ScopeGone but not forgotten

Sassy (1988–1994)

CosmoGirl was the latest blow in the attrition within the teen magazine niche, joining ElleGirl and Teen People. The publications all suffered from KAGOY — Kids Are Getting Older Younger — which drove even younger “tweens” to adult celebrity and fashion magazines. Online social networking and media sites further eroded interest in these magazines. But the 15-year run of popularity in these titles is largely the legacy of one magazine which redefined what a teen magazine could be — Sassy.

In 1988, Australian businesswoman Sandra Yates raised the money to launch Sassy and buy Ms. Magazine, vowing “to prove that you can run a business with feminist principles and make money.” She said the then-current teen magazines were, “like Good Housekeeping for teen­agers, speaking with parental voices and looking like they were suspended in aspic.” Inspired by an Australian magazine called Dolly (which is still published, but never made any U.S. penetration) she hired 24-year-old Jane Pratt as editor-in-chief, she later said, because “she was the youngest applicant for the job, full of ideas and certainly the outstanding candidate.” Building a staff of women in their twenties was key, Yates felt, because “girls can spot a phony in a heartbeat.”

At the heart of Sassy was an original idea — take the culture, issues and opinions of older teen girls seriously (and we mean girls; these teen titles are overwhelmingly female oriented and staffed) and produce a quality publication that tackled their real fears, feelings and aspirations. Daniel Radosh, writing about Sassy’s demise for New York Press in 1994, concluded that, “In the end, a 25-year-old guy can’t help but feel admiration when a magazine aimed at teenage girls manages to piss him off.”

Sassy lasted just six and a half years, but attracted a fervent following of young women who felt alienated by conventional teen magazines and their emphasis on clothes, makeup and dating — all driven by the goal of landing a boyfriend. In its way, Sassy exposed these girls to a new brand of feminism, and treated their angst with a knowing peer voice. It proved that if you can find a voice for an unformed cultural zeitgeist, you can grow it into a powerful force. Without Sassy, Doc Martens would never have been cool, goth culture and riot grrls might never have existed.

Sassy BookThe magazine might have been too daring, too edgy and too poised as a cultural bellwether to last long, but while the magazine eventually paled — maybe because its initial audience grew out of it, and the next generation didn’t feel ownership — it convinced publishers that taking teens seriously could also be profitable. But the most lasting legacy of Sassy is probably still being felt through the careers of its readers, now in their early thirties, who learned from a magazine that they could change the world.

If you want to understand the cult of Sassy, there’s no better place to start than How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltze.

 

This article originally ran in Issue 5 of FPO.