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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.

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.

For example: when the Gentleman Scholar debuted on Feb. 13, the first question posed was a fashion problem. Women would never ask an advice columnist about fashion, unless that question were within the context of an interpersonal relationship, i.e. what should I say when my husband asks me to wear more revealing clothing. The second question was about a child who is a picky eater. This is a question for a pediatrician, not an advice columnist—a mistake that is not so much the fault of Troy Patterson, said Scholar, who gives a fascinatingly discursive answer about Flintstones vitamins, but the fault of the writer. An experienced advice-asker would know that this question only becomes an advice-columnist matter when it's about the relationship between the father and child, or the parents, or the father and the other parents who judge him for his child's eating habits. The third installment got a little closer: a question about chivalry and another about a potential divorce. But the first was really just an etiquette question, of the proscriptive old-fashioned kind, and the second was perhaps (I hope) a joke and contained no evidence of emotion. The answers Patterson provides are fun, unique within the genre, and well considered, but they come in response to questions that only reinforce old ideas of masculinity as cold and stoic.

I asked Patterson what "advice for men" meant to him. "It's an opportunity to engage with moral and aesthetic issues of modern masculinity," he said. If advice columns represent modern masculinity, then perhaps the joke about male columnists is sort of right, because there's no feeling behind advice questions from men. Those who ask questions of Prudie or Carolyn Hax are often clearly tormented or hurt or angry, and their questions are about relationships. The men who solicit advice from Gentleman Scholar and other male columnists seem to experience all of their quagmires in a lonely vacuum of shoulds.

There's hope, however. The Gentleman Scholar is only three entries in at this point, and Patterson says that, while he has received about 100 questions so far, everything at this point is chance. His first fashion question inspired lots of fashion questions, but he won't let it become a style-advice column. It'll be an advice-about-everything column, with a social-commentary edge. "They're all parts of life," he says. "If you're going on a date, the same person's trying to put a handsome dimple in his necktie and figure out how to treat the woman he's trying to woo." (Patterson's only limit for the column's topics? "The one rule is to not tell women what to do," he says.)

And his ambition, like his topic, is broad. He says he wants to keep the irreverent tone with which he began but use the superficial as a way into discussing the serious. And, if he does that enough, perhaps we'll begin to see men asking questions that are not so superficial to begin with.