Launched in 1988 in the midday heat of conservative Reagan America, Sassy was the first magazine aimed at teenage girls and young women to deal frankly with the fact that its readership—despite statutory rape laws, remaining cultural taboos against pre-marital sex, parental strictures, and limited access to adequate birth control—might indeed be engaging in sexual activity. Instead of addressing the topic of boys and physical attraction in moralistic tones, Sassy's writers tried to provide a realistic viewpoint along with coherent, practical advice, and it forced its competition to do the same. "What Sassy did—to its everlasting shame or credit, depending on one's point of view—was to suggest not only that these teenage girls had sexual lives but that it was a proper editorial mission for a magazine to address their urgent informational needs about sex," commented Kathleen T. Endress and Therese L. Lueck in Women's Periodicals in the United States. "Perhaps unsurprisingly," the authors continued, Sassy became "an immediate success with its teenage readers."
When Sassy debuted in early 1988, statistics indicated a population of 14 million young American women aged 14 to 19, with only about 30 percent of that figure purchasing or reading the typical teen fare for females: YM, Seventeen, and Teen, all holdovers from a more virginal era. Sassy's publishers also recognized the potential force of this captive audience in the realm of advertising dollars: because many teens were being raised in households with two working parents, a combination of guilt and affluence led to a greater "in-come" level for such young women. With their allowances and access to parental credit cards, it was estimated that they spent an average of $65 a week on clothes and cosmetics. Advertisers were excited at the prospect of reaching such a malleable demo-graphic—buyers with vast leisure time and a desire to conform through consumerism.
Sassy was a knockoff of a successful Australian publication named Dolly, but was toned down for its American readership. Key to its success was a young, iconoclastic editor to head it, and Fairfax, Ltd., the American branch of the Australian media company, found one in Jane Pratt, a 24-year-old granddaughter of a onetime executive at Doubleday with a liberal-arts degree and documented wild streak. Pratt had grown up reading teen magazines, and had some experience in the field at a few failed publications. Perhaps more importantly, she had undergone a rough time as a teen after being shipped off to an elite boarding school, and would later say the incident traumatized her so much that she would remain stuck at that age for the rest of her life.
Sassy set itself apart from its major competition in its very first issue in March of 1988. Unlike Seventeen, which strove to impart a "good girl" ethos, Sassy offered readers the feature, "Losing Your Virginity: Read This Before You Decide." Readers bought Sassy in droves. Quickly, Seventeen and other magazines got hip to the competition and immediately drew up plans for redesign and refocus. Sassy also made media history by allowing ads for condoms. From the start, the magazine was accused of encouraging young women to be boy-crazy and engage in sexual activity, but a more careful reading of its articles showed them to be balanced and frank about the negative physical and emotional consequences of sexual activity.
Most adults seemed to have strong feelings against Sassy. Media pundits faulted it for the self-reflexive editorial content—it was not unusual for copy to incorporate penciled rejoinders from dissenting colleagues in the margins—and parents found it threatening, to say the least. In a 1992 New York article about Pratt and the success of Sassy, Seventeen editor Midge Richardson declared her competition "sometimes vulgar, and the politics are unabashedly liberal. The magazine also pokes fun at traditional values," Richardson said, forgetting that this was usually the perpetual raison d'être for teens in general. Yet both Seventeen and YM immediately jazzed up their features and style to compete and become more "sassy." Its own ad campaign trumpeted the line, "I'm too Sassy to read Teen. "
From the start, however, Sassy's critics seemed bent on silencing it. After only a few months on the newsstands, it became the target of a well-organized boycott from the Moral Majority and Christian fundamentalist minister, Jerry Falwell, for what was deemed its promotion of promiscuity and alternative sexuality; a letter-writing campaign managed to scare off a few big advertisers, and Pratt and the staff writers began to tone down the sex features. Unrelated financial difficulties with Fairfax led to Sassy's sale to Lang Communications in 1989, and though it still addressed teen sexuality, it attempted to bring its zingy style to a wider range of issues. In 1991, for instance, it ran articles explaining the Gulf War situation with such titles as "What Saddam Is Irked About."
Under Pratt's guidance, a Sassy for boys was launched in 1992 (titled Dirt), and Pratt also landed her own television talk show on the Fox Network. Both eventually failed, and Pratt left Sassy to create another magazine, a sort of Sassy for the 18-to-34 female demographic called Jane.
Carmody, Deirdre. "Reaching Teen-Agers, Without Using a Phone."New York Times. 18 January 1993.
Daley, Suzanne. "Sassy: Like, You Know, for Kids." New York Times. 11 April 1988.
Endress, Kathleen T., and Therese L. Lueck, editors. "Sassy."Women's Periodicals in the United States: Consumer Magazines. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 311-17.
Smith, Dinitia. "Jane's World! Jane's World!" New York. 25 May1992, 60-71.