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xoJane Just Died -- But All My Sassy-est Dreams Came True
There were plenty of websites that were smart, funny, and feminist — but I couldn’t stay away from xoJane, for better or worse. It was the next step in the evolution of Sassy and Jane. It was Jane Pratt.
I first saw Sassy when friend of mine was reading a copy. “You’d love it,” she told me. “I’m not into ‘teenage girl’ magazines,” I sneered. I hated Seventeen, Teen, YM and the like -- I thought they were full of vapid nonsense. “This one’s really different,” she insisted. She was right. I became a Sassy devotee and devoured each issue. I hoarded back issues and re-read them again and again (the stash in my bedroom closet disappeared over the years after I left my childhood home, and I still consider buying back issues on Ebay; in the meantime, there’s also http://sassyscans.tumblr.com/). I loved all the writers — Christina Kelly, Margerie Ingoll, Andrea Lee Linett, Kim France, and so many more. I still read their writing to this day.
I was definitely the Sassy demographic -- a little bit of a weirdo, kind of nerdy, not afraid to have strong opinions and call myself a feminist, someone who deliberately sought out cool music and art. In those pre-Internet, pre-smartphone days, finding your tribe was a lot more difficult. Sassy gave me a compass. There’s no way I would have found out about half the bands,books, zines, TV shows, or styles that I did if it wasn’t for Sassy. One could reasonably argue that being encouraged to buy Doc Martens is still consumerism -- but to me, Sassy was still worlds away from the other magazines aimed at teenage girls. Even their fashion spreads were full of literary references. Sassy was for the smart, cool girls. I wanted, more than anything, to embody the ethos of Sassy -- to grow up and live in New York City, to start my own zine and see cool bands. Heck, I wanted to start my own band, like Chia Pet, the Sassy writers’ band.
Like many good things, Sassy came to an end. According to the book How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, the magazine faltered for many reasons. Jane Pratt started her own talk show, which took her away from the magazine more and more. Groups like the American Family Association and the Moral Majority boycotted the magazine. Advertisers shied away. Then Sassy was sold to another publisher, and Jane left the magazine. Sassy limped along for a while with a completely different team, but it was never the same, and it soon folded.
Sassy’s influence stayed with me long after the magazine ceased to exist -- and I actually did manage, more or less, to become the Sassy woman of my dreams. I went to an all-women’s college in New York City, which seemed like a very Sassy thing to do. I played in a punk rock band when I was in college. I Manic Panic’ed my hair. In my post-college life, I started my own zine and ran it for several years. I played in a band with former Sassy cover girl Juliana Hatfield’s brother. I hung out with someone who’d once been on the cover of Sassy like it was no big deal. My band opened for her. I stood near members of Sonic Youth at performances. I sat near Evan Dando of the Lemonheads at a book signing for a friend of mine. Once, in a restaurant, I recognized Christina Kelly at a nearby table. Maybe this was just an extended adolescence, and maybe I shouldn’t have focused so much on being “cool” - but it felt right to me, because it was all just as Sassy had prescribed (these days, I really couldn’t care less about who thinks I’m cool, or seeing the hippest band, or hanging out in some trendy place. I’m happy just to sleep in until 7 AM occasionally).
When Jane magazine launched, I was excited -- it was the natural heir to the Sassy throne. Jane never quite had the outsize influence that Sassy had on me, but I still subscribed and read every issue (although I didn’t hoard my back issues and pore over them like I did with Sassy). There were highs and lows with Jane. One article about a young woman (who I’d coincidentally known), who had died from cervical cancer made me bawl. I loved the “Makeunder” feature and columns like “Side Hustle of the Month.” I wasn’t so sure about the Pamela Anderson column. I was able to keep up with what was going on in Jane’s life, since she regularly wrote about it in her “Diary” column. I knew that she’d become a mom; I knew that she later miscarried, and broke up with her boyfriend. Jane ran from 1997 - 2007, although Jane left the magazine in 2005. Just like with Sassy, Jane limped along without her for a short while, then folded.
In 2011, xoJane launched. Jane was back! Who says there are no second -- or third -- acts? xoJane introduced me to a whole new group of writers - or “characters” in Jane-ese. Not only did I have Jane Pratt in my life again, I had a direct pipeline to her, plus a like-minded tribe of women like never before. In the early days of the site, Jane wrote and commented regularly, and gave us glimpses into her life yet again. She invited readers to do things like help her clean out a storage unit or call in to staff meetings. At one point, she even gave out her cell phone number on the website.
One day, via xoJane, Jane randomly invited me to her birthday lunch -- just because I was an xoJane reader and commenter. Naturally, I accepted. As I sat in a restaurant with Jane, her daughter, and several xoJane writers and staffers, I thought to myself, My teenage Sassy-reading self has died and gone to heaven. I am having lunch with THE Jane Pratt in a restaurant in Manhattan. I could hardly believe it. She was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in me. I think I managed to sputter a few words about how much Sassy had meant to me and what an enduring influence she’d been on my life. “I thought you’d look more punk rock,” she said. “I pictured you with short, black, spiky hair.” By this time in my life, I was much closer to middle age than teenage, and I had become a mom myself. In fact, xoJane was born the same year as my child. I spent much of the early days of the site reading it on my smartphone, late at night, while nursing my son, being surrounded by women virtually if not in person -- a modern antidote to the loneliness of a new mom who’s up at 3 AM while no one else is awake.
xoJane could be brilliant, infuriating, hilarious, serious, or awful at times -- and the site often seemed geared to a younger audience, even though Jane herself is in her 50s now. xoJane courted controversy from the beginning, starting with Cat Marnell and continuing to have moments both great and terrible. Mandy Stadtmiller, former Editor-at-Large of xoJane, recently wrote about some of the missteps of the site (“xoJane: My Former Website’s Death Was A Blessing”) -- which included tone-deaf pieces about race, posts from former porn stars and madams, numerous articles about things stuck in vaginas (like rotting tampons and balls of cat hair), mentally unstable authors, fake authors, poor editing, doxxing, and more.
Yet I continued to read the site. I can’t say I didn’t see the end coming. There were many clues: Say Media deciding to shift its focus away from content, the sale to Time, Inc., the laying off of so many of the core staff. The quality of the content declined, and many of the original writers and commenters left. It was the death of Sassy, again. Publishing’s a tough business, whether it’s print or online.
So what’s next for Jane Pratt and those who worked for and wrote for xoJane? Well, a lot of the writers are already writing regularly for other publications, and thanks to social media, it’s easy to follow them and read their writing. And “What Now” (that one’s for my fellow old-school Sassy fans) for us longtime devotees of Sassy/Jane/xoJane? Disqus, the commenting platform for xoJane, has a forum devoted to xoJane and the xoJane open threads will be around for a while, but for me at least, it’s just time to move on. I’ll miss the xoJane community and the site -- despite the missteps. It certainly went out on not quite the same high note on which it began, but I’ll still mourn the loss. Maybe Jane will start another website or magazine, who knows. In the meantime, I might just go on eBay after all and hunt down some back issues of Sassy. In some ways, it’s good to never let go of your teenage dreams.