Thursday, September 22, 2016

How Sassy Magazine Changed My Life

I performed at a tribute for Sassy magazine a few years ago. This was a very meaningful night for me. Among the people on the lineup paying tribute to Sassy were Ira Glass and Janeane Garofalo, two of my all-time heroes. Especially Janeane. I told her that seeing her play a raw, unflinchingly honest almost 3-hour set in 2003 in Chicago inspired me to start performing myself. Eight years later, I’m on the same bill in New York City.

At  The Talent Show, I told the story of how I was a Top 25 Finalist for the Sassiest Girl in America in 1992. This is a picture of me at 16, when “It Happened to Me.”
And this is a Polaroid picture of my entry for the contest from 1992. I decided to pay tribute to my 12 sassy heroes by fashioning a voodoo shrine made up of Barbie, Ken, and New Kids on the Block dolls. As you can see from who I picked, I was very impressed by my own knowledge of literary and historical figures. My role models were: James Dean. Cleopatra. Walt Whitman. Sinead O’Connor. Geena Davis. Maya Angelou. Jane Pratt. Demi Moore (using a Shannen Doherty “90210” doll). Sacajawea. David Letterman. And finally, Martin Luther King. Because I thought his dream was really sassy.

Since I am came so close to winning, I became even more obsessed with Sassy. So when I went to college and the magazine was sold to Petersen Publishing and became Zombie Sassy, I took notice. At 19 years old, I decided to write about the implications of the sale in a cover story for The Daily Northwestern, which I’m not overstating this, is an article responsible for everything good in my life today. The piece was called: “The Death of the Intelligent Teen.” Later I was told it was this story that got me an internship at The Washington Post in 1997. And having had that internship has pretty much been my Get Out of Jail Free card for the rest of my professional career.
In the article, I told how the new publishing company that bought Sassy, Petersen Publishing — which was behind both Teen and Guns & Ammo — forced Sassy to sell its soul, fire its staff and insult its readers.
I was a total sarcastic bitch in this piece. Which was great. In describing Zombie Sassy, I wrote, “The Diary page, formerly written by editor-in-chief Jane Pratt, had a new face. The greeting from the new editor, Lori Moore, bubbled happily, “The good news is, Sassy lives! The bad news is, well, there isn’t any, so let’s just count our blessings shall we?”
I interviewed editors, former interns, and one told me they kept up my Sassiest Girl in America entry in the office for a long time. I quoted the 54-year-old publisher of the new enterprise who told me that the problem with the old Sassy was that it had become a “little bit dark.” I used a technique we call in journalism — letting someone hang themselves by their own words. When I asked him whether New Sassy would be representative of what teenagers actually look like, he told me, “Yes. Multiculturalism is very important to kids today. They’re very accepting of it.”

When later I left journalism and my writing career was pretty much in ruins, it was a random contest in Jane magazine in 2005 where I won $1,000 that bizarrely gave me some relevance again. I launched a blog, found my own voice and was hired by The New York Post.

But if you ask me what the most important moment in my life was, the one that led to everything good — it was being in the Top 25 Sassiest Girls in America.

And here is the article in its entirety from The Daily Northwestern, April 14, 1995.

The Death of the Intelligent Teen” by Mandy Stadtmiller

“Hey, dudes! Guess what? Sassy’s back with a new glam-slam issue! We’ve got the dish on the cutest celebs, how to get a boyfriend and the fastest diets! Also included — Liv Tyler, babe genius or video vixen? Beauty: 10 quick steps to a sexier, skinnier you! And our ultra-investigative piece: Shopping? Can you handle the temptation?”

The teenage magazine market has long been glutted with such silly, condescending journalism sold to young women everywhere. It is written in the glibbest of teen-speak, invented by 30- and 40-year-old women trying to give girls what the writers imagine they want in the form of an eyeliner n’ guys, blusher n’ boys mix of a magazine.

Back in 1988, Sassy was the one publication that tried to talk to teens intelligently — failing often, mixing messages many times, but indisputably speaking to young women in a way that revolutionized the market.

About six months ago, Dale Lang and Petersen Publishing Co. changed all that. Despite a notable boom in sales when it first appeared on the newsstands in ’88, Sassy couldn’t pull in enough money from its 800,000 readers to make the financial debt and dwindling profits worth their publisher’s time. After Lang placed it on the market, Petersen, publishers of Teen and Guns & Ammo, stepped up to buy it on October 17, 1994.

For many, that’s the day that Sassy died. The entire editorial staff was let go, not to be rehired by Petersen; the office moved from New York to Los Angeles; and the December issue, Sassy’s first-ever celebrity-produced piece with writers like James Iha, Thurston Moore and Veruca Salt, was scrapped. What subscribers got instead was a specially priced $1-an-issue return of their magazine after three months’ conspicuous absence.

The Diary page, formerly written by editor-in-chief Jane Pratt, had a new face. The greeting from the new editor, Lori Moore, who quit soon after the first issue came to print, bubbled happily, “The good news is: Sassy lives! The bad news is, well, there isn’t any, so let’s just count our blessings, shall we?”

And many would agree with such a statement. What does a magazine for, as Time described them in 1988, “teenyboppers” matter anyway? Samantha Shapiro, a former intern and editor of their reader-produced issue, tried to explain why.

“It really responded to a dearth in teenage magazines of any conception of femininity that is not completely limited and meaningless,” says the 19-year-old editor of the George Washington University daily. “There are pageants and sororities, but there really aren’t any mainstream female-centered institutions that you can participate in without the expense of your identity and your sense of self.”

Sassy sold its ideas of feminism, skepticism and political and sexual awareness by speaking in an honest, chatty dialogue that Time termed “slumber-party journalism.” The Big Three in teenage publications, YM, Seventeen and Teen, went through changes shortly thereafter to compete with the teenage intelligentsia Sassy was snapping up as subscribers.

“It wasn’t so much appealing to a market as it was changing a market,” Shapiro says. “It printed ideas that really weren’t revolutionary, but in a way they were. Like: You are OK if you don’t have a boyfriend. I think that girls know that, but they don’t ever hear that.”

But Sassy didn’t stop there. They also told girls that it is OK if you are gay. It is OK if you are sexually active. It is OK if you are smart and funny and different. As long as teens were informed and aware, Sassy believed that girls were competent enough to sort through all the different ideas presented to them in an issue.

Originally, disseminating information leaned heavily on both sex and sexual-orientation awareness. But a coalition of offended mothers felt the honesty was dangerous. In 1988 a Moral Majority group led by Brenda Ingraham, a woman whose kids didn’t even read Sassy, started up a campaign to let Sassy’s advertisers know just what kind of subversive material was being distributed.

In articles like “The Truth About Boys’ Bodies” girls learned the average amount of semen ejaculation and the difference between an erect and a limp penis. Furthermore, Sassy provided “Real Stories About Incest,” “My Girlfriend Got Pregnant” and “Sex for Absolute Beginners,” an article that answered questions of “Am I a homosexual?” and “Can I get pregnant?”

Sassy was forced to tone down such “controversial material” in order to regain the advertisers that Ingraham’s campaign forced them to lose. But issues of sexuality remained pervasive despite the advertising censorship. As did issues of individuality, suicide, incest, abortion, pregnancy, drugs, drinking, politics and race.

Ethan Smith, 24, a writer for the ’92 reader-produced issue, says that the new Sassy has lost this hold on reality. “I read the first issue and it was just totally vapid and condescending,” Smith says. Furthermore, the personal, realistic dialogue was replaced by “some loser’s conception of what the vernacular was supposed to sound like.”

A creator of the real Sassy dialect, senior writer Marjorie Ingall thinks that Petersen’s attempt to re-create the magazine’s original vision comes off clumsy, forced and “not entirely clear on what they wanted to do.”

The original Sassy, on the other hand, treated teenagers with a respect that appealed to all different types. “Sassy was a magazine that was read by girls who wore black lipstick and by cheerleaders. The whole idea was to say that girls are smart,” Ingall says. “It was the first time a publication other than a zine treated them with respect as thinking and feeling people who had interests outside of a world that the rest of the media force-fed them in such a circumscribed and demeaning view.”

The encouragement of Sassy readers to write their own stories in “It Happened to Me,” “Stuff You Wrote” and the annual Reader-Produced Issue showed that the magazine didn’t just pay lip service to respecting their readers. The editorial staff gave readers a significant forum to write poetry, tell stories and produce a national magazine.

“If the readers took from us any message,” Ingall says, “it’s that they should be trying to publish their own words.”

Sassy also fought the tendency of many magazines to “tackle” issues like environmentalism, racism and animal rights into one feel-good bumper sticker. “Sassy introduced readers to shades of grey,” Ingall says. “We said, ‘Here is why you need more data.'”

While Seventeen might slap a cleverly designed globo-logo on a brief designed to inform kids why they should cut up plastic six-pack holders, Sassy looked at the complexities of the loggers vs. owls controversy. “I think it gave Seventeen a nice kick in the pants,” Ingall says.

But sometimes it was difficult to see how intelligence came into play at all for Sassy’s articles — especially on the topic of guys. (Though, Ingall would be quick to point out that Sassy called them “‘boys’ because ‘guys’ was a YM word.”) Ingall defends any of the sections in Sassy relegated to listing the virtues of cute boys, cute bands and cute advice columns. Comparing surveys, Ingall says, “Whereas in YM it was ’88 percent of boys prefer your hair long and lush,’ we were more, ‘Gee, I always thought boys liked the fake tattoo, but I guess they don’t.'” Ingall continues, “The challenge is how do you deliver the boys stories without hating yourself for what you write. But I don’t think there’s a huge contradiction between enjoying your girly side and having a spine.”

Petersen bought Sassy from Lang with the idea that they would have an older demographic and a different psychographic to target than with Teen. The August issue will represent a relaunch of the new Sassy in terms of design and content, executive publisher Jay Cole says.

“It’s going to be cutting edge, it’s going to be avant-garde. But it’s not going to be fringe, it’s not going to be cultist — and it’ll have a sense of responsibility,” he says. “Toward the end, Sassy became a little bit more to the left than they should have been. So we want to be cutting-edge but not lean toward the fringe and more toward the mainstream. There’s a lot of fluff out there, a lot of frivolity for women. It’s our feeling that women represent much more than that and we want to put in substantive articles.”

Why then have the magazines thus far published been indistinguishable from YM or Seventeen?

“What you’ve seen so far is not really what we want to be,” Cole defends the new format. “With the relaunch in August it’ll give you a much better idea of its psychographic. We’re trying to appeal to the aware, thinking, independent woman.”

Unfortunately for the former editorial staff, the thinking, independent women over at the offices in New York weren’t exactly the type of thinking, independent women Cole had in mind.

“We felt that originally Sassy was a strong publication and had a strong mission, but I don’t think they were realizing that vision in late ’94. Sassy became a little bit dark, more towards the fringes. I felt they were not appropriate near the end, Sassy had lost some of its original punch. That’s why we decided to go with a new staff.”

Will the new Sassy represent the diversity of the knowledgeable, sophisticated and community-active young women Cole wants to target? “Yes, multiculturism is very important to kids today,” says Cole, 54. “They’re very accepting of it.” As for gay women, “Well I think it’s how you do it. I don’t think you have to do it in a sensational afternoon talk show manner — and being gay is not about sex, it’s about a lot of things.”

Former executive editor Kate Tentler fears that Sassy’s redesign by Petersen only represents a step backward in magazines for teenagers.

“I think they’re just conforming to an advertiser mentality,” Tentler says. “And I’m a magazine reader, and I go for teasy fluffy stuff too, but I want these girls to have the opportunity to look around and have an option like Sassy used to be.

“Because before, it used to be this very ’50s style of magazine of YM or Young and Modern or Young Miss or whatever the hell they want to call themselves. It had no relation to what the reality of life is like for teenage girls. And if reality is what is dark about Sassy, then screw them, this is what is going on in teenage girls’ lives.”

Former assistant editor Maureen Callahan sees danger in other magazines’ “airbrushed” view of teenagers. “To deny these realities is not only to deny what it means to be a teenager,” she says, “but also what it means to be a human being.”

The frightening lesson from Sassy’s sale is the failure of the magazine’s original intent. A publication for the intelligent teen, with honesty, humor and self-respect, proved not to be a commercially viable prospect.

And now Sassy’s readers are paying the price.

No longer is there the personal mix of issues and pop-culture parody. Instead, readers get a slick package delivering insecurity, conformity and beauty standards all in one.

The first three issues have been very telling. As one former subscriber observes, for the April issue, they used the reader’s page to publish three letters to the editor regarding why there wasn’t more “Hollywood hunks” in every issue.

The decision to print these letters was amusing, 16-year-old Zoe Tobier notes. “Yeah, there were like 20 letters saying, ‘I really appreciate what you do journalistically, but I think you should have more men in your magazine. So think about it,'” imitates Tobier, once featured in Sassy for “Three Girls and Their Bunsen Burners,” and a vocalist on the latest God is My Co-Pilot album. “I mean they must get hundreds of those letters every day, but they finally decided that this was the time to give them more air,” Tobier laughs, “just so that other readers knew they were not alone: every girl wants more boys in Sassy.”

It’s a change that’s hard for readers like Tobier to stomach. Despite all of Sassy’s inconsistencies, the original staff attempted to provide a straightforward, daring look at what it really means to be a teenager.

And that’s something no one will ever forget.

“You know, I saw Jane Pratt at this party on New Year’s right before the Petersen sale,” Tobier muses. “It was when no one was really sure if they were going to keep their jobs. When I looked at her, she smiled at me.

“And I thought to myself,” Tobier says, “That is a woman who did something good for society.”

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(PS If you want to see what me at 19 years old as a reporter for The Daily Northwestern looks like, please enjoy this hilariously dated documentary by Maggie Bandur, who grew up to be a brilliant comedy writer for “Malcolm in the Middle,” “My Boys,” and “Community.” Sassy.)