This essay is part of a service I helped put together (along with two other fabulous ladies) about Generation X at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta. Writing this really got me thinking about what incredible luck I had to grow up in this particular pop cultural era (–although, of course, might it be possible I’d think that no matter what generation I claimed? A question for another time). I’ve spoken with so many ladies for whom this was true: Sassy was our fairy godmagazine, showing up just when we needed it.
When I think about what defines a generation, and what defined mine, I think of an afternoon at age 11, when I sat, bored at a barbershop while my dad got his hair cut. I’m a kid sister, a surprise-child born in ’78, rounding out a family of five. I grew up surrounded by love but imbued with this sense of not quite fitting in. I hated Wham and New Kids on the Block. I read Time magazine instead of Tiger Beat. I had logged innumerable hours watching as my two older sisters teased their bangs high and went to Pink Floyd laser shows—but I was always looking in. Then, that afternoon in 1989, I ran across the street to the drugstore to get something to read, and I spotted this new magazine on the stand.
True: I probably grabbed it because I wanted to read “the sad story of a 17-year-old stripper,” or about “how to be the best kisser”—two topics that would remain equally exotic to me through the entirety of my teen years. These splashy blurbs scan 100-percent titillation—but in truth, there was a kind of bait-and-switch going on, to get sheltered, curious teenagers like me into the pages. And it worked. Soon, I had a subscription to Sassy.
It was Seventeen that had long reigned as the monarch of teen magazines. In 1989, the year I discovered issue number 3 of Sassy at the drugstore, Seventeen’s pages were devoted to impressing boys, fashion trends, and impressing boys through fashion trends. Oh, and articles with titles like: “Exclusive: A Diet Even You Can Stick To.” Sassy, on the other hand, was founded by an Australian feminist named Sandra Yates. And it was different from anything the U.S. had ever seen. Its articles and advice columns talked unabashedly about sexual issues of all kinds,
as well as sexist beauty myths,
They were filled with how-to’s for personal empowerment—and even discussed yes, politics,
and social justice issues in the real world,
rather than just celebrities.
(Although there were those, too.)
My incredibly supportive parents quickly grew to respect the afternoons Sassy arrived. After doing my homework I would sprawl on the couch and read the entire issue, cover-to-cover, an adolescent alone with her idol. When I first started reading I suppose I was what marketers now call a “’tween,” but back when my demographic was coming of age, the tail end of Generation X, no market yet existed for the age group between 10 and 14. No “market” of any sort had ever appealed to me.
But Sassy? It was a lightning rod; it was the first thing I’d ever read that spoke with me and not at me. I was a music-obsessed, creative girl, a skeptical and extremely awkward girl, and Sassy was my best friend from age eleven to sixteen.
Sassy gave me grunge rock and riot-grrl.
It gave me this entire, brilliant Do-It-Yourself subculture.
(Ah, yes. The infamous pillowcase dress. Did anyone else try her hand at this one? Somehow, my finished product did not lend me the carefree air of this Ione-Skye-esque pixiegal. It lent me the air of a girl wearing a pillowcase to school. Let’s hear it for crafts!)
Sassy taught me how to dye my hair with Kool-Aid. It taught me about ‘zines—underground, handmade pamphlets popular with the unpopular kids in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It introduced me to writers who would be a huge influence on my own early writing: like Blake Nelson, Francesca Lia Block, and Pagan Kennedy.
Suddenly, I had this sense of personal territory. Like I was part of something that spoke to me. A generation. Even though I still felt like the odd-girl-out among a lot of the kids at school, I now knew I was part of an entire tribe that felt that way, too. The writing in Sassy gave one voice to the critical thinking and skepticism that characterized Generation X, and it was nothing short of exhilarating. As my friends and I rocked out in our bedrooms to bands like PJ Harvey and traded our issues of Sassy, we felt this deep in our bones. And we thanked god we weren’t our older sisters—who were now asking us what bands they should listen to and what books they should read.
In an interview, former Sassy staff writer Karen Catchpole notes: “You can’t fool readers. Ever.” She was right. When I was 16, something odd happened. Sassy stopped coming for six months. Then—and I remember this—I opened my mailbox one afternoon, and there it was. But something had changed. Sure, this magazine had Sassy’s old chatty voice. But that voice was now saying odd things. It warned of the calorie-counts on my favorite foods. It warned of the, quote, “feminist, PC thought-police,” and it warned against flirting. Sample line: “Men think about sex all the time—some studies show as much as six times per hour. So any given time you’re flirting with one of them, there’s a chance he’s wondering what you look like without your clothes on.” I felt bewildered. Abandoned.
In response to this new, false Sassy, this “Stepford Sassy,” we readers penned a torrent of angry letters. After all, naïve or not, our dear old magazine had trained us to speak up for things that mattered to us. It was to no avail–Years later I learned that the magazine had been sold to a new publisher and the old staff, fired. Sassy had clashed with its advertisers for years—feeling the pinch from groups like Focus on the Family, which objected to the magazine’s treatment of sexuality.
I canceled my subscription. The magazine went under not long after.
Yet, for its rise and its fall, Sassy was a galvanizing force. It taught me that there was this precious thing, this self inside of me that I should never stop working to champion—because it was always at risk. And it taught me, in an age before the internet—that I wasn’t alone.
My friend and I started putting out our own zine, which I now realize echoed the old Sassy’s voice and aesthetic.
In the years that followed, I worked for social justice, for causes I believed in, just as Sassy had encouraged me to do, believing myself to be a part of something larger. And I still like to imagine this: a wave of ladies who grew up in my tail-end of Generation X, fired-up former readers marching out into the world fighting, because we had learned we had something worth fighting for.
Of course, Sassy both belonged to us—and it didn’t. Without the often-frustrated struggles of our older sisters and our mothers, there would have been no Sassy. I fell in love with it for the same reason every generation falls in love with itself: because it blasted away at an existing sense of complacency. In a Unitarian sense, Sassy shored up my belief in a lifelong search for truth and meaning.
And I wasn’t the only one. It inspired third-wave feminist magazines such as Venus, Bitch and Bust. And the other day, I came across the online teen magazine Rookie, founded last year by the precocious 15-year-old fashionista Tavi Gevinson. Gevinson started Rookie with the help of former Sassy editor-in-chief, Jane Pratt, and she cites Sassy—and its intelligent way of speaking to teens—as her website’s primary inspiration. In Rookie’s first year, writers and journalists such as Ira Glass, Dan Savage, and Miranda July have worked with her to help shepherd that vision.
As for me, I’m tentatively really excited about Rookie. I’m also keeping a skeptical eye on it. I think that’s how Sassy would have wanted it.