Sit on the sofa with your daughter, Stella, watching videos of Tavi Gevinson, the girl who started fashion blogging as a preteen then parlayed that success into an online magazine for teen girls called Rookie, a site featuring personal essays and art work, as opposed to the diet and dating tips often aimed at young women.
First watch Tavi, on Jimmy Fallon’s TV show demonstrating bitch faces and passive-aggressive bitch voices. She brings out the teenage girl in Fallon. She reminds you of how cruel girls can be, but she also makes you laugh.
Then watch Tavi’s TED Talk, a seven-minute video in which Tavi differentiates between a strong female character and a female superhero. The latter is two dimensional, Tavi explains. Often her sexuality is part of her power. “The problem with this is that people expect women to be that easy to understand and women are mad at themselves for not being that simple, when in actuality women are complicated,” says the 15 year old, with more poise than you’ll ever have, even though you’re thirty years older. This leads to the point of her talk: teenagers are even more complicated. They’re still figuring things out.
You’ve seen the video before. It’s a favorite. This night, with Stella at your side, you love it even more. Stella’s best friend moved away over the summer and her new school year has been lonely.
Google Tavi, looking for more words of comfort. Learn that she’s reading in Oak Park at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple the next night. Get excited like a teenage girl. Oak Park is less than a half hour away from your Chicago neighborhood.
The next day, the day of the reading, try not to hurry Stella through her homework, but hurry her a little bit, because you let her watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix. Change your clothes. Several times.
Get directions from Google Maps, but don’t make note of the actual address. You’ve been to Oak Park before. You’ve taken visiting family to visit Wright’s home and on the walking tour of other homes he built. You walked past Unity Temple one summer, in search of ice cream with your in-laws. How hard can it be to find it in the car?
Drive to Oak Park on Interstate 290, crowded with rush-hour commuters. Have Stella sit beside you in the passenger seat, drawing pictures to represent periods of American history in the 17th and 18th centuries, her last bit of homework. Say, “We’re almost there when we pass the giant Stella.” Outside is a tall warehouse with a giant ad for Stella Artois, with the tagline “She is a thing of beauty.” Look over at your daughter, in a gold vintage dress handed down from your most stylish friend and a pair of your shoes, blue suede wedges bought before Stella was even born. She smiles. She looks peaceful despite the homework on her lap. The brewers are right.
Get lost in Oak Park. It’s dark. There won’t be time to stop for dinner. Drive through the rougher edge of town, which borders Chicago’s West Side, where gun violence makes national news. Next, drive through a neighborhood that looks like a film set, with vintage bungalows and mom-and-pop shops. You’re getting closer to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, but still become increasingly frustrated. Use language your mother would hate to hear and that you’d never want to hear from your daughter.
Pull up to Unity Temple, a few minutes after the reading was supposed to begin. Back in and out of neighboring driveways as you look for parking. Snap at Stella to pack up her school books. Wonder if you’re parked legally.
Barely notice the architectural masterpiece as you hurry inside. Just notice how square it is, all straight lines and concrete. Glance quickly at the earth-tone stain glass, round light fixtures hanging on chains and the cantilevering—a family catchphrase since a visit to Falling Water—hallmarks of Wright’s work.
Find out you’re not really late. As you pick up your copy of the Rookie Yearbook—a print collection of the essays and fashion spreads from the website—see Tavi walk by on her way inside. Her blond hair is the same as in the TED video, long with heavy bangs. She’s wearing jeans instead of the vintage dresses she often wears, and glasses with heavy dark frames like Stella’s. Forget that you’re there for Stella. Smile and try to make eye contact. You might even wave a little frantically.
Take a seat in a back row of the balcony. Already on edge, become even more irritated at the young woman in front of you with a high puffy knot of hair on top of her head. How is anyone supposed to see over that? Take some deep breaths. Scan the symmetrical seating on each side of the square temple, full of girls and women of all ages. You’re not the only middle-age fan girl. Most wear clothes they’ve altered with dyes, scissors and embroidery. The church setting is fitting. The event feels spiritual.
Listen to Tavi, who the New York Times called the Oracle of Girl World, read an essay she wrote for Rookie about the TV show Freaks and Geeks and the way identity shifts during your teen years.
Start to relax when Stella puts her head on your shoulder and Tavi reads a passage about the first days of a new school year, when you’re eager to adopt a new identity but “you’re instead met with sad, bitter reminders of your old one, and as you recognize people who knew you at a time when you were less nice/cool/interesting/smart/attractive you panic a little bit. They do the same, and so an unspoken pact is made through uncomfortable glances and half-smiling nods.”
Marvel when Tavi, at 16, includes a quote from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook. Try to remember what you read at 16. Certainly not Joan Didion.
Stella, a few months short of being an actual teen and starting to question her sexuality, connects with a writer named Krista (Rookie readers and writers are all on a first-name basis). In her essay “Choose Your Own Adventure” Krista says liking girls now doesn’t mean you’ll be bi or lesbian; liking boys now doesn’t mean you’ll be straight. “What are you?” Krista says. “You’re you.”
At the end Tavi answers questions from the audience. She tells the young girls that when the boy in the locker next to yours snaps at you and says you look like a curtain, that’s not coming from you, that’s coming from him. It’s his problem. This might be something you’ve said to Stella before, but you don’t have as much credibility in Girl World.
That would be the Girl World you lived through and Stella is entering. Think of the books passed down from your aunts to help you to navigate the coming years: Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabees and Rachel Simmons’s Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls. These writers have been to the real Girl World, where friendship is a salve but also a weapon; where girls battle daily with body image, rumors, and confusing messages about female sexuality. The male writer from the Times has only seen the tourist center of this land.
Wait in line to get your yearbook signed. Feel like hugging Tavi when she signs Stella’s copy of the Rookie yearbook with the very yearbook line: “Thanks for ditching gym class with me.” You’re not a perfect mom. You let your kid watch TV, then rush her through homework, then curse when you’re lost and running late. But there are other guideposts in her life. Together you’ve found this community of young feminists, where she can find wisdom and reassurance when she can’t find it at home or school.
Hope that in reality Stella won’t ditch gym class.
Wish you hadn’t changed your clothes.
Lori Barrett recently completed her MFA in the low-residency creative writing program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. She lives in Chicago and works as a freelance writer and editor. She’s written for the Wall Street Journal on hard-hitting topics like custom-stuffed pillows, dog-food delivery services, and luxury horse ranches. Her work has also appeared in Time Out Chicago, Notre Dame Magazine, the Review Review, and New Horizons, the journal of the British Fantasy Society.