News & Politics » Essay

Goodbye, Girl Friend

by

comment

I am in mourning. I have felt denial, anger, depression--the whole seven steps of grief. Not because Christian rock is growing like a cancer. Or because the New Republic has slouched toward the right. No, my sorrow is because good old Sassy--that ultracool teen magazine that used to light up the newsstand with sarcastic articles like "Are You Obsessive-Compulsive? Are You? Are You? Are You? Are You? Are You?"--has been bought by dweebs. And the dweeb-run Sassy, out since March, just ain't so--how to put it?--sassy.

This is not just a personal tragedy. Like the death of River Phoenix, like getting a Norplant jabbed in your arm, this is a tragedy for all girlkind. From the day it crashed the teen scene in 1988 Sassy was rad. The book oozed hip. Its style roused magazines from Seventeen to Paper to, perhaps, the Atlantic Monthly. Designers copped Sassy's funky graphics. Editors tried for its slangy, ironic speak. What's more, with stories about how first-time sex ain't always so fan-freakin'-tastic or "why the prom sucks so bad," Sassy pushed the limits of how sexually explicit and blatantly rebellious a teen magazine could be. By 1992 it boasted 750,000 readers (ditto for the New Yorker) and--get this--a National Magazine Award nomination for general excellence (top prop in the biz). So if you were a young-minded femme or an adolescent girl or a Gen-X journalist in search of a cultural pulse, you could count on Sassy for an irreverent, smart take on life.

Kiss that good-bye. On a chilly day in early December Lang Communications, which also owns Ms., dished Sassy to Petersen Publishing Company, big kahunas behind 'Teen, the most traditional, most stupid of teen magazines.

Hey, depressing development alert! Hello?

With the junta at Sassy so weirdly in sync with the one in D.C., it's easy to view the magazine's fate as both a sorry outgrowth of the Republican revolution and a dark omen of more right-minded things to come. As several of my friends have pointed out, old Sassy staffers now pound the pavement much like Joycelyn Elders, while new Sassy publisher Jay Cole spouts Newtisms like "psychographics" and "alpha-teens." But it's just not enough to pose the question "Coincidence?" and answer, as the vernacular suggests, "Not!"

So let's cruise some facts.

Profitwise, Sassy was no cash cow. It was a sinkhole. The book lost money and lots of it. Outside a few months in 1992, Sassy's publisher, Dale Lang, never earned a cent from it. Nichewise, the teen mags target some 25 million potential page flippers with $90 billion of their parents' money to spend each year. The market is bullied by four titles--Sassy, Seventeen, 'Teen, and YM. At Seventeen, the long-standing Godzilla in the field, 1994 revenues topped $47.5 million. In addition to underlining Sassy's fiscal problems, last year's ad-page figures (up 15.9 percent at 'Teen, 13.2 percent at Seventeen, 4.7 percent at YM, down 19.4 percent at Sassy) suggest that the more conservative books are growing faster. And given the cash YM's publisher, Gruner + Jahr, put into boosting newsstand sales, last year's revenues (up 32.4 percent at YM, 25.7 percent at 'Teen, 19.4 percent at Seventeen, down11.7 percent at Sassy) pretty much replicate that trend.

To those in the industry each of the teen mags possesses a particular teenlike personality that in turn informs the personalities of its readers--"Sassy being the quintessential evil teenager, 'Teen being that annoying good girl you just want to smack in the head," says one. Once these stereotypes carried over into media criticism parents, watchdogs, and advertisers accepted that girls who read Sassy would pierce their noses and volunteer at abortion clinics, while girls who read 'Teen would sleep in spongy pink rollers and bake cookies for Bible class.

Rebellion--whether by a teenager or a periodical--is no walk through the mall. Not every moment of Sassy's six and a half years was flat-out fab. For starters there was that serious static from the religious right. A few months after Sassy's launch, the Moral Majority, Focus on Family, and Women Aglow got all atwitter over a sympathetic story on gay teens. One organized boycott later, Sassy had lost 30 percent of its newsstand sites along with its top 15 advertisers.

The middle years brought increasingly frequent (and costly) skirmishes between editorial and financial concerns. Under pressure from advertisers, money types forced Sassy writers to steer clear of the word "sex" for 24 issues--"at just the time we watched teens become the highest risk group for AIDS," says former editor in chief Jane Pratt.

In the end, however, no one--not the money types, nor the editors, nor even Dale Lang--defended Sassy's cause with much oomph. First Lang shoved Sassy's offices into the old McCall's test kitchen. Next Pratt slipped away, half-time, to launch an ill-fated TV talk show. Then the writers tried to get vertical--that is, they began pandering to a wider range of readers with straighter, less pointed prose. And--wouldn't you know it?--Sassy's voice got pulpy and flat.

Grief stricken though I may be, I won't miss cover lines like "Bathing Suits That Go From the Tropics to the Kiddie Pool," exposes about "The Infinite Complexity of Your Fluffy Kitty," or confessionals revealing "How These Girls Became Geeks." I won't miss ads for "Sassy, the Board Game." I won't miss news about Jane Pratt's social life. And--this was my pet peeve--I definitely won't miss those cloying pink hearts that in September 1993 replaced asterisks in Sassy's movie ratings.

What I will miss are the early days, the days when Sassy managed to stay, if not in the black, at least in a red-hot rage. Back then it had energy, big energy, the kind of energy that erupts from a bunch of feisty young college grads given room to rail against "sulky models" and "wildebeest Tipper Gore." Sassy held forth on everything from platform shoes to the war in Iraq to "why beauty pageants are a lot like the army." It championed the nonwaif, the nonbabe, the nonconformist. It screamed girl power. As former staff writer Karen Catchpole put it, Sassy was a user's manual for 15-year-old girls: "Here's your body, here's your brain, here's how they work."

This, of course, was exactly what feminists like psychologist Carol Gilligan had been begging for for years: a pointed alternative to the loudmouthed shrews and Barbie-cut bimbos spit out by the mainstream media. In 1991 Gilligan, along with the Harvard Project for Women's Psychology and Girls' Development, published a primer on the problems girls face "coming of age in a culture in which embodied desire is silenced, obscured, denigrated...where [girls] get the clear message they're not supposed to be aroused." Our culture, they'd noted, has this wee small problem: it often turns healthy assertive tomboys into cowering anorexic women. Study after study proved it: growing up ladylike meant growing up repressed. Girls got their periods but buried their desires. They learned to shut their mouths, look cute, and act dumb.

In thrashing such protocol Sassy earned big-time kudos and spawned a cultish following among influential lefty adults. Artsy types propped it on their coffee tables. Writer types wrote gushing reviews. Many claimed Sassy not only improved on the old teen-mag formula--wear these clothes, look this way, and you'll get boys--but parodied that formula, replaced it, and arguably bettered the lot of a generation of readers. Take, for example, Peggy Orenstein, author of Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, who's spent years probing the problems of teenage girls. "I always tried to get the girls I worked with to read Sassy," she says. "Hell, I read Sassy. Sassy was my hero."

For better or worse, Sassy like rilly pushed teen mags toward goofier, spicier, more personal voices. But its reputation for introducing the teen market to sex is somewhat specious. As early as 1982 Seventeen was detailing how to buy birth control, albeit in such pale language that advertisers and parents and possibly even girls didn't notice. And as for Sassy's avowed nonconformist aesthetic, back copies prove Sassy spurned agency models and fashion dictates for a while, yet by the mid-90s its look was about as inclusive as Kate Moss's butt.

"Towards the end Sassy looked and felt like some snooty New York-LA street-girl clique," says the former editor of a now-defunct Sassy rival. "You know, if you weren't down with Sassy, you just weren't down."

All this debating of Sassy's raison de demise, all this picking apart my grief, hasn't made the loss easier to take. Especially not after seeing the new Sassy. From the cover, I'd gleaned such original phraseology as "No Means No! Say It! Mean It!" Inside, a thoughtful article called "Plane Jane" featured a model on an aircraft carrier in need of a "studly sailor" to show her the controls. And from new Sassy publisher Jay Cole I learned things would only get worse. In the coming months, Cole told me, Sassy would become "less dark and more responsible," something for all those "alpha teens with very very solid family values." He told me to expect no more "sensational" stories on, say, rape or incest or homosexuals. And definitely no more vernacular. "For example," said Cole, "we might not say 'the prom sucks.'...We might ask, 'Is the prom right for you?'"

Hello cluephone? Jay, it's for you.

In truth, the arrival of such lameness was not a shock, not to me nor to many who watched Sassy's hot-burning arc. From the day Petersen Publishing Company cleared out the old Sassy offices, even its high school readers suspected lameness would follow. Certainly that was the suspicion of three girls who called Sassy's answering machine shortly after Pratt had moved out. Visiting from Texas, they were down in the lobby, stunned and crying. Their message said they'd come to meet Pratt, their idol, and now, hearing news of her ouster, they felt "rejected by the whole world." For a while they vented. They sobbed into the phone. But then--after a few last tearful words--the girls calmed down and bucked up, and by the message's end they'd planned an impromptu New York adventure to salvage their trip.

Sassy had died. It was a bleak day and the girls knew it. But like Jane Pratt, who's now starting a Sassy-ish mag for older readers, the girls showed resilient spirits. They broadcast spunk. They acted as if over the years of Sassy's existence, by some process of adolescent osmosis, they'd picked up the strength to overcome grim politics and lame buyouts, and anything else that came their way. What they'd picked up, to my mind, was self-respect: the poise to show their emotions, speak their minds, and then flip their skirts and carry on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Charise Mericle.

Add a comment