Digital Work and Child’s Play

Creative director for Elle magazine Joe Zee seems confused about the role of a fashion/style blogger and the role of a fashion magazine editor. In yet another barb against Tavi Gevinson, the ‘tween-age blogger wunderkind from suburban Illinois, Zee reiterates his colleague Anne Slowey’s skepticism about young bloggers’ fashion expertise: “What am I getting out of a 13-year-old’s opinion about fashion? How does that help me distill the collections? What am I supposed to be buying? That’s what an editor’s job at a magazine is.”

Um, yeah. That may be what “an editor’s job at a [commercial] magazine” is but when did telling the public what they’re “supposed to be buying” become the only legitimate mode of fashion writing?

While Slowey, Zee, and other gatekeepers want to keep the “digital natives” off their cultural-economic territory (presumably, they’re nostalgic for a time before the democratization of fashion), there is a growing discourse about the problem of the the ‘tween blogger that is worth considering seriously. By the way, notice how real and virtual territorialism always only works in one direction. Nearly all major fashion magazines now have full-time bloggers on staff. Can you imagine how ridiculous – but also wonderfully hilarious – it would be if ‘tween and twenty-something bloggers protested the print media’s convergence and capitalist takeover of digital media spaces?

To get a sense of how non-territorial bloggers are, check out this very short video from the Evolving Influence Fashion Blog Conference (NYFW 2010) hosted by the Independent Fashion Bloggers. Panelists included Britt Aboutaleb and Lauren Sherman (, BryanBoy, Tavi Gevinson, Susie Bubble, and Phil Oh (Street Peeper).

In the past few months, a number of people have raised concerns about ‘tween bloggers and child labor laws. The spark, I think, was lit by the news that Gevinson had been commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar to write a column for their January 2010 issue reviewing the Spring collections. Here’s what some of them are saying:

The ethics of the industry employing young models have been discussed at tedious length, but because of the “massification” of bloggers, Tavi gets to elude these discussions because we can pretend that she’s just an “amateur,” that she’s not at work when she’s at fashion shows. Yes she is. She is being invited to these shows for economic reasons, so we’re not just talking about techno-generational issues; we’re talking about child labour. (March 5, 2010)

Having exhausted teenagers in the pursuit of fresh material to exploit to connote “youth,” the fashion industry has begun to seize upon ever younger recruits, willing victims fashionized far before their time. Bled of their individuality by the parasitic industry, these victims are left for “generic” . . . (February 16, 2010)

[P]erhaps after some formal journalism training, Tavi could probably make a decent fashion journalist. Still, the question remains: Will she be taken seriously? It’s hard to tell whether she will be greeted with open arms as the new and improved Tavi, or rejected and thrown aside like so many child actors before her. (February 10, 2010)

Each of these critics in different ways are shedding light on the underside of work flexibility that the new creative economy both desires and demands. The Internet’s reorganization of time – what Michel Laguerre calls “flexitime” – and its impact on the meanings of work/leisure, workplace/home, workday/weekend, to name just one set of traditional spatio-temporal binaries is generally celebrated as post-industrial freedom:

[T]he process by which work that used to be done at a conventional workplace can now be carried out elsewhere (locational flexibility) and at a time of their choice (temporal flexibility) . . . allow[s] employees more freedom in the organization of their working hours.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post about the new digital work order and its regulatory mechanisms that induce not only multi-tasking but also omni-tasking (the idea that because one can always work, one should always be working) and which manifests for me as blogger guilt, the flexibility of work in the Digital Age particularly for those working in the creative economy is a complicated thing.

Returning to Gevinson: On the one hand, she is an exemplar of the democratization of fashion and the media that define the neoliberal present moment. Her youthful pluck, unique creative expressions, mastery of information technologies, and enterprising initiative embody the characteristics that are most valued in the creative industries of fashion and media today. Moreover, her age and gender, her location outside the traditional centers of fashion (she lives in Oak Park, Illinois), and her aptitude for multitasking as consumer and producer of fashion objects, images, and discourses confirm the neoliberal beliefs in the democratizing potential of work flexibility and related to it, the flexibility of geographic, social, and economic borders. That a 14 year-old girl (14, this month) from a Midwestern suburb has made her way into the global centers of fashion is suggestive for many people of the decentralization and thus democratization of the powerful cultural institutions of the media and fashion.

On the other hand, as the critics above point out, the numbers of hours she’s working, her integration into the adult world of fashion commerce (where she’s exposed to a host of extracurricular activities that are surely not Board of Ed approved), and yes, the level of public scrutiny she invites and does not invite should make us all seriously think about the exploitation of young bloggers by the high profit-seeking fashion and media industries.

(In the above photos, Gevinson sits front row with BryanBoy at the Marc Jacobs show and hangs backstage with Leigh Lezark and Geordan Nicol of the MisShapes before the Y-3 Spring 2010 fashion show in New York City.)

Ironically, work flexibility was once the “rallying cry” of laborers who were sick of the Fordist industrial work order. As Andrew Ross writes in his latest book, Nice Work if You Can Get It: Life and Labor in Precarious Times (NYU Press):

The demand for creative, meaningful work in factories and offices was a rallying cry of the 1970s ‘revolt against work’ [movement which led to] calls to humanize the workplace by introducing mentally challenging tasks and employee innovation . . . as an alternative to the humdrum routines of standard industrial employment.

Fashion blogging exemplifies precisely the conditions of labor being fought for in the 1970s. Bloggers work in a field where creative passion and playfulness are job requirements. They typically work from home or from exotic locations like the tents at Fashion Week (in New York, Milan, Paris, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, Johannesburg, etc.) As such, “work” often looks a lot like “play” – and as the photos of Gevinson attest – what we once considered child’s play (playing dress-up, cutting school to hang out with the cool kids, and poring over the sartorial styles of star designers and celebrities) is now potentially a culturally and economically profitable business.

It is the playfulness of the creative economy that works to gloss over the un-democratic social and labor conditions internal to the capitalist logics driving the media and fashion industries even in the age of democratization. As the critics who are concerned about the issue of child labor in the new creative economy allude, the future of the Digital Age may look a lot like the Industrial Age.




12 responses to “Digital Work and Child’s Play

  1. Heather E

    A comment not so much on this entry, but on your blog in particular: Yay, open comments! And congrats on your new space!

  2. I am thrilled comments are now open! Also, can I say how amazing the new site is? Love it.

    Tavi, sweet Tavi. It really gets my goat that grown ass men and women have this desire to harshly criticize a teenage girl in their publication. When other fashion bloggers try to knock Tavi a notch down, I also question their motivations, as if only appears to stem from jealousy … of a child! Apparently they don’t have better things to do in their lives.

    As for child labor, I cannot believe I never thought of this! It is an accurate assessment, but because people think she’s having fun then they assume it is obviously not work.

    • I know, WordPress looks about a thousand times better than Blogspot! Personally, I’m cringing about open comments — I don’t need to become obsessed with monitoring the interwebs anymore than I already do when I should be working! But it makes sense… /throws her laptop into a bush and runs

      • I started with WordPress and I used to think – did I make a mistake because everyone blogs with Blogspot? – that is not my mindset today. I absolutely love WordPress and it can do so much more then other blogs.

        As for comments, hopefully people will be respectful. It is hard for cowards to contain themselves online though, especially when it comes to topics of race, gender, class, sexuality and fashion, so they might just start creeping out. Not becoming obsessed will be hard, but if you’re lucky non one will take it to an ugly place.

        If it soothes you just a tiny bit, I’ve only ever received 1 negative comment. It was from a fashion blogger and she called me fat — like she couldn’t get a tiny more creative? I tracked her isp address and the story goes on but I’ll leave it at that. If you’re curious though, please feel free to email me! haha.

  3. minerrva

    Congrats on the new digs! I have been following the site for a couple months and I thank you for many provocative thoughts you’ve put into my brain already.

    On the issue of Tavi and child labor, what about other ‘child workers’ in the arts? I mean actors and singers (all the Miley Cyruses and the Taylor Momsens and even the Olsen twins way back when)? I don’t buy the authenticity of the discomfort with Tavi’s minor status because no one seems to get up in arms about them. I really do think it’s just circling the wagons re: who gets a voice.

    • you’re absolutely right! when kids are professionalized – whatever the field – there’s bound to be issues of labor exploitation. at the same time, i think fashion bloggers are a bit different because there’s no stage mom/dad pushing the kid to perform – at least not yet. blogging is not only individual and self-motivated (tavi just decided to start blogging because her older sister’s friend did it) but it’s supposed to be about individualism, self-expression, etc. that democratic narrative about blogging is so broad and so accepted that it easily conceals a lot of the ugly stuff like how natural and even GOOD it seems for young kids (remember the 5 year old blogger??) to participate in capitalist modes of production.

  4. Mel

    As one of the critics cited earlier, can I please emphasise that I’m not “circling the wagons” by making a special case of Tavi Gevinson’s labour exploitation. My blog post also said:

    I feel the same way about her that I feel about 13-year-old Eastern-bloc Olympic gymnasts or classical music prodigies who perform Rachmaninoff like tiny tin toys. I feel it’s sinister to welcome children prematurely into the adult world, and I think that attitudes of “we shouldn’t patronise the genuinely gifted, they want to do this” are the worst kind of relativism. We view these children as novelties to be exploited for our entertainment, and we take advantage of the plasticity of children’s brains to sculpt them in our own images.

    Also, I just wanted to add that my friend Mel Gregg at the University of Sydney has spent the last three years researching how new media technologies are radically erasing boundaries between ‘work’ and ‘home’. One of her observations was that parents worry about their kids being ‘addicted to the internet’ but accept their own addictive attitudes to technology as being just a part of work.

    This made me think that we never hear about child bloggers like Tavi during moral panics about technology and kids (eg it makes them not get enough sleep, not do well in school, being vulnerable to sex predators, etc etc).

    • hi mel, i’m glad you’re commenting since you were one of the folks that prompted this post! i don’t want to speak for minerrva but i don’t think she was referring to you as one of the wagon circlers but rather the print media editors who are being territorial about fashion journalism. and i couldn’t agree w/ you more about kids being made to professionalize (as i discuss in the post).

      thanks for letting me know about your friend – there’s so much amazing work by marxist feminist scholars on the ways in which the boundaries of these gendered spatial (and i would argue, temporal) categories are disrupted. can’t wait to read more of your friend’s project – looks fascinating and totally relevant to my own work!

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