The Hunger Games star and Rookie's founder discuss dispelling the stigma of youth feminism
Taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused:
At 17, Tavi Gevinson is already the queen of today’s girl-power intelligentsia. She rose to fame at just 12 through her personal fashion blog, Style Rookie. The world watched as she posted daily photos of her eccentric outfits, taken on her parent’s porch in Illinois, and blogged with a touching insight about pop culture, school dances and the emotional landscape of teenhood. Soon she was being seen at fashion weeks dressed like a “grandmother on ecstasy” (her words). In 2011 Gevinson founded Rookie, an online magazine aimed at teenage girls that resonates with a much wider audience. You’ll recognise her 15-year-old friend Amandla Stenberg from her role as brave “tribute” Rue in The Hunger Games. Born and raised in LA, Stenberg’s most recent role is in Sleepy Hollow, a modern-day TV retelling of the classic tale. The actress is also involved with Share Our Strength, which works to end child hunger in the US. Here the friends discuss everything from feminism to Snapchat to the divine organisation of the universe.
Tavi Gevinson: I remember the first time we met, at a Rookie party. You were wearing a pleated green dress and it was super cute. It made me happy because you’re someone who’s part of mainstream culture, but you like all the same stuff me and my friends like and you’re so down-to-earth. I don’t mean for that to sound narrow-minded, but it just made me happy that you would come dance at our party.
Amandla Stenberg: Well, Rookie is a publication I really connect to. It was when I first started going on red carpets and that kind of thing that I started reading it religiously, and it really impacted on me, first in terms of fashion and learning how to wear clothes as a form of expression, and then later it got me interested in feminism and that conversation.
Tavi Gevinson: It’s exciting to know that someone out there making waves beyond Rookie’s audience can be informed by the messages we try to put out in the world. I feel like there’s something happening now – a generation of girls around our age, from a similar background of beliefs and ideas, are inspiring and influencing each other, and that’s super exciting to me. A few years ago I would have said, ‘It’s okay if my friends my own age don’t get it, because I have a bunch of adult, professional friends who do get it.’ But that’s kind of sad, because I need friends my age too. And suddenly in the past few years there’s been this rise of community among young, female creatives who understand and support each other – people like Maude Apatow, who I know you’re friends with, Petra Collins and so many more.
Amandla Stenberg: I totally agree, and find it really empowering.
Tavi Gevinson: So, I’m curious – as people often say it’s catty between young actresses – to know if you’ve found a sense of community in that world?
Amandla Stenberg: Well, what’s unique in my case is that there aren’t many young African-American actresses, so I haven’t really experienced the cattiness or competitiveness of the industry to a large extent.
Tavi Gevinson: You mean because white girls are more likely to be considered for the same part?
Amandla Stenberg: Well, yeah. Most of the time directors and writers have very specific casting intentions, or there’s a family and it’s already been decided that the parents are Caucasian. I don’t want to sound bitter or anything, because I know it’s hard to find great roles for any actor or actress, but being a young African-American woman definitely narrows my choices. That’s why it’s been so refreshing working on Sleepy Hollow, because my character is really complicated emotionally. And also, there’s two main characters – Ichabod and Abbie – and they’re played by a Caucasian male and an African-American woman, and that doesn’t really exist anywhere else on TV. Sleepy Hollow just unintentionally has a cast filled with people of colour and that’s really cool.
Tavi Gevlinson: When you’re looking at scripts and choosing what to audition for, what speaks to you?
Amanda Stenberg: Well, I intentionally pursued The Hunger Games. I’d read the book and realised, ‘Wow, this is a young African-American girl who has a really powerful story,’ so I was emailing my agents non-stop, trying to get into the audition room. Even now I have moments where I’m like, ‘Whoa, I got to be in The Hunger Games, that’s insane.’ I wanted to ask, since this issue deals with feminism, what you think of your work being labelled ‘feminist’?
Tavi Gevinson: Well, I am a feminist – I just think the label reflects my beliefs – but, you know, we say Rookie is a website for teenage girls, not a feminist website for teenage girls. That’s not because I’m not proud to call myself a feminist, but when you’re calling attention to a project, you can very easily be pigeonholed by choosing certain identifiers. And while I’m happy to talk about feminism and I’m happy that I’m a girl, I do sometimes feel like, ‘Why does everything I do have to be viewed through a lens of ‘feminist or not’?’ Like, can’t I ever do or create anything just as a person? That’s a privilege that men have over women and white people have over people of colour. There’s an interview with Patti Smith in which she says something like, ‘People have always asked why I don’t say I’m a female musician, but you wouldn’t say Picasso is a male painter, he’s just a painter.’ So it’s definitely difficult finding the line – I want to remove the stigma around the word ‘feminist’ but also feel integrated into a community that’s larger than a group of likeminded feminist bloggers. For example, I was so happy about the review of Rookie Yearbook Two in Slate where they said, ‘People say Rookie is good for teenage girls, but it’s actually just good.’
Amandla Stenberg: Yes, I read that article and thought it was fantastic.
“Why does everything I do have to be viewed through a lens of ‘feminist or not’? Can't I ever do or create anything just as a person?” - Tavi Gevinson
Tavi Gevinson: I feel like maybe in the 90s Rookie would have been shamed for trying to reach a lot of people or trying to be ‘mainstream’, but I’m so pleased that our readers are happy to see me promoting the Rookie yearbook on TV or whatever. What feels most productive to me isn’t to think so much in terms of how I can be alternative, but how I can be subversive in a way that feels organic, how I can connect with people, and how I can just be myself, which may be the hardest thing to be.
Amandla Stenberg: Okay, I’m about to get real deep.
Tavi Gevinson: Please do!
Amandla Stenberg: I’ve never been a super religious person, but I went through a phase around the time I did my interview with Rookie when I was checking out lots of different religions. And I realised that I don’t believe in a specific god or religion, but my own religion is believing in the divine organisation of the world and how things ultimately work out how they’re supposed to.
Tavi Gevinson: Yeah, I think the point isn’t necessarily that you have proof, but that you choose to live by a set of guidelines. I mean, I was raised Jewish and had a batmitzvah and everything, but I do struggle with the idea that someone is in control of all of this. But I relate to the idea that there’s a way things just work out, and it can be extraordinary whether there’s some kind of organisation behind it or not. Does that make sense?
Amandla Stenberg: Totally.
Tavi Gevinson: There’s this biologist named Stephen Jay Gould who spent his whole career writing about evolution, and at the end of his life he wrote this book that said something like, ‘Even if I talk about evolution, I think there’s something holy about it.’
Amandla Stenberg: Any way I say this it’s going to sound pseudo-intellectual or something, but I feel like even though the world feels big and intimidating, it’s almost calming to realise that even within the smallest thing, like a cell, there’s an infinity. And you’d think that wouldn’t be calming, that it would be disconcerting, but actually it just makes me feel that there’s an organisation between everything in the world.
Tavi Gevinson: Totally! The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about this. He says you can look at the scale of the universe and choose to be depressed about it, like, ‘Oh, I’m so small, nothing I do matters, I’m insignificant.’ Or you can decide, ‘I’m small but I’m significant because I’m part of the universe and the cosmos and this crazy large thing.’
Amandla Stenberg: There’s magnitude in even the smallest things, basically.
Tavi Gevinson: Yeah. Oh gosh, I’m so inspired right now!
Amandla Stenberg: I just realised that I’m on my period right now. Maybe I should re-evaluate everything I just said.
"I think the internet forces you to be okay with your mistakes, and the things you’ve done in the past" - Amandla Stenberg
Tavi Gevinson: No, oh my God, you’re so optimistic for somebody being visited by Aunt Flow. I’ve been wanting to tell you, you’re really good at Snapchat! You do really creative drawing-tool things where you add rays of light coming from your head and stuff.
Amandla Stenberg: Really? Actually I was so inspired by your Snapchats that I felt like I had to up my game! You sent me one the other day saying ‘poop’ and you had the ‘o’s in your nostrils. That was original.
Tavi Gevinson: Yeah, I’m good at utilising body parts as letters.
Amandla Stenberg: Have you ever felt embarrassed by a blogpost or article and wanted to delete it?
Tavi Gevinson: You know, I’ve never done it on Style Rookie, but I did go through my Tumblr and was like, ‘No, awful, stop,’ and deleted some things. Although I do think part of the appeal of the work of someone who creates things online is that there’s a trail left behind. Lena Dunham talks about that – how leaving a trail of work behind can be a generous thing to do as an artist, even though you might be embarrassed by it, because you never know how it’s going to affect other people. Maybe the key to being in a place where you’re putting out work that you’re proud of isn’t to continually be perfect, but just to keep doing it, keep trying. So I’ve come to see my older work as something that doesn’t have to be embarrassing.
Amandla Stenberg: I think the internet forces you to be okay with your mistakes, and the things you’ve done in the past, especially when you’re in the media. Personally, that helps me to stop self-editing or being self-conscious, and instead realise that my previous mistakes have allowed me to grow.
Tavi Gevinson: Totally. Joan Didion’s essay ‘On Keeping a Notebook’ talks about this, and that essay was super-important for me when I was starting Rookie and moving on from writing train-of-thought blog entries to expressing opinions that I stood by. I’ll read you a great quote from that essay. It goes: ‘I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4am of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.’