Back Talk: On the launch of Sassy magazine

Any magazine with a monthly feature titled “zits and stuff” is alright in my book. You get that and plenty more in Sassy magazine. The teen ’zine has had a healthy start by creating an outlet for mavericks. More than some glamour rag, Sassy’s a magazine with a mission. It’s a magazine that exposes its strategies; it invites its young readers into the normally invisible editorial and ideological framework and lets them poke around. The staff writers and designers parlay their sardonic language and self-reflexivity into a rare complicity between publication and loyal readers.

Q. I recently read that squeezing a big zit between your eyes can kill you. Is this true?

A. Yes, there is a button on the vein at the surface of your skin right above your nose, and if you touch a zit there just once you’ll convulse and die instantaneously. Please.

Sassy debuted in 1988 as the American sister to the hugely popular Australian publication Dolly, brainchild of publisher Sandra Yates. Its a national magazine (circulation around 750,000 and rising) for disenfranchised youth. Sassy seems to be written for the Doc Marten’ed, nose-ringed, Nirvana-listening high school rebels (an their wannabees) who disaffectedly dis the Homecoming queen as a method of empowerment. Not, counters Editor Mary Kaye Shilling.“We get a whole spectrum of girls, corn-fed cheerleaders to punks…” Art Director Noël Claro adds, “It’s for anyone who has self confidence and thinks they can get by with their own beliefs, their own values…they don’t have to conform to what a magazine tells them.”

Claro — who came over from Details last year to take over from Australian import Neil McCutcheon — has given the magazine a new facade. Turning away from the watered-down Elle-clone format from the first couple years, Claro’s design is something like a collision between Emigre and a high school yearbook. It has enough raw messiness to give the pages some album cover cool while keeping it squarely in the teen market. Sassy’s design is rarely prissy. The jumbled, chaotic typography mirrors the multifarious editorial personalities jostling for position on each page.

Over its first four years, Sassy has developed into a teen magazine that transcends the typical teen-girl fare; the Boys/Blemishes/more Boys, standards of Teen, YM and Seventeen. Sassy tries to take on the difficult issues, especially sexual and political ones, in a language devoid of the sugary inanities that you expect to find in the genre. It’s a decidedly feminist assault on the media manipulation of young woman.

On the cover: “A Day in the Life of Miss America, Indentured Servant.”

This direction leads to an inherent contradiction; discussing issues of body image, eating disorders, and socially constructed gender roles in a magazine supported by make-up, diet aid and tampon advertisements. Editor Shilling sums it up like this: “we all feel we want to peel away the layers of sham and media manipulation that we’ve grown up with…. but we realize we’re treading a fine line, because we are media manipulation.” The editors had to make a pact with the devil. In order to get the wide distribution and exposure, as well as to stay economically viable, certain contradictions have to stand. “We promote one thing — which is honesty and straight-forwardness — and we sell a lot of ads that are very manipulative because we are trying to keep alive.

In fact, some of the most interesting aspects of the magazine come out of the tension inherent in this contradiction. The editors and writers confront the predicament head on and encourage their readers to read critically. They are laying the constructed, homogeneous editorial voice open for scrutiny. The big sister chat of Seventeen with its painfully anachronistic attempts to be hip or its motherly outer-space advice: “A Better Bakesale: Raise some serious dough with spicy pumpkin bread…” is mocked in Sassyspeak. Sassy wears its construction on its sleeve, it invites its reader to join in and smirk along at the screwed-up hypocrisy of the adult world.

On another cover: “Why Luke Perry’s name makes you want to buy this.”

The first issues were the most radical of the publication – too radical, it turned out. Overt articles with titles like “Sex for the Absolute Beginner” and “And they’re gay: Two couples talk about what its like” brought the family values squads out of the woodwork and effectively cut off that line of discourse. Advertisers, spooked by the Christian militia, put on the squeeze, and the magazine had to shape up — that is mellow out — or close shop. Ever since, with a few recent exceptions, stories about such diverse subjects as sexuality, homosexuality, gun control and witchcraft are off-limits.

The feminist, political attitude developed as a strategy to get around the jittery advertising accounts that tend to bolt from anything with even the slightest odor of controversy. Thwarted from direct confrontation of sexual issues, the magazine routinely began addressing political and environmental issues, abortion rights, contraception, woman’s health issues, et. al. alongside the usual raves for alternative bands, 90210, and other issues of great import to the class of 96. Shilling sees the move toward a more strident feminist perspective as a method to get at the sexual issue from another angle. If straight talk about sex was out, the root of the problem, the issue of self-esteem, could still be addressed.

Sassy Glossary: Definition #48: Boob Tray: Noun. A tacky bustier, the kind that lifts your breasts up high enough to touch your chin. Usage…

Rather than an abstract edict handed down from the editors, the political debate develops over the pages of the magazine. Sassy writers, staffers, designers and editors have identities and voices in each issues. It is through this process that we learn over time that Mike (Flaherty, Senior Smitty) loves Nacho Cheese more than Cool Ranch Dorritos, Jane (Pratt, Editor-and-Chief and Fox TV personality) had a crush on SBIA (Sassiest Boy in America) Ian, and there’s absolutely no chemistry between Christian Slater and resident celebrity interviewer/basher Christina (Kelly). A typical Sassy anecdote sounds like it has been folded a hundred times and passed across a math class…“What happen was, Margie’s (Majorie Ingall, Staff writer) walking home from the Democratic convention, right? So she steps in front of a limo. And well, the dude riding in the front seat waves for her to go ahead. Then she realizes who it is. ‘I went Ooh, its Jesse Jackson!…I was so thrilled about his speech the night before — ‘cause he could have polarized the democrats but instead he brought them together while still challenging things from the liberal side…’”

These odd juxtapositions of ditsy high school language and serious content gives Sassy some real edge. You can feel the liberal social machinery humming under the floorboards. The overall impression is that Sassy is a fun place to work, where people respect each other for their talents and their idiosyncrasies and where people are expected to have opinions about subjects from Supreme Court decisions to hair gel decisions.

11 Uses for an ex-boyfriend: 1.) As raw material for art; 2.) As a prevention from getting a new boyfriend; 3.) As a focus for all your longing, bitterness and hatred…

Its easy to be cynical about any commercial project. The magazine ultimately is in the business of selling itself, its image and its ad space. But despite all its conflicts and contradictions, I have a soft spot for Sassy. Its an operation that attempts to remedy a bit of its own inflictions. Working within the severe limitations of the market, the competition, the morality squads, and the publishers, Sassy continues to navigate a path that is both economically and ideologically positive.

The big question is whether the staff can keep up with its auspicious start. Back in ’88, the publishers announced the goal a 1,000,000 circulation by ’92. Sassy is short of that goal but still aiming up, which may mean more concessions to the mainstream market. There’s already talk of modifying the covers to reflect market research, i.e. big portraits of Cindy Crawford and Claudia Shiffer, a few more celebs, some grabby violators on the front cover, and so on. We have to wait and see if Sassy can maintain their trademark insider/outsider image against the overpowering mediocrity of the market. That’s a real test.

No duh.

Hate Mail Award Winner: YOU ARE THE PLAGUE that is spreading across the world, and this magazine is the downfall of the planet”

© Michael Rock