Vapid celebrities, too-skinny models, coverlines that promise girls their best bikini bodies: there are plenty of things about teen magazines to criticize. (And plenty of places that do, Gawker and Jezebel among them.) But if you think today's teen magazines leave much to be desired, you should seek out copies of teen magazines from the '80s, when Seventeen still pushed multiple diet stories per issue and college was seen largely as a means to getting a Mrs. degree.
Sassy magazine changed all that. Launched in 1988 by Jane Pratt, who later went on to start Jane magazine, Sassy tried to not make girls feel bad about their bodies or their sexuality; in fact, it was boycotted by the religious right for running informative --but not pedantic-- sex stories. It was also unabashedly feminist and resolutely liberal, with one infamous article bashing Bush Sr.'s drug war. It even had a sense of humor! (A one-star record review meant "I'd rather work for Clarence Thomas" than listen to this CD).
Sassy is long gone --we've eulogized the six short years of the publication's life in our recent book, How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time-- but its influence lives on. Here are five great things about the current crop of teen magazines.
1. They are intrinsically feminist.
The F-word --feminism-- might not regularly grace the pages of many teen magazines, but evidence of it is everywhere. Former Sassy editor Christina Kelly famously banned diets when she took over as editor in chief of YM, and many other teen magazines have done the same (with some notable exceptions, like Seventeen, which continues to promote calorie-counting to an eating disorder-prone population). CosmoGIRL! runs interviews with women who have made it big in a variety of industries and Teen Vogue regularly quotes Women's Studies professors in its articles.
2. They cover serious issues.
Teen magazines aren't all makeup tips and pictures of Zen Efron; they also routinely publish well-researched features on issues ranging from date rape to racism to cyber-bullying. They actually take girls seriously --as consumers, of course, but also as people who want information about issues that relate to them.
3. Individuality is encouraged.
Once upon a time, Seventeen magazine displayed a parade of Nordic blondes and the imperative was to teach girls to be like boys or their parents wanted them to be. Now, individuality is encouraged, whether it's making your own outfit or taking a stance against a school policy.
4. They give advice to the lovelorn --and some of it's not half-bad.
Pundits wring their hands over the divorce rate, George Bush advocates marriage counseling, and everyone, everywhere complains about the ongoing battle of the sexes, and yet teen magazines are routinely denigrated for giving girls romantic advice. But where else are they going to get it? And what's so bad about teaching girls how to negotiate their early relationships? It's a cliché that teenage boys have no idea how to treat teenage girls --could it be because all they have to guide them is Maxim? We're not entirely joking.
5. Interaction with real girls.
"Real" --i.e. non-celebrity-- girls used to be relegated to a half page or so in teen magazines of yore. Now, every teen magazine is packed with first-person accounts of girls who have had a variety of experiences, whether its getting a film made or living with diabetes. It's a good thing, considering the rest of the media rarely pays attention to teenage girls except to portray them as too slutty or too mean.