How Sassy (Should Have) Changed My Life

Originally posted in July 2007.


If you subscribed to or even occasionally read Sassy, the teen-girl magazine that existed from 1989 to 1996, then that makes you, approximately, a pro-choice registered Democrat who came of age listening to alternative rock. You grew up on R.E.M., the Smiths, the Cure, Throwing Muses, Sonic Youth, Liz Phair, Hole, Bikini Kill, PJ Harvey, My So-Called Life, and John Hughes. Your romantic ideals were forged by repeated viewings of Dead Poets Society, Say Anything, and Morrissey riding around on a tractor in the middle of winter for the “Suedehead” video. You published a zine or bought zines, issued seven-inch singles or bought seven-inch singles. You were probably a high-achieving malcontent, a wearer of black in high school who became a thrift-store-haunting feminist theorist in college. If you were going to get married at all, you were going to marry an enlightened, sensitive man who washed dishes, and you’d do it for enlightened, egalitarian love—not money! Or else you were going to, or did, come out proudly as a lesbian, or you took up with members of both sexes and didn’t feel guilty. You were under the impression that the girls who came after you would never have to shave their legs.

In the Bikini Kill song “Alien She,” Kathleen Hanna described the part of herself who wanted to be pretty and normal the way you might an evil twin: She wants me to go to the mall / She wants me / To put the pretty pretty lipstick on. Contrast Hanna’s tone with that of a Sassy photo caption: “The boy as fashion accessory: It’s a concept.” Sassy was riot grrrl without the total opposition to self-adornment and mass media. Editor-in-chief Jane Pratt and her staff, who referred to one another by first names throughout the copy, regularly used the term “misogynist,” but also believed that engaging with boys, clothes, and pop culture wasn’t a betrayal of the feminist cause. They would admit to possibly delusional moments in which they swore Matt Dillon was giving them the eye at CBGB. Every teen magazine of that era swooned over Matt Dillon; only Sassy assumed that you, a teenage girl, knew what CBGB was.

Sassy‘s ethos could be summed up by the title of one of its regular columns—Working Our Nerves. This was a phrase my friends and I were familiar with. Many, many things worked our nerves—Top Gun, Dirty Dancing, 90210, Debbie Gibson, Aqua Net, the color pink, Diet Coke. Our hatred of demeaning mainstream media and the real-life people who responded to it gave off fumes. Nobody puts Baby in a corner? Please. You were going to have to come up with something much wittier and less patronizing if you wanted us to part with our part-time-job money and/or our virginity. Sassy gave us pullout posters of R.E.M.—not Nelson, not New Kids on the Block, but R.E.M.! I bought that issue, and a few others. And yet I did not buy Sassy as an accurate representation of what it meant to be a teenage girl residing on the margins.

Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer’s How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time is, more often than not, the straightforwardly reported story of Sassy‘s rise and fall, and at times it’s a satisfying dissection of the forces, within and without the magazine, that led to its demise—complete with inside dirt on music writer Christina Kelly’s terrorizing attitude problem and Pratt’s addiction to the limelight. If you aren’t a former Sassy reader, but a Third Waver who follows the interplay of women and media the way some people follow the Yankees, you may be riveted. But only occasionally. The overly large trim size—it’s just like a magazine!—and the authorial mood swings within suggest that Jesella and Meltzer couldn’t or didn’t want to take this story as seriously as they might have.

Sassy began with Sandra Yates, an Australian magazine-publishing executive who thought American teen magazines were “preserved in aspic,” and thought it might be worthwhile to try a frank, irreverent alternative. She hired the 24-year-old Pratt, an Oberlin grad who had long wanted to start a magazine for teenage girls “who felt like they were outsiders, but who could still pass for normal in the high school cafeteria,” girls “who didn’t want to completely reject mainstream culture, but didn’t want to completely embrace it, either.” Eventually Yates bought Ms. “I’m going to prove you can run a business with feminist principles and make money,” she told the New York Times, and even those unfamiliar with what followed might guess that tragedy was welling like a tidal wave in the distance.

Just as Sassy began turning a profit, Focus on the Family, mistaking the editors’ desire to speak honestly to confused teens for a desire to promote promiscuity, called for a boycott. The sex advice wasn’t really that sexy, but wary advertisers pulled out, and the magazine would never recover—in part because ad people never quite believed there were enough cranky teenage girls to make up a sizable, stable audience. Shareholders asked Yates to step down, and Lang Communications, which published titles like Working Mother and Success, bought the magazine. In 1994 it was sold again, to Petersen Publishing, which also published TeenSassy‘s Alien She, its airheaded cousin from Ohio. The staff was let go, and Petersen defanged Sassy, turning it into a generic teen mag. Readers canceled their subscriptions in outrage—one was particularly offended by the “sporty scrunchie” worn by the new editor-in-chief—and in 1996 the magazine folded.

Jesella and Meltzer, admirably, don’t just blame The Man for the magazine’s troubles. They point out that staff infighting and Pratt’s frequent absences exacerbated the problems of obtuse corporate ownership, and that and the editors let their friendships with celebrities (most notably Sonic Youth and Michael Stipe) get to their heads. And the caustic Sassy became stylized and hegemonic. During an issue produced by readers, one girl rewrote another’s story because “it wasn’t sarcastic enough.” (“I was never actually cool enough to read Sassy,” the victim, still feeling the pain years later, told the authors. “I listened to show tunes and wore leggings until my freshman year in college. But I was smart and funny and subversive in my own way.”) Staffers began to be reprimanded for the magazine’s snark both by their corporate parents—”Many articles seem to be inflected with anger, negativity, and offensive remarks”—and by readers.

But while Jesella and Meltzer sometimes criticize Sassy‘s rhetorical strategy—when in doubt, disparage—they’re ultimately fans who have learned it too well. For instance, they seethe with a hatred of Seventeen that seems a little too fresh—as if it were still 1990. They spend a lot of time trying to kill off something that’s been dead for years, sneering at the magazine’s bourgeois ’80s lameness, describing it as “an extension of the patriarchy,” and calling its entertainment coverage as “oppressively mass, with treacly profiles of mall queen Tiffany and hair band Nelson.” True enough, and it was terrible. But they don’t mention that Seventeen also published Sylvia Plath, Lorrie Moore, and Edwidge Danticat—all winners of its fiction contest. (Full disclosure: I am one, too.) By ignoring Seventeen‘s history as an early outlet for female writers, respected or otherwise (a teenage Elizabeth Wurtzel, already high on her other favorite drug, self-disclosure, wrote for them about her thing for older men), the authors show that they either didn’t do their homework or prefer to skew the story. They declare that girls read either Sassy or Seventeen, and wonder who on earth has kept old issues of the latter. That would be me. And a few other people I know. Jesella and Meltzer say they find “non-fans [of Sassy] of a certain age slightly suspect.” That would be me. And a few other people I know.

When I was 17, Seventeen selected me to be a member of its Sounding Board. The magazine had an annual contest—that year it involved coming up with a humorous headline for something or other—and if your entry was clever enough, you would receive a year’s subscription and would occasionally be called upon to give your views on drunk driving or dating. I didn’t date. Or drink, though I did drive. This proved problematic when an editor actually called me, and wanted to know if I thought girls should ask guys out. When I told her that I had never been on a date, she asked me how old I was, and then if I was sure I had never been on a date. When they printed my comments, they identified me as Becki. With an i. Great. Thanks.

So that was Seventeen—having absolutely no clue about their readers. They assumed, well into the ’80s, that readers might respond to advertisements for Lane hope chests, when what I knew about Lane hope chests was that my mother had one, and she’d kept her wedding dress in it. But if you were a girl like me, who took pleasure in those kinds of connections, and knew they’d published Sylvia Plath, and grew up on the Sprigged Muslin School (see Laura Ingalls Wilder, L. M. Montgomery), you could still have affection for such an archaic and decorous media object as Seventeen, and perhaps remained loyal to it for those reasons. Which, as you did the leg lifts they suggested on your carpeted bedroom floor, you could acknowledge was maybe a little insane.

I knew that Sassy was Patti Smith to Seventeen‘s Patty Duke, but I could not quite find it in myself to be its best friend. Later that year, I suggested to two friends that we blow off our senior class trip to Universal Studios in Florida—being philosophically opposed to fun in the sun—and instead spend a weekend in New York City. We bought rayon flowered babydoll jumpers from the street vendors next to Tower Records and stocked up on Manic Panic and Doc Martens at Unique. The high point was seeing the Blake Babies and the Lemonheads play CBGB. When we got there we realized that Chia Pet—a band consisting of the editors of Sassy—was playing. If we’re here while the entire staff of Sassy is here, I thought, we are made exceedingly cool by extension!

But there was also panic and deflation. It was as if the girl you respected from afar for her iconoclasm, but who was mostly just a loudmouth who went on and on about how she was best friends with Sonic Youth, had showed up to a party you weren’t sure you were cool enough to be at anyway. You felt like a huge dork around her even though you suspected she wasn’t as smart as everyone thought she was, and her presence was going to cause some serious self-examination, if not self-loathing. In the end, Sassy replicated all the cruel pressures of high school hierarchies, all the excessive posturing that popular girls seemed to demand—it just put a slightly different girl at the top. The magazine could make me laugh—Jesella and Meltzer forget to mention the article about the three male leads of Northern Exposure and why, if rolled together in one, they would make the perfect boyfriend—but mostly it worked my nerves.

Now, after reading the book, Jesella and Meltzer make me wish that I had known the magazine a little better. They make it clear why Sassy mattered and why it should be mourned. Sassy’s great triumph, they say, was that it knew that “not all teen girls [had] the same banal desires.” They show that the magazine was the site of more than one culture war—scrunchies versus Doc Martens, feminists versus the Moral Majority, the underground versus mass media, capitalism versus freedom of expression. They demonstrate, contra Lethem and Hornby et al., that girls can be just as proud and possessive of their cultural knowledge as boys. They also make the point that Sassy at its best had more in common with Spy than with any women’s magazine of the time—or of today—with articles that deconstructed junk food and skewered Shannen Doherty, and absurdist spine copy like “Bob Hope, Madman,” and “If You Can Smell It, It’s Killing You.” Sassy privileged marginalia, favored opinion over fact, and engaged in love-hate relationships with celebrities. It made an art out of taking things personally. It was the The Real World and Gawker before reality television and blogs existed. Anger, negativity, and offensive remarks? Sounds like what passes for public discourse in the early twenty-first century.

Sassy may no longer work my nerves, but Jesella and Meltzer, despite their successes, often do. Not only for reprising Sassy‘s bratty teenage balkanization, but also because they can’t figure out who their book should be for. They tend to forget that their readers are probably grown-up, critically thinking feminists who were right there with them in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and so the book can read like a letter to our parents, explaining why some of us were so surly from 1989 to 1996. At other times, it becomes bewilderingly Young Adult. “But Sandra was an optimist,” they write of Sassy’s founder. “She was also a feminist. During her lunch break, she would abandon her typewriter, change into jeans and a T-shirt, and attend rallies for the Women’s Electoral Lobby, the Australian equivalent of the National Organization for Women.” On Pratt’s adolescent angst: “If she had been an adult, maybe she could have taken refuge in a feminist persona, listening to Joni Mitchell, reading Kate Millet, wearing hippie skirts, and letting her hair go gray.” The only item on that list a teenage girl couldn’t do would be the last.

There are many such unintentionally hilarious claims in the book, with no evidence or argument to back them up. Why declare Condé Nast’s Lucky—the “The Magazine About Shopping”—the true heir to Sassy, unless you owe Lucky‘s editor (a former Sassy staffer) something? Jesella and Meltzer also dismiss independently published feminist magazines Bust, Bitch, and Venus because they “feel utopian” and “aren’t representative of the outside world.” These magazines, they say, might make a reader feel bad because she doesn’t have “a working knowledge of Hélène Cixous”—Cixous being a fairly accessible French feminist theorist. But why criticize these newer magazines for trying to articulate something similar to Sassy’s message—for offering something a little more complex than what’s in Glamour—in the “outside world” of 2007, where commercials for Gardasil, Merck’s cervical cancer vaccine, can appear to be the most realistic depiction of women on television? If Jesella and Meltzer really believe that French feminist theorists have no business being quoted in women’s magazines, whether corporately funded or not, they’re as faithless as the advertisers, editors, publishers, and right-wingers they write about.

They might have spent less time picking on Seventeen and Bust and more time thinking about why something like Sassy will probably never happen again, starting with the oft-repeated reason of corporate consolidation—they seem to have talked to the right sources to mount a Faludi-type inquest into just what killed the spirit of ’90s feminism. They quote a former Seventeen editor saying of the time before Sassy that “advertisers didn’t really believe girls had money and, if they did have money, they really felt like they only understood makeup.” Now advertisers know that girls have money—or at least that their parents do—but what difference has it made? Whose fault is it that putting Björk, Sarah Silverman, or Cat Power on the cover of a magazine has become a signal of subversion? Would corporations really lose money if they acknowledged their readers and viewers had more on their minds than sex, prize money, and violence?

Asking and answering questions like those might have been a more fitting tribute to a magazine that, according to former readers quoted in the book, did encourage young women to become politically active and professionally successful. These former Sassy readers, though they may not be doing anything as heroic and high-profile as scooping up armfuls of third-world orphans or running beauty schools in Kabul, do sound like they’re living lives they don’t regret. Even if you think that’s all feminism has boiled down to—an ideology that emphasizes vague notions of personal empowerment—happy lives, uncompromised and content, are nothing to dismiss. As long as you can explain what you’re doing to the board of directors.

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