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.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses