The Cold Stoicism of Advice Columns for Men

The questions asked of Slate's Gentleman Scholar and other male columnists tend to be practical and unemotional. Here's hoping that changes, quickly.

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The idea of an advice column for men stumps even Google: Search online for the phrase and you'll get many results that are just the opposite, jokes for women about what would happen if men wrote in the genre. The joke, if you didn't guess already, is that men have low emotional intelligence and are motivated purely by sex and/or laziness. Of course they're ill-equipped to give advice about life!

But these days, thankfully, there's evidence to the contrary. A new addition to the field came just recently, with Slate's debut of a new advice-for-men column called the Gentleman Scholar, and he's not alone. There's not actually a shortage of men giving advice. Still, looking at the questions men ask in those forums, it's clear that the message about male emotions hasn't evolved too much past a punch-line.

Yes, it's still the case that most of the advice columns out there are either topic-specific (offering advice only on, say, sex) or they're non-gendered, which translates to women advising women. There are exceptions: Cary Tennis and Dan Savage and the New York Times' current ethicist Chuck Klosterman are men who offer advice to folks of all genders. But I would argue that they actually fall into the specific-topic category. Klosterman, though less so than his predecessors, provides advice as filtered through a classical ethical lens; Savage provides advice about unconventional sex and gender quandaries; Tennis provides advice for people who want to be writers, even when that's not what a particular question is about. (His writing workshops are even advertised right below his answers!) The best truly non-specific advice givers—Slate's Dear Prudence and the Washington Post's Carolyn Hax, in my opinion as a completely obsessive advice-reader—are women answering overwhelmingly female askers, indicating what is probably an overwhelmingly female readership.

The neutral-means-female thing is not accidental. What we think of today as an advice column is closely related to a centuries-old genre known as conduct literature, a broad term for works that tell people how to behave. In the context of conduct literature for women, the everyday quandaries that populate questions to columnists—the husband with an annoying habit, the meddlesome mother-in-law, the tempting bad boy—became opportunities to detail how a virtuous woman should behave, a model that often included reinforcing gender roles. Though a lot changed between those medieval how-tos and the first letter to Dear Abby, the basic point remained the same. This, the columnists told us, is how a good woman would act.

Advice columns for men haven't made the leap from proscriptive notions of rectitude to the smart-older-sister vibe of advice for women

But, no surprise, the 20th century changed the way advice for women was dealt out. As detailed in the New Yorker's Oct. 2012 ode to modern advice columnist "Dear Sugar" (better known these days as Cheryl Strayed of Wild fame), feminism changed things. Newer advice has been less about etiquette and morals than about how to best respond to the pitfalls of delicate and specific social interactions. If an old-fashioned advice column was about how to behave properly, today's columns return to the even older question of how best to live a good life, the original ethical question. We all know that wedding guests ought to receive thank-you notes, but these days you're less likely to see advice about how to properly phrase such thanks than counsel on how to not hold a grudge when such a note does not arrive.

Advice columns for men, however, seem not to have made the leap from proscriptive notions of rectitude to the smart-older-sister vibe of advice for women. In GQ and Esquire and even Maxim, which are full of Q&A-format advice for readers, situations are often posed in a joking tone and answered as if the writer were the dude from the Dos Equis commercials and the ultimate ethical standard is masculinity rather than humanity. "How to be a man" literature is the new conduct literature: it's not that men haven't cared about ideals of masculinity before now, but the idea verges on obsession these days, cf. everything from Shia LaBoeuf's resignation note to the fact that someone greenlit How to Be a Gentleman. It's a whole genre and evidently a popular one—but, while advice columns are the delicious and healthy snack of things to devour on the Internet, it matters for men and women alike that advice columns for men evolve, not by abandoning their gentlemanly tone but by choosing the right questions to answer.

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Lily Rothman is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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