Anyway, now I’m going to prattle a tiny bit about Sassy and Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer‘s wonderful book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time. Because it did, in many ways, change my life — it was a lightning bolt that hit the magazine stand at the Convenience Mart up the road in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky, where I grew up. I’d already stumbled onto some indie music and was obsessed with locating subversive books and movies (loved by teen geeks everywhere), but Sassy made not being all that interested in mainstream stuff legitimate and pointed me toward more, more, more.
This is a relevant topic for today, because it all started with Sandra Yates, an Australian feminist and businesswoman. On her site, she has posted a New York Times article that tells a little of the story:
Then in 1984, she was sent to New York for 10 days, to study whether Fairfax should be publishing magazines in the United States.
Two things happened to Ms. Yates on that trip. She fell in love with New York City, and she got the idea for Sassy.
American teen-agers, to her mind, needed a magazine like Dolly, one that would discuss issues like sex, fashion or suicide without cloaking him in euphemisms, one that would take a tone, in her words, of "hey guys, we’re in this together."
"The teen magazines here," she said, "were like Good Housekeeping for teen-agers, speaking with parental voices and looking like they were suspended in aspic."
At its launch, Sassy had a staff that was basically half-American, half-Australian, and under the helm of the Yates-annointed Jane Pratt. How Sassy Changed My Life tells the story of the magazine from start to finish, delving deeply into the personalities of the staffers — particularly the ones with the magazine early on, during its glory days. It perfectly captures the energy that was peculiar to Sassy, the sense that it was more than a magazine right from the get-go. For girls like me, out in the wasteland, it was a way of connecting to the larger culture, to people with similar interests — sound anything like, oh, I don’t know, blogs and the internerd?
Jesella and Meltzer make a compelling argument that the real successors to Sassy are blogs themselves, focusing on unique, personal voices, more interested in subjective takes than pretending to be some distant god(dess) peering over your shoulder telling you how it is. And, well, Sassy mastered snark before snark was snark. (Also, they tended to use their snark for good, turning it on deserving targets.) And how I miss the presence of a publication for teen girls with feminism at its heart; Sassy believed in the importance of girl power (or, more precisely, grrrl power).
The authors don’t just give the sunshine and roses though — Jesella and Meltzer deal with the fact that there could be a cliquey aspect to the magazine (again, internet, anyone?), particularly for those girls who worked as interns or on reader-produced issues. Sometimes girls that weren’t a certain kind of cool were made to feel not cool at all. But I still say that Sassy was more inclusive than exclusive. And that even if the staff didn’t always walk the walk, the magazine talked the talk and that was all most of us had access to anyway. Sassy’s central message was to do something. Anything. Activism was better than being cool. Creating music or art or whatever was better than being cool. Being smart was better than being cool. Oh, how I miss that.
Ultimately, America wasn’t ready for a dose of healthy Australian straight-talk for teenagers. The magazine wasn’t able to survive lengthy battles with the conservative Christian right, its unearned rep as sex-obsessed, or a round robin of publishers. In some ways, it reminds me of Freaks and Geeks — when that show was cancelled one of the producers said something along the lines of it being hard to be bitter when it was amazing such a show was ever allowed on network television to begin with. Along those lines, I can’t believe Sassy was ever mass-distributed and I’m grateful it lasted as long as it did. I’m thrilled, though, that its legacy has been rescued a little by this book.
I don’t just recommend it for those of us who hearted the mag when we were teens. I think that teen girls today, particularly ones just as dismayed at the pap in the current crop of teen mags, would love it. It would help them see a bit of the History of Teenage Girls and, especially, the History of Teenage Girls and feminism. And, well, that only sounds ridiculous because we’re still conditioned to think of teenage girls as ridiculous and unimportant in many ways. And that sucks. So read the book.
(Full One Shot World Tour schedule at the end of this post.)