Agony aunts are relics from another time - it's time to kick them to the kerb

Advice columnists are almost always female, but they really don’t seem all that feminist. It's time to consign this Victorian phenomenon permanently to the past.

You’d think it would have been an open and shut case. An expectant mother writes in to the advice columnist of a broadsheet newspaper revealing that she has just been offered a job. ‘Friends say that I should wait and see how I feel before I commit to a new job but my husband has said he’s keen to look after the baby and become a house-husband,’ writes the pregnant Jill. Jill’s husband is freelance and doesn’t have much work on at the moment, while Jill is clearly extremely tempted at the job offer, so the decision to go back to work would not only make financial sense but is also seems to be in line with the wishes of the baby’s parents. And yet, the agony aunt Virginia Ironside’s written response was so unexpected that it not only had people composing the kind of ragey tweets usually reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift, but has led us to question the continued relevance of agony aunts in general. We’re wondering, is it time we give them the boot?

Virginia Ironside’s advice to Jill has to be read in its entirety to be believed, but some choice excerpts include ‘it would be madness to accept this job’; ‘Having a baby is a job. You’ve already been headhunted – by your child’ (strangely, Jill won’t recall an interview); and ‘A househusband recently spoke of his experiences with his baby daughter. What he found, to his distress, was that the child was incredibly backward in her speech as she grew older.’ Such kneejerk fifties backwash (‘backward’? Really?) seems incredible in this day and age. In fact, we hazard that Ironside’s advice might be even more ‘backward’ than that toddler.

Agony aunts haven’t always had a reputation for giving bad advice. In Victorian times (when comments such as Virginia Ironside’s would not have seemed anachronistic), advice columnists appeared to have carried all the sharp tongued, terrifyingly formidable authority of Lady Bracknell. In fact, there’s a whole book, called Never Kiss a Man in a Canoe (good advice, we feel), devoted to such responses as ‘do give up all that nonsense and be a sensible girl’ and ‘a nice, new bonnet might be acceptable in the form of a peace offering’, not to mention ‘no wife should have a soul above buttons’. The problem is that things have moved on quite a bit from then. But the Agony Aunts? Not so much.

Virginia Ironside’s ticking off of the pregnant Jill (‘you clearly have no idea what a huge responsibility it is to bring a baby into the world’) is by no means an isolated example. A few months ago, a young woman of 29 wrote into the Times (£) concerned that the fact that she had slept with 25 people might alarm her new boyfriend. Assuming the woman in question lost her virginity at sixteen, this number amounts to under two sexual partners a year. A pretty normal figure, then, and, actually, probably the bare minimum number of sexual partners required for anyone who’s been single for a long time and is keen to avoid contracting repetitive strain injury from frenzied masturbation. And yet the agony aunt’s response? ‘I don’t wish to alarm you but that is more than four times the national average for a woman of your age!’

Now, we’re aware that those with problems often look to agony aunts for some hard truths which their friends, what with their empathy and their desire to stay on your good side because you’re the only one not on 5:2 and thus still have a sunny personality and pizza in your fridge, might not be keen on troubling you with. We know that. But essentially calling a lass a slag in the pages of a national newspaper, or indeed a bad mother, is not exactly modern (and in addition, massively unhelpful). Nor was telling a victim of domestic violence and sexual abuse ‘less of the drama’, as Mariella Frostrup did at the end of last year when the woman wrote to her lamenting how her friends refused to believe her account of what had happened to her. Or, indeed, advising a woman whose boyfriend had described her vagina as ‘repulsive’ to give her boyfriend an ‘educational DVD’, when really what she should have given him is an educational dumping of his ass and a DVD of the sort which might allow him to deduce if his sexual tastes might not lie nearer the other end of the rainbow (props to Pamela Stevenson Connolly for that one).

Yep, the bad advice just keeps on coming, and ‘quality newspapers’ are apparently as bad as dishing out advice as Cosmopolitan, a publication which we regard as the Cheeky Girl of the magazine world, because it once responded to a reader’s concerned question as to what to do about her boyfriend’s persistence in attempting to get her to touch his bum with advice that she should. . .  er, touch his bum. (The mag also deserves a special mention for its superior knowledge of anatomy - having somehow placed the pituitary gland within a stone’s throw from the ‘anal wall’.)

And this month’s Cosmo isn’t much better, with ‘sex psychotherapist’ Rachel Morris telling a young woman upset at the fact that men ignore her after sex to ‘close your legs and open your eyes.’ ‘Learn to talk to men rather than flirt with them’, she orders, having somehow made the assumption that henceforth her correspondent has been too busy hypnotising men with her vagina to engage them in conversation. Meanwhile, a woman who is finding her lovers sexually dissatisfying is coldly told that one can’t expect good sex from ‘random lovers’. ‘You will have great sex again- with the next guy you spend some time getting to know’, Morris blindly predicts.

With such terrible advice abounding, it’s no wonder we’re questioning just how good these columns are for women. They so often house an archaic agenda, inhabiting a world where casual sex is off limits and women are expected to submit to the caprices of their male partners. After all, how different is putting up with a boyfriend who describes your vagina as ‘repulsive’ from having ‘no soul above buttons’? At their heart, both notions place a man’s contentment before the wellbeing of the woman seeking advice. If we had a pound for the number of times we saw a young woman who has written in upset that her boyfriend went to a strip joint dismissed out of hand and told to accept these ‘laddish antics’ we’d have, well, at least fifty quid. Even worse, we know that teenage girls read these advice columns and take them seriously (take the teen magazines of the nineties’ obsession with toxic shock syndrome, rendering some of our generation of young women absolutely terrified of tampons for months, if not years, afterwards). With internet advice forums that allow the reader to see a mass of perspectives becoming more and more popular, perhaps it’s time we kicked these agony aunties, these vestiges of another time, directly to the kerb. Because, while they’re almost always female, they really don’t seem all that feminist.  

 

Women are bored of this sort of thing. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
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The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder