KICKING SASS

Once the best, most courageous teen magazine on the planet, Sassy scared its advertisers so badly that a new publisher turned it into a featherweight flirting guide. Now it's dead. Ha, ha.

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sassy’s dead. R.I.P. Sassy. And it’s about damn time.
Somehow it’s fitting that the once-fab, once-feminist mag is being folded (literally) into Teen, where it will live a kind of spectral existence as an insert in the pages of the most vapid and empty-headed of the whole sorry bunch of teen-girl magazines.
How the mighty have fallen. For six glorious years after it launched in 1988, Sassy courageously tried to counteract the low-cal diet of bad advice and fashion tips that filled the pages of its competitors. But Sassy just hasn’t been sassy since Lang Communications sold it out to Petersen Publishing in late 1994. When loyal readers eagerly plucked the March 1995 issue from the newsstands  after several anxious months wondering where the magazine had gone  they discovered that Sassy had undergone a complete change of staff and editorial philosophy. It was as if a best friend, someone we used to go on pro-choice marches with, staying up late eating Mallomars and talking about vibrators, had turned up after a long trip with a bad case of amnesia  giving us blank looks when we started talking about “restrictive gender roles” and blowing us off to go to the movies with her boyfriend.

Sassy once talked openly about sex, featured interviews with gay teens, exhorted girls to challenge the sexism of parents and teachers, and even suggested that we send complaints to companies that produced offensive products. It ran essays with titles like “9 Things About America That Make Us Want to Scream and Throw Things,” comparing Bruce Willis’ inflated salaries to teacher’s deflated ones, lamenting that “the average woman college grad makes less than the average white male high school grad,” and reporting with a shudder that “twenty-five percent of sixth to ninth grade boys in a recent study said that it was okay for a man to force a woman to have sex with him if he had spent money on her.” The Sassy reader was light-years away from today’s Rules Girl. “Avoid guys who make you feel like you have to play the brainless, dainty bimbo,” one article scolded.
That all changed under the new regime. In a sneaky bait-and-switch, the revamped, Petersen-owned, L.A.-based Sassy tried to substitute the same tepid drivel served up by YM and its ilk  but in an attempt to disguise the break with Sassy’s past, the editors affected the same outspoken style as the old Sassy (without the outspoken content) and tried to flavor the writing with marginally hip lingo.



But any reader who wasn’t brain-dead could easily tell the difference. Instead of pro-girl, pro-feminist articles that addressed the issues that everyone else was busy ignoring, we got retrograde advice about flirting: “Men think about sex all the time  some studies show as much as six times an hour. So any given time you’re flirting with one of them, there’s a chance he’s wondering what you look like without your clothes on.” We got sex “education” that insisted most “girls get emotionally attached after they’ve had sex with a guy. Guys usually do not.” Feminist insights disappeared from the magazine  while the words “feminist PC thought police” appeared, in one notorious article, in 40 point type.
The folding of the new Sassy really should come as no surprise. In its original incarnation, the magazine had uncovered an audience for perceptive, thoughtful writing that didn’t patronize the girls it spoke to, and about. Then the new editors came along and tried to give that readership everything that they had already rejected. And, predictably, its readers rejected it. Sassy’s circulation was 801,000 in 1994; after the sale it fell to 671,000 in 1995, and was reportedly still falling in the first six months of 1996.

Sassy’s current failure vindicates all of us who used to love the magazine for its courage, for its willingness to treat teen girls as intelligent readers with more on their minds than boys and what to wear to some damned dance. Not that this kind of vindication will bring Sassy back from the grave. Lang didn’t sell Sassy because it was unpopular with readers. No, they unloaded it because advertisers were uncomfortable with its edgy content and were continually threatening to pull their dollars. If you lose one reader you can replace her, but if you lose a million-dollar advertiser you may have to go out of business.

Now Petersen has discovered that it just doesn’t make financial sense to maintain so many separate yet identical publications  and so out went the one with the less sponsor-friendly history.
At least those of us who mourned that beleaguered little mag when it folded in spirit don’t have its presence on the newsstand to taunt us with what we’d lost  and titillate us with the hope that maybe someday it would morph back into what it once was. Sassy’s death reminds us of all the unfortunate realities of glossy magazine publishing: the primacy of advertisers’ opinions over readers’ and the profit-driven aesthetic that pushes content relentlessly toward the mediocre. Sassy once gave us hope that a glossy teen mag could actually treat its readers with respect. It lost our respect when, under new management, it buckled under to commercial pressures. Now it’s gone. R.I.P. Sassy.

Lisa Jervis is the editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.

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