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Sassy Girls Are Still Around
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Irene flushes out Glamour magazine, which once had serious articles for women but now just pushes sex, clothes and more sex
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It seems like every time I go to the grocery store, another new magazine for teenage girls magically pops up. Back in my teenage years (one whole decade ago), there were maybe three or four titles. Nowadays, there's about ten of them! I can't keep track. There's TeenStyle, Teen, YM, CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue, Teen People, and the queen of them all, Seventeen. Yikes! But in spite of all the titles, the magazines all seem to be carbon copies of each other. Backstreet Boys, N' Sync and Britney Spears take turns being on the cover. The magazines all feature articles on how to tell if a guy likes you, really cool make-up tricks and what to wear to the prom. The models are all stick-thin without a zit in sight. Whenever I glance at the magazine racks, I sigh nostalgically and mourn the fact that teenage girls don't have access to the one magazine that changed my life and saved my adolescence: the glorious Sassy Magazine.

Road

And we have a winnerů / My trekmates know I am a potato chip fanatic. All across America I've been sampling every chip I can get my hands on...

So if there are more than twice as many magazines targeted at teenage girls today than in my adolescent years, why are they all so bland and fluffy? The message is overwhelmingly the same: girls only care about makeup, boys and their weight. We live to shop, and purchase a mind-numbing array of must-have products. (I remember telling my mom I needed a bigger allowance than my brother because as a girl, I had to have jewelry, makeup, clothes, hairspray and all these other necessities boys didn't have to have).

The reason for the cookie-cutter formula is that Corporate America and diversity don't mix. There aren't many ways a magazine can make it without selling something. That's why all women's magazines are filled to the brim with clothing, makeup and tampon ads. In America, only a handful of corporations control everything we see on TV, in the movies, in books and on the radio. It's scary to see the huge empires controlled by the likes of AOL-Time Warner, Viacom and News Corp. AOL-Time Warner owns AOL, Road Runner, Warner Bros. movie and TV studios (makers of "Dawson's Creek" and "Charmed"), CNN, TNT, Elektra and Atlantic Records, Time and People magazines, the Atlanta Braves and too much other stuff to count. Corporations are concerned mainly with profit and pleasing their shareholders. They don't like controversy that can harm their bottom line. Mainstream teen magazines that are advertising-driven have no choice but to toe that line.

Sassy was even made fun of on Saturday Night Live
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So what happens if a mainstream magazine tries to buck the system and treat teenagers as intelligent, thoughtful chicks with more on their minds then nabbing a boyfriend? Well, it's not a pretty story. In March 1988, Sassy Magazine was launched, designed to revolutionize the world of teen magazines. It caused a stir with its sarcastic, honest and blatantly feminist attitude. It dared to write about sexuality in a way that was non-judgmental. One of their first articles was, "Losing your virginity: What you need to know before you decide." Sassy was the first magazine to make me think politically. It was through Sassy that I learned about the struggles of Native Americans, the history and troubles of Northern Ireland and the plight of the spotted owl. Sassy introduced me to groups like Bikini Kill, KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest. Most of all, Sassy taught me that teenage girls were supposed to be creative, outspoken and independent instead of mindless, unquestioning consumers. They even dissed celebrities they didn't like, such as the New Kids on the Block (the N'Sync of the early '90s). Sassy had a contest called the "Sassiest Girl in America" and let readers take over and produce their own issue. Nowadays, all I see are "supermodel contests" in most teen magazines.

Only Sassy had fashion spreads that encouraged girls to dress like music icon Bob Dylan
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I have met so many cool chicks my age who had the same experience I did. We all can relate how Sassy changed our lives and helped us find our voices in a culture that expects us to be either passive, obedient "good girls" or superficial airheads. Alas, Sassy's content drew the irritation of conservative groups from the Religious Right, who flooded Sassy's advertisers with letters threatening to boycott their products because they were supporting a magazine that advocated promiscuity and bad morals. Gone were the stories on gay teenagers and any articles dealing frankly with sex. A story about toxic shock syndrome and tampons was withdrawn because of advertising pressure. Sassy still ran great articles like, "20 Men You Can't Beat With a Stick" that celebrated the virtues of Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, Leonardo DaVinci and Bob Marley, but the revolution never took full effect. Advertisers were scared off by the controversy surrounding Sassy, and the magazine was bought out by the company that owns Teen magazine, probably the most depressing scenario possible for Sassy readers.

I'll never forget the day I opened my mailbox to see the "new" Sassy, and the indescribable pain I felt at seeing what had become of my beloved magazine. Goodbye, articles on "Our Most Embarrassing Menstrual Moments" and "Why Beauty Pageants are Like the Army." Hello, diet tips, exercise workouts and celebrity fluff pieces. Old Sassy readers bombarded the new Sassy with hate mail and the magazine soon folded forever.

Jane magazine blatantly kisses up to its advertisers. Notice how one page features spiky shoes as a fashion trend, and the other has a fashion ad!
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Jane Pratt, the revered editor-in-chief of Sassy, recently started a magazine for older women called Jane, which promised to be different from those other women's magazines that mostly make you feel bad for not being skinny or pretty or rich. But most Sassy readers have been disappointed by the use of 50-pound models, the shoving of products down our throats and non-challenging content. Bitch magazine (more about that in a moment!) called it, "An old, advertiser-smooching, beauty-product-hawking, celebrity-ass-kissing, skinny-model-filled friend in a new, faux-iconoclastic, hypocritical, self-congratulatory hat." But given that Jane is owned by the Disney Company, perhaps that's all we can expect.

But the revolutionary spirit that Sassy represented lives on. While I mourn the fact that young girls don't have access to a modern-day Sassy, several magazines and groups are keeping alive a vibrant alternative to corporate media. Not surprisingly, many take their inspiration from the original Sassy. I spoke with Andi Zeisler, the 28-year-old co-founder and co-editor of Bitch magazine. Andi was a Sassy intern when she was 17. "Being there made me realize how much advertisers compromise editorial freedom. It was a hard thing to witness and the staff knew they were slaves to the advertisers. But Sassy was so important for its time." Andi explained why Sassy had such an impact on her. "As an insecure, shy, overweight teenager, I couldn't identify with magazines like Seventeen that were so unrealistic. Sassy was about celebrating who you are."

Andi and Lisa Jervis, another former Sassy intern, in 1996 founded Bitch magazine, a "feminist response to pop culture." "Our target audience is from 13 years old to 50 and beyond," Andi said. She also stressed that she thinks it's important that men read Bitch as well. "We're not a beauty or fashion magazine. We encourage critical thinking about everyday images we see on TV, radio, and in movies and magazines." I found all of Bitch's articles fresh and incisive. In response to all the skin-care products we're told we need to take care of our skin and make it glow, Bitch recommends drinking strong coffee. There's a piece condemning all the fat stars who have "sold-out" (Ricki Lake, Oprah and Roseanne are targeted), and a hilarious tribute to "Little Miss Piggy" for kicking ass.

BUST and Bitch are two descendents of the late, great Sassy magazine
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Bitch is self-published and, in the beginning was ad-free. Now they take ads from small companies who share the same values. It has steadily grown from a circulation of 300 to 36,000, which shows that their analysis is striking a chord in people. "We want to entertain but also be critical and tell people how to take action," Andi said. There is a "Where to Bitch" column that lists people to call when you see a sexist ad or want to complain about sweatshops. "Sometimes we get criticized for being so negative, but in a world where so many magazines exist to kiss celebrity ass, it's not too bad to be critical," said Andi.

While we've seen some girls who kick ass on TV in shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Powder Puff Girls," and in movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Hollywood still ignores older women. There are barely any women directors, cinematographers or screenwriters. That's the sort of thing Bitch brings up. Meanwhile, there are girls who are making their own zines (photocopied, low-budget publications). And other magazines like BUST and New Moon offer girls an alternative voice to the Seventeens of the world. This is the revolution Sassy started. I hope y'all finish it.

Irene

Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org

 

Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - Eat something! It might save your life
Neda - Safety first and profits later? Don't bet on it with fast food companies
Nick - On the road to extinction?
Jennifer - Some people just have "The Healing Touch"
Stephen - What do 15 million Americans know that you don't? Find out!
Stephanie - Misunderstood or just insane? Cults in our nation