Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Evolving Advice

For generations of newspaper readers, Dear Abby and Ann Landers were synonymous with advice columns.  Like Kleenex and Coke, they were the brand names that represented the entire industry.  They were also highly competitive twin sisters who for large parts of their lives were estranged from each other.  But I've already written about that fascinating feud.

They may have been the voices of several generations, but I'm realizing that those generations were way before my time.  The Dear Abby I knew growing up wasn't even the original Abby, but her daughter.  The Friedman twins who would become Ann and Abby were born almost 100 years ago.  By 1965, Ann Landers was a grandmother in her mid-40's who had been writing her column for a decade.  Both twins were already huge media sensations. 

I learned all this because I've finally got around to reading their twinography, Dear Ann, Dear Abby: The Unauthorized Biography of Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren.

Despite its titillating title that makes it sound like a trashy expose, and the fact that it was written 25 years ago, there is some interesting stuff in it.

But what I'd like to focus on, and what this blog is about, is how dated these women's lives seem.  It's kind of like reading science fiction from the 1950's:  you know they meant well, and in their time they were progressive, but every once in a while something happens to shock you into the realization of how different times were back then.

Here's a horrible little story of how Abby ("Popo") met her husband, Mort Phillips:

Henry Ginsburg, a young man from Sioux City, invited Eppie [Ann Landers] to a Sigma Alpha Mu dance at the University of Minnesota.  Obviously, one twin wasn't going to an out-of-state dance without the other, so Ginsburg asked a frat brother, Mort Phillips, to escort Popo.  According to Popo, when she got to Minneapolis, "Morton had decided he didn't want to take me.  He said, 'I want to see the girl first.' " Ginsburg got another friend to take Popo to the dance.  "Anyway, I went to this dance," Popo continues, "and Morton cut in on me, and I... was... in... heaven. I don't usually do this, but I made a late date with Morton that night."  

So she finds it not rude and arrogant, but charming that this man, 1.) refused to be her date until he got a look at her gams, and 2.) cut in on her date when he saw what a doll she was.  I have to hope that this is a generational thing, because I truly can't see how that's the meet-cute she makes it out to be.

Many years later, when both twins are blowing up as advice columnists, Abby gets interviewed on national TV by none other than Edward R. Murrow himself:

Murrow asks Popo why she puts her typewriter away at six o'clock each night.

Perched on the edge of a metal swivel chair, knees pressed primly together, Popo demurely replies, "Are you kidding?  I never work in the evenings, Ed. I never work on my family's time."

"You mean you don't let being Dear Abby interfere with being Mrs. Morton Phillips, wife and mother?" Murrow asks in mock wonder.

"No, Ed," says Popo, repeating in singsong cadences her well-rehearsed credo.  "What you might call my career is actually my hobby.  My number-one career is my family, and I never let my hobby interfere with my career.  That's how I keep my career and hobby apart, and both successful."  

While I can admire Abby's commitment to her family, and I'm pleased to see that she appeared to be genuinely in love with her husband for their entire lives, it's striking to me how little regard was given to women's careers at the time.  In the climate of the 1950's, even a national media figure like Dear Abby had make it clear that her career was always secondary to her husband's.   

Perhaps it is a credit to their progressive nature that both columnists changed their positions on many social issues.  In the beginning, Ann Landers "maintained a hard line on interfaith and interracial dating and marriage, and still disapproved of premarital sex and divorce."  But she would change her mind on all of those issues eventually.

Maybe that's not so much progressive as adapting to the times.  After all, these popular media figures couldn't have stayed so successful for so long if they hadn't been able to gauge their audience and adjust to prevailing attitudes. The book also suggests that as Ann gained more personal experience with these issues, and heard more first-person accounts from her readers, she realized it was more complicated than she'd thought.  In essence, the less ignorant you become, the more you're open to social issues


Ann and Abby were pioneers of advice writing, so I don't want to bash them too much for the attitudes of the age that produced them.  Advice columns have come a long way since then.  When Ann Landers died, her writing desk was bought at auction by Dan Savage, one of my favorite current advice columnists.

To show how far that desk has come, Savage is a gay man who writes a sex advice column that routinely uses acronyms like DTMFA (Dump The Motherfucker Already) and concepts like "pegging" (a woman using a dildo to penetrate her straight male partner.)  Savage's column would surely shock the pantaloons off of 1938's Friedman twins.

Margo Howard is Ann Lander's daughter, who had her own advice column.
And even Savage gets attacked nowadays for being too conservative.  So I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Or something like that.


Incidentally, what I consider to be the pinnacle of advice giving these days is Carolyn Hax of the Washington Post.  In Dan Savage's book, The Commitment-- about whether he and his boyfriend Terry should get gay married-- he writes about doing his own un-scientific comparison of current advice columns.  He writes to three popular columnists, laying out the issues and everyone involved, and asks them, "Should we get married?"  Here's his analysis: 

Like all good advice columnists, Amy and Margo [Margo Howard, incidentally the real-life daughter of Ann Landers]  instinctively side with the author of the letter, me, in my dispute with my mother, boyfriend, and son.  This is as it should be. So long as the person who asks the question doesn't come across as crazy or self-destructive, an advice columnist's job is usually to divine what it is the reader wants and to do and advice him or her to do just that....

Carolyn, however, doesn't bite.  Instead of telling us to do what we want, instead of offering us any advice at all, Carolyn puts a pair of questions to us.  And while her words are less comforting, she does manage to get to a little closer to the heart of the matter: "Do you believe in marriage, or don't you?  Do your values demand it, or not?"  

So it's official: Carolyn won Dan Savage's advice columnist throw down.  That's why she's my favorite.

And I've never even seen her gams.

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