The Teen Rebel as Model Consumer

The hip world of Sassy

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“The true exemplar of différance is she who, by dint of unflinching critical rigor and unlimited credit, has achieved maximum accessorization of her lifestyle.”

—James Hatt, in conversation.

Sassy does not want you to think that it is just another version of the traditional teenage girls’ magazine. On the contrary, as its publicity kit and an enamored media anxiously maintain, Sassy is a publishing phenomenon, a daring departure from convention, a call to postmodern arms for the youth of America. Nowhere in the spectrum of American journalism has the notion of “alternative” been more reverently enshrined, more fully articulated as the belle ideal for the consuming millions. While its competitors still offer 1950s-style hints on cooking and pleasing boys, Sassy, since its founding in 1988, has leapt headlong into “underground” culture—reviewing the most daring indie-label bands, endorsing the latest permutations of “multiculturalism,” outlining the most “authentic” street fashions. So tuned-in is the publication to the latest dispensation of rebel hip that a 1993 Spin magazine feature called “A to Z of Alternative Culture” included a definition of “Sassyism” that is appropriately thick with references to consumer goods (Sassyism: “Love of Kim Gordon, striped jeans, John Fluevog shoes, wide black belts … grrl punk, fanzines, and henna”). For rebellion, generically defined, is Sassy’s image-in-trade. With its impudent title spattered across the cover like some defiant graffiti from ‘68, its jackboot-wearing young writers, its celebration of the new breed of celebrities who wear sideburns and grimy locks, multiple earrings, flannel shirts, and leather jackets, Sassy claims to have revolutionized the genre of teenage journalism. It has won the favor of the nation’s savviest media watchers, and for good reason: Sassy’s peculiarly massified, mall-inflected version of the traditional avant-garde fetish for outrage perfectly epitomizes the strange turn taken by American mass culture in the last twenty years.

What makes Sassy so intriguing is not its liberationist and anti-establishment leanings, but that it uses these seemingly subversive positions to reinforce the culture and sensibility of the marketplace. Sassy, you see, has a new and effective angle on the great American cultural business of encouraging consumption, and it’s become the object of a thousand with-it commentators’ praise (and a painful vexation for the people across town at staid old Seventeen). Sassy is just full of sass. It talks (daringly!) about sex. It embraces a curious teeny-bopper feminism, it hints that parents might not always be right, it refers knowingly to the clothes and accessories worn by punk rockers, it teaches that the styles of many different races can be appropriated by the savvy buyer without prejudice. It violates taboos and flouts convention in a most insolent fashion. And all in the interest of selling its readers on that extremely traditional American way of life known as consumerism.

She is morally absolute in her establishment-tweaking refusal to elevate any one discourse over any other.

Sassy’s central teaching, which it enunciates with vigorous conviction, is a sort of cartoon version of the famous antinomian principle of the sixties, “be yourself.” This simple imperative utterly pervades the magazine, as it does so much of our contemporary public culture, informing nearly every aspect: ideas, institutions, but most of all consumer goods, are held up to judgement by the individualist standard and either enthusiastically approved or spunkily dissed. Hence racism, sexism, puritan restraint, and unfashionable clothes, the sins of the fathers, figure repeatedly as the antithesis of sass, trashed again and again in the language of the malls because they prevent so many from realizing themselves. Multiculturalism, “alternative,” and self-indulgence are by contrast the lifestyle axioms of the sassy girl, who cherishes the resulting image of herself as a committed vanguard revolutionary. She is supremely self-confident in her refusal to judge, decide, or discriminate against anyone or anything. She is morally absolute in her establishment-tweaking refusal to elevate any one discourse over any other. She is also a hellacious shopper.

And not just by coincidence.

The teen magazine once thrived on conformity-related fears. It counselled impressionable and terrified youngsters in the treacherous ways of fitting in with the gang, being like—and liked by—the other fellows. Sassy does just the opposite. Today’s teen is taught to be herself and (more importantly) buy herself, whatever the price. She is told that a look is over if everyone else is wearing it, and that she must always distinguish herself from the mass in some strikingly visible way. The teen rebel is an icon rather than a villain.

This insurrectionary posture is linked throughout the Sassy oeuvre to a peculiar but omnipresent obsession with consumer goods and the act of shopping. As with most “lifestyle” journals, five of the mag’s regular features are run-downs on the most important categories of consumer goods: cosmetics, clothes, and culture products. “Footwear trend alert!” read one typical installment recently, next to a picture of a woman modelling “designer Karl Lagerfeld’s wickedly chic take on Eskimo snow boots.” In addition there is always a fashion spread featuring the latest in expensive rebel garb, complete with prices and retail outlets. Only a handful of pages in each issue are not concerned with what and where to buy. Sassiness is, on every level, a philosophy of consuming, a primer in hip.

Every year, for example, the editors set about finding “the sassiest girl in America.” For 1992 girls from across the nation submitted essays on what they would do if they were “Queen of the World,” which were apparently judged by typical Sassy categories, i.e. are they “politically correct?” Are they rebellious, daring, unconventional? Are they hyper-aware of clothing and fashion? And sure enough, after each of the girls had expressed their love of environment and otherness, directed that “Esperanto would be everyone in the world’s second language” (thanks to its “simplicity and unbiasedness”) and that “there would be a daily, planet-wide hug break,” they all went on a shopping spree at “Manhattan’s must-see fashion boutique—Merry-Go-Round.”

Needless to say, simple, conservative looks are never featured, and “preppy” appears to be some sort of Sassy curse.

This year the Sassiest Girl contest’s direct link to consuming was streamlined considerably. Not only was it sponsored by Vidal Sassoon, makers of all the products a girl needs to be herself, but the editors decided they no longer wanted to read about contestants’ kind-hearted ambitions for the world. Instead, girls were encouraged to direct their entries towards what sort of culture-products people in a “perfect society” would consume. “Tell us about the people who live there,” the editors write. “What would their value system be like? More importantly, what kind of music would they listen to? What movies would they watch? What would be the national food?”

The Sassy of January 1992 contains a story on the look and lifestyle chosen by two environmentally-aware vegetarian women who tend a shop in the proletarian Long Island town of Sag Harbor. After lauding the women’s “truest, coolest” nonjudgmental attitudes (“Like; Trenny used to have a really bad relationship with food and a not-positive feeling about her body”), Sassy swings into what it does best: a long and detailed description of what the two wear, eat, and buy. “We think they dress cool,” Sassy announces, “’cause they don’t chomp other people’s style or follow trends—they just wear what’s comfy for them and what suits their personalities … ” Such determined individualism is enough to persuade the Sassy writers that the hip ones’ trend is in fact worth chomping: “her love of pastel high-tops convinced [the writers] that the aforementioned footwear is adorable and not geeky or too 1983.”

Each issue of Sassy contains a photo section in which unmistakably hip girls model a particular lifestyle and its attendant accessories, while accompanying text lays out the particulars about where and for how much each shocking item can be purchased. Needless to say, simple, conservative looks are never featured, and “preppy” appears to be some sort of Sassy curse. In issue #45 the fashion writer exhorts the reader to “Trash that Ivy League look” with an expensive sweater and some “oversized jeans.” “Or snag Dad’s favorite Mister Rogers sweater, then run in the opposite direction—pathway so far to cool he won’t even recognize it, baby.” Sassy recommends only unusual and very transient looks, the better to trumpet one’s highly individualistic personality. As the table of contents sneers in #52 (July ’92), “If you wanna dress all demure and quiet and monochrome, go ahead, but you didn’t learn it from us.” What Sassy suggests is, by contrast, that one flee from “normal” looks in every possible direction: “A nutty print tells everybody you’re a nonconformist,” confides one caption, endorsing a pair of overalls that retail for $130. In #49, (April ’92) it’s the seventies look that’s upheld as the embodiment of daring; in #48 it’s floral-patterned overalls; in #51 it’s expensive ‘Western’ garb. In #65 (August ’93) it’s “Boho Babes” and “Mongolian”; for #66 it’s the “ruffian,” “gamine” look and Elizabethan clothing. The important thing is, of course, endless change, as Sassy acknowledged in August ’93, when one writer admitted, “We in the fashion department would rather wear purple velour sweatsuits than be caught dead in flares. I know we liked them two months ago, but we’re fickle.” Such fashion antinomianism means Sassy (and its adult-priced relatives Cosmo, Vogue, and Mademoiselle) will never run out of new looks to hype, and the industry will never have to endure the sort of slow-down that would occur if women were to suddenly decide that they didn’t mind a little continuity.

Sassy’s ace in the rebel hole is its credibility in “alternative rock” circles. Editors Jane Pratt and Christina Kelly, along with several other Sassy staffers, form the bad band Chia Pet, whose colored-vinyl singles appear on the annoying indie label Kokopop. Each month the magazine includes a “Cute Band Alert,” which relentlessly delves deeper and deeper into the uncharted depths of “alternative,” dredging up bands like Ween and Magnapop for readers’ dubious enjoyment. An article about MTV personality “Kennedy” notes that she is “hilariously irreverent—and not afraid to be totally obnoxious.” A short story that appears in the September ’93 issue chronicles a high school girl’s liberation through immersion in her local “alternative” scene. Juliana Hatfield seems to have some sort of ongoing connection to the magazine, appearing both as a cover model and as an occasional contributor.

Each month the magazine includes a “Cute Band Alert,” which relentlessly delves deeper and deeper into the uncharted depths of “alternative.”

But in the Sassy universe “alternative” doesn’t mean anything like, say, “class-conscious” or “skeptical towards mass media” or even “alienated from mall culture.” On the contrary, it means one is closely tuned in to the ever-quickening peregrinations of consumerism. (Here is how the word is correctly used, from a feature on various multiculti and punk rock vests, in the “Stuff You Need” column, August ’93: “This is the perfect time to get all the right things for school. You’ll definitely want a vest—such a nice alternative to a jacket.”) As the reader is introduced to newer and newer—and cooler and cooler—bands each month, she learns to appreciate the virtues of the ever-changing array of products trumpeted by the magazine in both ads and editorial. The fictional account of the high schooler who “goes underground” and discovers herself obsessively catalogues the clothes and looks of the various characters she encounters. One of the more recent of the magazine’s many pieces on Juliana Hatfield sees fit to notice that she wore “a striped, ribbed T-shirt” and that “she looked great wearing no makeup because she has perfectly smooth skin.” When Sassy meets “Kennedy,” it is noted that she wears “A purple Belly concert T-shirt, long Gap shorts and little white socks scrunched down just above dark brown boot shoes.” Ads strike the same theme. One for Sears’ “Main-frame” grunge line depicts a group of girls dressed up in flannel shirts, stocking caps, and peace symbols next to a van (eternal symbol of rebel youth) painted in Van Gogh fashion.

Without question, the preeminent “alternative” accessories are Doc Martens boots. Once a class marker of English factory workers, these unwieldy shoes have come via skinhead to be a veritable Sassy accessoire de rigeur, featured in every single issue. They are worn, for example, throughout the June ’92 issue’s lifestyle focus on “Surf punks,” which offers a particularly telling combination of that planned-obsolescence staple, beachwear, with some barbarous factory-girl ’tude. While the youngsters strike charmingly menacing poses in boots and bathing suits, the copy reads “They are just too carefree and rebellious. Can you stand it? … Bright, crazy-print bikini top, $49 for the suit, and shorties, $30, by Hot Tuna. Sweatshirt jacket from J. Crew, animal print bikini, $25,” etc., etc., etc.

The heroine of the Sassy world is, of course, the teen rebel cast in an unseemly new role: as model consumer, as daring patron of the latest styles, as assassin of the old, as liberator of the shopping-libido. She figures in both ads and text, eternally mouthing off to those imaginary authority figures (symbolized again and again by old-timey sepia tinted pix of stern-looking geeks) who would have her conform, be thrifty, dress dull, dress preppy. Her comrades in rebellion like Keanu and Thurston and Juliana are leading the way to a multicolored future where styles will change even faster than before and the defiant sneers of liberated youth will forever close the door on the antiquated and slow-moving pre-consumer world.

As facile and patently ridiculous as all this revolutionary posturing may seem, Sassy’s deployment of the rebel image indicates a fairly sophisticated underlying cultural maneuver. Despite its fashionably disjointed “postmodern” appearance, the Sassy text is a slickly integrated and persuasive bearer of a single, decidedly decidable message: the imperative of consumption. In this exemplar of nineties journalism the line between advertisement and editorial matter has been almost completely erased: so great is Sassy’s zeal for demonstrating the worthiness of consuming as a way of life that the two have become almost indistinguishable in graphic style and prescriptive intent. Articles that fail to recommend products are so rare that the magazine begins to reads like a prolonged advertisement, an ongoing shopping guide, a handbook for buying hip.

Consumerism has long made common cause with a certain strain of rebel feminism. Both Lucky Strike (in the 1920s) and Virginia Slims (in the 1960s) cigarettes grabbed large market shares by establishing themselves as emblems of female liberation. And what Sassy is doing is, similarly, no great departure from the traditional discourse of teen magazines—it just happens to have perfected an immensely successful way of performing that discourse’s basic function: moving products. Journals like Sassy and its bitter competitor, Seventeen, have traditionally served as a girl’s elementary course in navigating the sparkling world of the consumer marketplace, from which they will one day graduate to the honeyed pages of Cosmopolitan and Vogue. Here young women learn their paramount social role as the nation’s chief consumers. Here they come to know the absolute rule of fashion, the necessity of expressing one’s (ever-changing) personality through product choice, the inevitability of obsolescence, and the eternal desirability of the New.

Rebellion, Sassy-style, is about change, very superficially defined and not encumbered by any specific direction.

And sassiness enters the equation as a powerful reinforcement of these lessons. Far from contradicting the magazine’s hyper-consumerism, Sassy’s repetitive calls for rebellion are perfectly attuned to the discursive strategies of its product-pushing text. Rebellion against the real or imagined repressiveness of the elder and the moralist (often characterized as racist) liberates one from the last vestiges of the thrifty producer-ethic. Rebellion against “the establishment” automatically discredits whatever people were consuming yesterday (“not geeky or too 1983”), will discredit whatever people are consuming today, and allows styles to change rapidly and over a much broader range. Rebellion for self-definition mandates that product choice reflect your complex personality, which you will of course eventually rebel against, necessitating a new array of deeply personal product choices long before the old ones were worn out. Rebellion against monolithic Western culture and values opens up a vast territory of unexploited ideas and styles through which we will undoubtedly consume our way in the near future.

Rebellion, Sassy-style, is about change, very superficially defined and not encumbered by any specific direction. And a perpetually changing surface is what Americans must accept if they are to remain the world’s greatest consumers and their business machine to continue chugging along in high gear. For this reason, the commercialization of dissent has become the dominant motif of the age, with rebels of all varieties howling for lite-insurrection and the liberation of the self from advertisements and sitcoms everywhere.

On TV the same point is made, over and over and over again, in a frenzy of screaming electric guitars played by leather-clad “alternative” rockers for beer, fast food, cars, and soda pop: the consumer-rebel, tireless champion of the New, is king. Tropicana Twisters fruit drinks positions itself on TV as the enemy of repressive old people (one of whom is a barber!) who deliver such antisassy lines as “we may have to nip this thing in the bud” and “it could lead to dancing.” Special Export beer apotheosizes its rebel-consumers as “Ex-Stockbroker” or “Ex-Librarian”; the product itself is “Just Different from the Rest.” Not wanting to be left behind, Pilsner Urquell demands that we “Do Something Original,” like drink their beer. Seeking to cash in on the lucrative market mined by Doc Martens, Code West footwear calls upon the consumer to “Anti-establish yourself.” Reebok celebrates a world with “no rules” and Burger King continues to “break the rules,” but Arby’s has caught on and now proclaims that its goods are “different” and that “different is good.” Likewise Dodge proclaims that “The Rules Have Changed”; but Toyota takes them one further and celebrates transgression in general: “The Line Has Been Crossed: The Revolutionary New Supra.”

But there is, of course, one enormous institution that neither Sassy nor any other of these wild-eyed corporate bomb-throwers ever sasses off to: commodity capitalism and the advertisers who make culture of this sort profitable. Rebelling against the styles, ideas, and repressiveness of the past never seems to entail rebelling against the mode of production that caused them—and that caused the rebellion against them also. For the plights of the obvious victims of this social order—unemployed factory workers, migrant farm laborers, the homeless—Sassy expresses regret (and envy for their ever-so-naive wardrobes) but their problems are never to be evaluated by any thought deeper than simple pity. And meanwhile the lives of Sassy’s affluent own are lived out in monotonous trips to nameless malls, fleeting enthusiasm over new products, evenings spent staring into the TV, maybe a new lifestyle now and then. We are awash in masscult rebels, but still unable to grasp the fundamental bondage that makes the dream of rebellion so enticing.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

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