Friday, February 20, 2009

why i read advice columns

In keeping with Matt's urgings (it's like he's my sponsor), I've been better about kicking the Modern Love column habit, because it's usually such dreck and it makes me so mad. I am even thinking of kicking the Jezebel habit, because while it's a great link-referral service to things that are interesting/infuriating, it's terrible at its own "substantive commentary" and the comments are completely idiotic, making me despair for modern feminism.

But I still like reading advice columns and can't seem to stop (favorites are Dear Prudence and Since You Asked, although I hate the advice and prefer just reading the weird dilemmas), and according to Alex, this is why:

As a quick perusal online will make clear, people have a penchant for publicizing strange things about their lives. And within the forum of an advice column, they not only admit to certain eccentricities, but often sordid dramas about their friendships, marriages, and families that reveal intimate details about the people involved. And their hope, in all earnestness, is that a one-paragraph response from an imperious looking middle-aged woman (advice columns are written almost solely by women) will solve their problem. Why is it exactly that anyone would write to a stranger for advice on a meddling mother-in-law, when family and friends are probably better equipped to offer solutions, knowing, as they do, the people involved in the conflict?

And yet almost every major publication carries at least two or three advice forums by columnists who encourage readers to send them their relationship woes and mother-in-law traumas, subject line: please advise. Audiences lap it up, and with good reason. There is the voyeuristic thrill in learning about other people’s intimate problems, and having a passive, enjoyable vehicle to observe and comment on how other people choose to live their lives. They provide an opportunity to test your own savvy as an advice-giver: Is this the best advice to give, and is this how I would go about solving the problem? And there is the off-chance that a reader will pick up a nugget of wisdom that is applicable to his own life, or learn something that will save him from his own potentially embarrassing social misstep. (Note to self: Don’t crochet a custom doggy bag for first dates.) But the most appealing feature of advice columns is that they give us reassurance that there actually is a correct way to proceed in any given situation, that there are discernible norms that govern social behavior, and they can be pared down into a newspaper-length column in an easy-to-follow, step-by-step fashion.

That advice columns are so popular as venues for articulating the guidelines and parameters that govern social behavior is an indication of how necessary they are. Americans are socially and geographically mobile, always negotiating the democratic tension between hierarchy and equality. They constantly find themselves in ambiguous social situations, and the impulse to impose rules to make their relations clear and predictable has found one of its greatest outlets in the advice column. In effect, advice columnists are contextualizing and re-affirming traditions for successive generations of readers even as the surface of social life changes dramatically.

This is why the columns seem to repeatedly come back to the same topics: relationships, wedding planning, social invitations, work/life balance, domestic issues. These are the themes that dominate our lives, and they are at the same time the ones most impacted by economic forces, social mobility, and the pull of egalitarianism. The reader seeking advice is usually not demanding a return to more traditional social values, but he does believe that there actually is a way—a correct way—to navigate between the twin dangers of undermining social order and adapting to change, and that Ann Landers knows what it is.

I do like seeing how norms are produced, reinforced and disseminated through advice columns, but I usually find all of the advice so terrible that I can't imagine that being the primary functio of why we read these things. I admit that it's my prurient interest in all that is pathetic, sordid, and hapless about my fellow human beings. Not because I necessarily feel a sense of identification and commiseration with these problem-plagued people, but because it's so darn interesting to read how troubled people are by seemingly simple social dilemmas or their occasionally crazy-ass stories and problems that simply cannot be answered by some middle-aged woman with a column. Most of the advice is to seek other advice from legitimate and trained professionals like doctors and psychologists and psychiatrists.

Ah well, I suppose the advice they dole and the norm-producing function these columns fulfill beats Miss Lonelyhearts. And they are entertaining to read in a guilty, dirty, voyeuristic I-delight-in-the-problems-of-mankind way.

Sorry, Matt!