How Sassy didn’t change my life

13 May

by Jess
A couple of years ago, Shapely Prose did a thread about “what would you tell your 14-year-old self?” I didn’t contribute at the time; I was probably choosing between hoary sentiments like “it’s not that important to convince boys to kiss you,” “it’s all right to be smart and all right not to show it in the expected ways,” and “for fuck’s sake you look FINE.” Now I know there was a shorthand: “Read Sassy.”

It’s not like I wasn’t aware of Sassy. I actually have an old picture of Laura, mugging it up with a cheeky expression and brand-new bright red streaks in her hair, that I captioned “Laura’s Sassy cover shot.” But really, I’m pretty sure I plucked that name out of the “generic teen magazine” slot in my brain just because she was being sassy at the time. I didn’t realize Sassy was actually the magazine that made girls like we used to be grow up into women like us.

There is of course a book called How Sassy Changed My Life, and because it is a book and I am a self-recrimination machine I am of course down on myself that I didn’t write it, but that is clearly just dumb mental habit because Sassy didn’t change my life. I wish it had. It probably would have, if I’d read it. But I wasn’t even fully aware of how different it was from YM or Seventeen until a few weeks ago, when someone sent thoroughly amazing mini-blogger Tavi Gevinson a bushel of back issues.

Tavi, who as far as I can tell is the only 14-year-old whose future self is not going to wish she could go back in time and give herself a good shaking, posted some scans and they are tremendous. The fashion is described as “anti-priss” and incorporates multiple non-mainstream forms of expression. The poses are self-consciously dopey. (In college, Laura and I would take pictures of our friend Lynne posing like that and say she was being a Delia’s model — little did we know Sassy had beaten us to the ironic-modeling punch by like six years!) The phrase “misogynist propaganda” is used. There is offhanded, no-big-deal feminist cultural critique and acknowledgment of white privilege. Daniel Clowes cartoon! Shitty poetry! DIY! And tell me you didn’t need to read this article when you were 14, and I will call you a damn liar.

I genuinely have no idea how I grew up to be the person I am without having read this magazine. I read YM, for chrissakes! I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit in, like all of us at that age, and I picked a magazine at random, and as it happened it was the “how my period leaked through my white skirt in front of a total hottie at the mall” one and not the “I performed an awesome poetry slam piece about my period at the coffee shop ” one. (Here’s Sassy mercilessly taking the piss out of YM. I cheered.)

And then six months later I didn’t read YM either, because I had decided that attempting to fit in was too bruising to my fragile self-regard, and instead I was going to feel very superior to anyone who even tried and especially anyone who succeeded. Imagine if I’d slipped off my high horse and fallen on a Sassy! Its driving principles — that there are important issues in the world that you should know about but clothes are fun too, that the need to impress boys is culturally constructed and not divinely mandated, that biting humor can be wielded more like a pen than a sword, that you can define yourself without accepting or rejecting everything the people around you value — were things I had to piece together clumsily over the next decade or so. I’m not saying I would have been like Tavi by the age of 14 or anything, but might I have gotten a head start? Missed out on some really epic missteps? Believed in myself more? At the very least, discovered feminism earlier?

I just realized that this is my second post for this blog where I wonder how my life would have differed if I’d had the right light to guide me. I guess I’m 30 and maudlin and wishing I could have my youth back to do it right this time. (I really thought this bit wasn’t supposed to kick in until menopause.) The truth is, though, that the self-centered version of the question — how could Sassy have changed my life? — is beside the point. The point is more about how the agents of change and the engines of oppression can look very much alike. The brilliance of Sassy wasn’t just that it was a delivery mechanism for stealth social justice ideals, but that it was also packaged as a teen magazine. In the confused kid’s identity production toolbox, magazines are the hammer — they literally tell you how to dress, what to value, who to woo and how. Sassy actually told you how to deconstruct the teen magazine, but did so while presenting itself in a familiar guise as a teen magazine — it was the anti-YM in YM clothing. This is actually, now that I think of it, a lot like what I was saying about the Beyonce video! I guess I am very impressed when feminism is a Master of Disguise.

So I guess the real question is, what’s doing that for girls now? (Come to think of it, it might be Tavi.) And how do we make sure it hits its mark?


7 Responses to “How Sassy didn’t change my life”

  1. Lynne May 13, 2010 at 8:52 pm #

    Excuse me, I do not see any models posing like they are fishing, or like it is raining.

    • Laura May 14, 2010 at 9:48 am #

      That must be in the next installment.

  2. Laura May 14, 2010 at 9:48 am #

    It would be wonderfully apropos if Tavi becomes the new Sassy.

    I’m not sure what the role of magazines is for The Kids These Days — I read a TON of magazines when I was a teenager, and part of the appeal was their portability. You could take them with you, trade them with your friends, rip out pages to put in your locker, etc. Does that still happen? Or is paper hopelessly 20th century?

    Also, do kids still have lockers? Thinking about all this makes me feel about 10000 years old.

  3. Snarky's Machine May 17, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    I tended to prefer YM since it featured brown girls more often than Sassy did. I never liked Sassy, but I loved reading this.

  4. Kate Harding May 23, 2010 at 10:40 am #

    I think Jezebel (so far) does a pretty good job of being the new Sassy, in a format kids actually read, unlike words printed on paper. The audience skews older, but there are plenty of teenagers, and I can’t think of a better sneaking-in-the-broccoli intro to feminism going right now.

    Sassy did change my life in some ways — mostly, it made me feel like I wanted to be friends with people like the writers when I grew up*, instead of with the people writing “How to change yourself for a dude” pieces in other mags. And that’s not a small thing. But it was definitely still loaded with thin, conventionally beautiful white women, and “challenging beauty standards” often meant featuring a thin, conventionally beautiful white woman with a nose ring or something. It was a bajillion times more feminist than any other teen mag, but that’s only saying so much. I definitely remember torturing myself over not being as gorgeous as Sassy models, just like I did with other magazines. But then, some of that is just that adolescence sucks, and I had an extra-special gift for self-loathing.

    *And I had dinner with Marjorie Ingall last week! Dreams do come true!

    • Laura May 23, 2010 at 1:33 pm #

      But it was definitely still loaded with thin, conventionally beautiful white women, and “challenging beauty standards” often meant featuring a thin, conventionally beautiful white woman with a nose ring or something.

      Like Sophie B. Hawkins in a flannel shirt!


  1. Ironic sexism is so passe « Birthday Bread Horse - May 27, 2010

    […] look, if all we do here on BBH is support the continued writerly existence of Tavi, I am okay with that. Because seriously, just look at how […]

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