When I was a child, my portal to the world of adult problems was Ask Ann Landers. The syndicated advice column, which was written by Esther Lederer from 1955 to 2002, appeared in newspapers across North America – including the one in my hometown.
I would flip through the local paper until I found the column, which exposed me to the complexities of love, money, and power. No matter the question – whether to return the wedding gifts after a divorce, or to disclose credit-card debt to a new boyfriend, or to tell the boss about an undermining coworker – Ann supplied a succinct answer.
By the time I was a teenager, though, I’d fallen out of love with reading advice to strangers. Maybe it’s because I was over-exposed to the tip-laden columns in women’s magazines, which tended to focus on keeping a man or finding the right thing to wear. Or maybe I just started to find Ann’s directives outdated. Regardless, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I started paying attention to agony aunts again. The spark that rekindled my attention was Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote pseudonymously as Dear Sugar. Her answers were more memoir than marching orders, and contained heartbreaking truths that my once-beloved Ann Landers had merely hinted at.
These days, advice is a regular part of my media diet. I listen to Strayed’s Dear Sugar podcast and to Viv Groskop’s Dear Viv here at The Pool. I read Heather Havrilesky’s existential, profanity-laden ruminations as Ask Polly and Leah Reich’s frank, conversational How to Be Human columns. Last month, I was thrilled when Slate announced that Mallory Ortberg, one of the funniest women on the internet, would be taking over as Dear Prudence. And I’m not alone in consuming multiple advice columns in any given week. We seem to be in the middle of an advice renaissance.
It’s hard not to notice that, from the earliest days of agony columns to the newest crop of online advisors, almost everyone involved is female
When you take the long view, though, it’s clear that this is not a new trend. The business of soliciting life advice from a wise stranger dates to pre-Victorian times. The mid-19th century has been called “the Golden Age of Agony Aunts”, a time when etiquette advice and even sex tips filled the pages of women’s journals. By the mid-20th century, syndicated American columnists like Ann Landers and her sister Dear Abby, and their British counterparts Marjorie Proops and Claire Rayner, were dominating the women’s pages and beyond. Rayner also offered advice in real time, on both TV and radio.
Even in the online era, advice columns have been around since the early days. Emily Yoffe, who retired as Dear Prudence this year after being the third person to hold the title, had been in the role for ten years.
It’s hard not to notice that, from the earliest days of agony columns to the newest crop of online advisors, almost everyone involved is female. Examples like “agony uncle” Phillip Hodson and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage are the exceptions that prove the rule: Advice remains, more or less, the domain of women. “It’s hard to talk about without sounding very gendered, but I think women are just emotional animals,” Havrilesky says. “When you have less power, you study and observe the people with power in order to understand them, and you have a stake in doing that. Whereas when you’re in power, you have no motivation to understand the people around you.” And understanding the struggles of others is key to the agony aunt’s job description. Ortberg notes that most advice columnists tend to be white, straight women – a group of people who meet the empathy requirements, but whose bylines have not been historically shut out of the softer sections of the newspaper.
Modern agony aunts are less like wise elders and more like slightly tipsy best friends. Havrilesky’s Ask Polly uses words that Ann Landers’ editors would have blushed at and deleted immediately
The demographic among agony aunts has stayed consistent, but the audience has gotten much savvier in recent decades. “We all have a lot more understanding of therapy concepts now,” Groskop says. “Twenty years ago if you told someone they were in denial or enabling someone or acting out, they would have no idea what you meant. Now these terms are pretty well understood. Although it doesn't mean we all do any of these things any less.” Ortberg says part of the appeal of advice columns is “emotional rubbernecking” – they give readers a chance to judge the highly personal problem of a total stranger. And online, we have lots of forums, from comments sections to social media, where we can discuss both the problem and its proposed solution.
The tone of the advice itself has changed quite a bit. Modern agony aunts are less like wise elders and more like slightly tipsy best friends. Havrilesky’s Ask Polly uses words that the Ann Landers editors would have blushed at and deleted immediately. She asked a recent letter-writer , “Do you know how it feels … to stride down the street like a confident adult woman and to be motherfucking en fuego around the clock?” Dear Abby was a lot of things, but she was never en fuego. And Claire Rayner never peppered her advice with Led Zeppelin references.
But above all, the hallmark of a modern advice column is the personal connection. Just as social media has made us all more willing to share tidbits of our lives that were previously considered private, most modern advice columnists write in a style that is strikingly personal. In her columns, Marjorie Proops never said a word about her affair or the other problems she faced throughout her life. While some modern columns, like Ortberg’s Dear Prudence, carry on that tradition of straightforward advice, many of today’s agony aunts feel it’s their duty not just to advise, but to reveal something about themselves in the process. “That should be the real role of an agony aunt,” Groskop says, “to be imperfect, to show people that they're not alone and that we're all pretty idiotic, really.”