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Bait and Switch Sassy

Article by Lisa Jervis, appeared in issue Premiere; published in 1995; filed under Social commentary; tagged gender roles, magazines, media, misogyny, sassy, sexuality, stereotypes, teens.

Back in March a horrible thing happened. After a few months of checking the newsstands for my beloved Sassy, wondering what the hell was up and why I couldn't find it anywhere, suddenly there it was—mutilated almost beyond recognition. Peterson Publishing (they also own Guns & Ammo) bought Sassy, replaced the entire staff, and gutted the editorial philosophy—and the new staff is trying to pretend that it's the same magazine it always was. But instead of a publication for young women that admits that its readers have sex, that some of them have sex with other girls, that not everyone is white and that racism is a reality and needs to change, we now have one that is chock full of pernicious, regressive advice and the message that feminism is bad, no one is ready for sex, and boys are only good for one thing: taking you to dinner and a movie. It's the same shit that's in YM and Teen and all the others, but here it's worse because they've kept the feminist rhetoric. The language holds out the promise of being girl-friendly, and then the content hits you over the head with misogyny. Let's take a look, shall we?

Who are you and what have you done with my favorite magazine?

When discussing sex (May, p 31-32) the new Sassy hauls out all the old stereotypes. While the piece pretends to help readers make informed decisions about sexual behavior, the subtext is that girls and women must be careful of boys and men—they always want something we don't want to give them, and unleashing the beast of male sexuality is potentially dangerous. Lust is alluded to sen-sationalistically—"you're sweating profusely, your heart's doing a brisk staccato and half your clothes are on the floor"—but the pleasure that lust can bring isn't acknowledged. Instead, it's camouflaged with paternalistic advice and dire warnings.

When the question is "how do you know when it's time?", the answer is always "not yet." The article makes the reader feel scared of her own urges and tells her to quash them. The only difference between this and a simple "good girls don't" statement is an admission that girls do, in fact, feel desire. But the problem is that desire (and lust) are not considered reason enough to be sexual. "Watch out for those crazy-for-you-gotta-have-you-now hormones," warns the author. Over and over again, female sexual feelings are invalidated. The author trots out an adolescent psychiatrist to put the weight of authority and expertise behind all this sexist crap. She says you shouldn't have sex at the beginning of a relationship "because you still may be experiencing that initial lust," and, "otherwise, it's easy to get off track and only think about sex." Hello? What's wrong with thinking about sex? Is lust always a terrible thing?

As if it's not enough to paint young female sexuality as deviant, it also must be tied inextricably with emotion. Oh, but only for girls, of course. "A lot of girls get sexually involved [because] they think having sex is the only way they can be loved." We are also told that "most girls get emotionally attached after they've had sex with a guy. Guys usually do not. Most girls think of sex as a very intimate experience." If this is even true, it's because girls are told repeatedly by articles like this one that that's the way it is—and they feel abnormal and freakish if they don't agree.

Now here's a sentiment I can actually get behind: "It's pretty unrealistic to think love is the reason he wants to rip off your clothes." But, of course, emotionally-motivated girl-initiated clothes-ripping is also rare, and we like it that way. The folks at the new Sassy could never admit that.

I'm getting upset.

Simple flirting is also fraught with danger. "Men think about sex all the time—some studies show as much as six times an hour. So any given time you're flirting with one of them, there's always a chance he's wondering what you look like without your clothes on," (April, p. 27-28). Oh, no, horror of horrors. The reader is supposed to think (ok, the article doesn't actually say this), "Eek, I had no idea that he might be thinking that. And I, prim and pure as I am, would never think about imagining sex acts while flirting." As if.

Readers are told that they'll be punished if they don't listen—nasty things will happen. Cautionary tales abound; we are told in no uncertain terms that the consequences of ignoring all their restrictive and infantilizing advice are bad, bad, bad. Alessandra ends up with a ruined friendship because "she never intended for [her flirting] to go further" than gifts and poems; the flirtee made a pass. Oops. Not a good situation, obviously. But the possibility that Alessandra might have wanted something other than a cute smile from the guy is never even considered. Neither is the possibility that she might be smart enough and mature enough to turn the flirtee down and to know that if the friendship is ruined by it, then he's not a friend anyway. Then there's Susanna. She flirted with a professor, but stopped once she heard rumors that they were sleeping together. The moral of this story: she "was never able to shake the reputation." Never mind that "reputation" is a misogynist social construction designed to reign in women and their sexuality—I guess it's working.

If you don't stop I'm going to scream.

Ok, next topic—"Is Feminism the New 'F Word'?" (August p. 41-43). Five young women are interviewed on their opinions of feminism. Ignorant and anti-feminist comments are highlighted; favorable views are buried. The article sets these girls up to bash a certain (mostly innacurate) conception of a feminism: it's not relevant to their real lives, it's no longer necessary, it's full of thought police. The author does nothing to disabuse these young women of their steretypes— hell, maybe she herself doesn't know any better. Seems to me like an editor decided that she wanted to run an article saying that feminism doesn't speak to young women today, and then she sent a writer out to get the quotes.

A sampling: Ariel, the one staunch non-feminist, says, "I'm not a flaming feminist," and thinks that feminism's goals have already been achieved. "Everything is open to women," and "feminists are sort of out of hand...and do more harm than good." To top it all off, "Rape and date rape are two different things." Others are more ambivalent. Kristen says that feminism is "about equal rights in the workplace, so it's not relevant to my life yet," and "I go to an all-girls school so I never see sexism there." And while she thinks that "definitely, no means no...sometimes girls just tease the guy, and I don't think that's right. The way they dress and talk and act—they know the way they're acting will make the guy expect things to go further." There's no acknowledgement of the irony here: young women spouting uninformed, misogynist opinions like these while simultaneously asserting that the playing field is fully equal.

Thankfully, some of the interviewees have more nuanced views. Aline rightly criticizes racism within the feminist movement; she also wishes feminism would "redefine television imagery [and] the concept that beauty is everything. I think that's damaging, especially to younger women." I agree with her, but I also know that there are feminists writing about these very issues. Unfortunately, there's no critical examination of where these young women have gotten their ideas about feminism, and no suggestion that what they want from it may actually be out there. From reading this article, you'd think that feminism is an outdated, unnecessary concept that no young women believe in.

Caitlin, the only self-identified feminist in the bunch, has her words twisted around. When she says, "Sexism is the systematic oppression of women because they are women," the author "call[s] her on bias and [she] amends her statement." Um, excuse me—what bias would that be? She talks about her involvement with the Lesbian Avengers, but the only pullquote in the entire article—in 18-point type—reads, "Caitlin is wary of the feminist PC thought police and wishes abortion weren't such a litmus test." Just as the anti-feminist words of the other women are highlighted, Caitlin's pro-feminist views are downplayed and even manipulated. She is the only interviewee with whom the author admits a disagreement.

Unwittingly, Aline sums up what's deeply wrong with the whole article: "Part of the problem is the way feminism is perceived by the majority and the media. That [feminists] are screaming, bra-burning women who hate men. That can turn a lot of people off." Yes it can; it seems to have turned all of these young women off. The old Sassy would have challenged their misconceptions at every turn, lamented the fact that girls feel cut off from feminism, tried to widen their views. I miss the old Sassy.

AAAAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!

When the new Sassy tackles the topic of platonic opposite-sex relationships (October, p 48-50), it reads like baby Cosmo. The message? Having guys as friends helps you get boyfriends. "It can help you understand how guys think, and that can be an asset in your more intimate relationships," and (as if any friendship doesn't introduce you to another point of view), "being friends with guys makes you privy to the male point of view." Of course, in the end, the article suggests that these guy friends might someday become your boyfriend. Oh, well—so much for platonic.

Aside from abandoning the stated premise of the article for the male-female-relationships-are-about-only-one-thing mentality, the author adds insult to injury with her unquestioning stance on perceptions of gender. "The way you're perceived by the world at large when you go out with a guy friend is often different." We hear from Risa, "When I go [to a concert] with a girl, we get these looks like we're groupies of something. But when a guy is my plus-one, it's like, we're cool." This should be an opportunity to comment on how shitty it feels to be treated like a groupie just because you're female, and on how it really sucks that we need to have a guy with us to feel like we belong. But no—it's just another reason to want to hang out with a guy, and the rank sexism of it all goes completely unchallenged.

The sidebar, written by a guy about his female friendships, is also brimming with annoying stereotypes: girls always smell good even when they're sweaty; girls can teach you how to dress well; "trying to figure out what a girl wants or means" is more difficult than higher math. Most infuriating, though, is the assertion that "Hanging out with women makes you more attractive to other women. I don't know why this phenomenon occurs. Maybe it's the competitive thing in women, or maybe it's just some sort of pack mentality kicking in." So female friends, pleasant aroma not withstanding, are just a tool to get dates, and women are competitive animals who run in packs? Yeah, whatever.

Don't forget to breathe.

It's not like there's nothing good in any of these articles. Let's see, we are cautioned against flirting with our bosses, doctors, and psychiatrists. We're reminded that if a guy really likes us, he'll wait, and that it's good to tell our guy what's on our mind. There are even a few references to safe sex (although the actual word "condom" never appears). "It's all about taking care of yourself and having self-respect," says an expert. Good advice, right? But all of this make-your-own-decision rhetoric is empty; the message—presented not as opinion, but as immutable fact—is clear: you don't have as many sexual urges as men and it's dangerous to indulge them because they can only get you fired, embarrassed, branded a slut, or desperately in love with some guy who only wanted to get into your pants. It's these very articles that serve to naturalize and thus perpetuate the stereotypes they buy into; they're both a brainwashing tool and a self-fulfilling prophesy. And to think that the mag actually says, "Thanks to the strides made by feminism...the most un-PC guy in creation is enlightened as to equality between the sexes," (October, p. 48). Unfortunately, Sassy's notion of equality is extremely limited. In a nutshell, "no matter how close you are, you are still man and woman," (October, p. 49). That just about sums up the new Sassy: stereotypical gender differences persist unquestioned and unanalyzed, and, in the end, reinforced. -lj.

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