Rookie Cataloged a Generation of Girlhood

When Tavi Gevinson announced at the end of November that Rookie was folding, it didn’t just mean the end of the online magazine she founded at age 15. To many of her young readers, it signified the dissolution of a meeting place for a particular kind of girl: smart, self-serious and inclined to dream in color.

The site, which will remain live at least for the next few months, reads like a collective digital diary, documenting and celebrating girlhood in all its manifestations. Each month, Ms. Gevinson announced a theme and solicited essays, collages, illustrations, photography, poetry and playlists from her young readers. She published the submissions online and compiled them in printed anthologies, which were also stuffed with cameos by famous female artists, including Solange, Donna Tartt and Ariana Grande. (In the printed anthology “Rookie Yearbook Four,” which runs some 350 pages long, all three women participated in “Friend Crush” interviews; Solange included a playlist of “jams that were heavy on my brain between the ages of 14-17.”)

The aesthetic of both the website and the anthologies was colorful, spry and welcoming, covered in digital stickers, artworks and doodles.

“It was like your little personal haven,” said Petra Collins, an artist and photographer who helped develop Rookie’s aesthetic, and whose career was jump-started through Rookie. (She and Ms. Gevinson were heavily inspired by the British fashion designer Meadham Kirchhoff.)

“We were taking stuff that what was positioned as feminism and female joys and aesthetic and dirtying it up and making it fit,” Ms. Collins said. “Back then it was so original, but now it’s such a thing to do.”

The personal nature of the work — and the collaborative ways in which it was solicited and published — opened up avenues for live Rookie events in cities across the United States and around the world.

Lucia Santos, 15, recalled the preparation that went into her first Rookie meet-up, a stop on the book tour for the second “Rookie Yearbook” anthology in Seattle. She was 10 at the time, and had safety pinned tulle onto the back of her black skirt, creating a sort of train that flowed behind her as she walked. She also brought a copy of her own zine to present to Ms. Gevinson as a gift.

“I wanted to be a mini-mini Tavi,” Ms. Santos said.

At 13, an age when most girls are just trying to survive middle school, Ms. Santos became a Rookie contributor, submitting visual diaries every week. In a piece of art published in May 2016, she painted eyes, polka dots and squiggles over her math homework, dotting the lined notebook paper with stickers of sea creatures, shells and stars. “The effect of scanning my illustration and sending it off across the country — to be published on this website that so many people kind of rely on — felt so good, so validating and so uplifting,” Ms. Santos said. “I felt so empowered and it was so tangible.”

Ms. Santos is among the hundreds of young women whose first published work appeared in Rookie, and one of thousands who considered themselves part of the magazine’s community.

“I realized that people came to me and Rookie to say, ‘How do I find myself, my voice?’ and that Rookie could offer insights into those questions,” Ms. Gevinson said in an interview after announcing Rookie’s dissolution in a six-page letter posted on the website. The 22-year-old actress and writer explained that the pressures of running a magazine and website in today’s media environment had become too overwhelming. Rookie began in 2011, a time when advertisers and brands were more willing to partner with digital media companies. And at its peak, Rookie received close to 5 million page views per month, and about 600,000 of those were unique viewers. But about four years in, those opportunities had become scarce.

Ms. Gevinson initially avoided looking for investors. The point of the site had been to create a safe space for teenagers, where they would be free of feeling like marketing targets — and free from becoming the marketers themselves.

But the staff was running on limited resources and publishing less frequently. Ms. Gevinson began taking meetings with businesspeople she collectively referred to as “Bryce” in her final editor’s letter — searching for “someone who could either invest in Rookie, buy it, or work for a company that bought it and employs Bryce to worry about the company making money,” as she put it. After many such meetings, she realized she had a hard decision: She could either go all in and build a full-fledged media empire, sacrificing any other personal creative endeavors, or let Rookie go.

“For a while I assumed that whatever was best for Rookie was best for me, because for a while my first priority was this project I loved and love,” Ms. Gevinson said. “But those are two separate things.”

Ms. Gevinson developed an initial following through a fashion blog she created at age 11 called Style Rookie, which ultimately caught the attention of the fashion industry. Within three years of her first post, Ms. Gevinson was sitting front-row at fashion shows next to Anna Wintour. Rookie, the online magazine, was launched a few years later to showcase work by Ms. Gevinson and other teenage girls on other topics, including friendship, love and mental health.

“Rookie is for the teen girl that wants to be taken seriously but is also excited to be a teen girl,” said Ugochi Egonu, 19, who discovered Rookie in eighth grade and later became a contributor. Now a sophomore at New York University, Ms. Egonu said that making her work public and getting positive feedback — against common wisdom, the site’s editors encouraged contributors to read the comments so they could interact with readers — gave Ms. Egonu the confidence to pursuing writing as a career.

“To be 17 and have people actually listen to the way that you’re writing and take you seriously was super huge for me,” she said.

“I think that’s what made me, and everyone else, successful,” Ms. Collins, the photographer, said. “We were able to — not that it was always easy to take criticism — but it was something that people, especially young girls, really respected and admired because we were listening to our audience. It built a bigger base for me.”

Ms. Collins’s photography, which evokes nostalgia for the dreamlike aspects of girlhood, matured during the years she published on Rookie. She has since shot major advertising campaigns and editorial spreads for fashion magazines, and directed music videos for pop stars like Cardi B, Selena Gomez and Lil Yachty.

Lauren Redding, Rookie’s 34-year-old publisher said that one of Rookie’s tenets was to cultivate young contributors by treating them as if they were professionals, but not stripping them of what make them teenagers.

“I wanted a place for young writers that didn’t have to feel like suddenly you’re submitting your work to a really hard fiction contest, or you have to be a capital-W writer to send work in,” Ms. Gevinson said.

Some of the teenage girls in Rookie’s orbit met their best friends through the publication, at live Rookie events — like the one Ms. Santos attended — as well as smaller meet-ups and Rookie book clubs.

“Young people so desperately needed to see themselves in the media that they were consuming,” Ms. Redding said. “Out of that spun this great desire for connection beyond the digital space.”

And that ethos has spread.

“I think a lot of Teen Vogue’s pivot to activism and feminism, and all those things, were 100 percent influenced by Rookie,” said Laia Garcia, one of Rookie’s first contributors. She met Ms. Gevinson in 2008, when they were both running personal fashion blogs.

Ms. Garcia, 34, has since worked for a number of women’s interest publications as an editor, including Lenny, Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner’s now defunct newsletter and website, and No Man’s Land, a magazine published by the Wing, an exclusive women’s co-working space and social club. She believes that those projects, and the elevation of teenage voices generally, reflect the spirit of Rookie.

“There are so many young actresses now that feel they can be political,” Ms. Garcia, 34, said. “I think all of those things were put in place by Rookie.”

And so, Rookie has ended, but Ms. Gevinson and Ms. Redding feel that they have handed the torch to their one-time readers and contributors.

“It’s exciting for me to know that there’s a whole generation of young people that grew up with Rookie and were able to see it as an example of young people telling their own stories,” Ms. Redding said. “It’s now on them to figure out what that next media institution and project is.”

An earlier version of this article, using information from a source, misstated the year Laia Garcia met Tavi Gevinson. It was 2008, not 2006. Because of an editing error, the article also misstated Ms. Garcia's role at Rookie; she was a contributor, but she did not help Ms. Gevinson run the site.

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