy substance, insisting that for a girl to wear "asking-for-it microminis," as one editor did, did not mean that she was a victim of the patriarchy—it just meant she wanted to look cute. Still, Sassy's use of the so-called "f-word" in its fashion copy was as defensive as it was progressive: "OK so you're a feminist. But don't you want to read this anyway?" it asked its readers in a story that tallied boys' opinions on different clothing styles.
Sassy shuttered in the mid-90s, partly the result of a conservative turn of the political tide. In its wake, teen magazines returned to their usual ratio of fashion (lots) to feminism (the occasional nod). Then, in the early 2000s, former Sassy editors and readers became staffers at magazines like Elle Girl and Cosmo Girl. I was the founding beauty-and-health director at Teen Vogue, a fashion magazine aimed at teenagers who were rich enough to afford Prada sunglasses or sophisticated enough to know how to thrift similar styles. A former college women's-studies major, my commitment to doing style-related stories with a feminist message was very real. I did the requisite diet pieces, but rather than running recipes for low-fat after-school snacks, I published articles instructing girls how to handle overbearing, overly body-conscious parents. My beauty experts weren't just celebrity makeup artists and hair stylists, but also feminist philosophers of beauty like Susan Bordo (really) and—in homage to both Sassy and the self-empowerment ethos of the classic 1970s feminist health care compendium Our Bodies, Ourselves—girls themselves.
Kara Jesella is the co-author, with Marisa Meltzer, of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and a Ph.D. candidate in Performance Studies at New York University.