Today’s advice columnists resist clear answers and moral authority. Their embrace of life’s chaos is changing the genre for good
“I got your letter weeks ago; know that every day since I have thought about it. It’s come up during late-night phone calls, and in correspondence with distant friends. I have felt guilty for not having a clean apartment in order to have a clean mind to sit down and write this column.”
—Marlowe Granados, “Designs for Living,” The Baffler
When Marlowe Granados receives letters for her advice column, “Designs for Living,” she finds her answers slowly and then all at once. Weeks of steady mulling—talking to friends, sifting through memories, rereading notes taken while watching movies, poring over go-to books like Allure by Diana Vreeland or anything by Kate Zambreno—culminate in a frenzy. This zealous phase takes place in her Toronto home office, crammed into the corner of her apartment. On top of her glass-with-gold-trim desk is a whiteboard, a pink orchid, and her laptop, precariously balanced on a stand held up by a stack of books—one is Norman Mailer’s Marilyn Monroe biography, which she considers wildly sexist, but keeps for the pictures. Her desk drawers are filled with the usual (multicoloured Sharpies, Ticonderoga pencils, hand cream), and the unconventional (a pink bottle of pepper spray, two Mason Pearson hairbrushes, facial massagers, SSRIs). While her dog and two cats wreak havoc nearby, Granados periodically adds hot water to her cooling morning coffee—her method of stretching it out without getting too jazzed. The apartment itself is carefully arranged to allow for pacing: two square marble coffee tables are pushed into a rectangle in the centre of the room, and a fluffy pink faux-sheepskin chair has been dragged out of the way, allowing a smooth circle of clear, walkable floor. It’s here that she channels hours of assiduous thought into one long stream and submits it to her editor at The Baffler.
It’s a slightly eccentric process. But it’s precisely her ability to find clarity in the mess that draws people to Granados’s column. Readers write in with a vast array of problems, seeking advice on the existential (a reader whose aging has brought on an identity crises), the uncanny (a reader whose ex-boyfriend is making a half-baked attempt to get her back after dumping her for her own doppelgänger), and the inevitable (a reader whose growing inability to endure men is affecting her ability to work with her male bosses). Many of Granados’s letter writers are in their late teens or early twenties, with questions about love and dating. Granados uses tales of her own youth, spent, as she put it in a column, “flitt[ing] from one spontaneous liaison to the next like a little pollinating bee,” and words from the likes of Truman Capote and Marlene Dietrich, to place each letter writer in a lineage of people whose perceived flaws make them interesting. Granados does what every great advice columnist has done—she commits to treating with deep seriousness concerns others might think little of. But she does it in her own way—glamorous yet haphazard, a girl-about-town trying to keep her coffee warm with the hard-earned knowledge that everything eventually gets cold.
Advice columnists’ dedication to publicly parsing personal crises has captivated audiences for centuries, and they aren’t slowing down now. In fact, advice seekers have more options than ever. The conventional catch-all columns—“Ask Ellie” at the Toronto Star; “Ask Kai” at Xtra, an online magazine focused on 2SLGBTQIA+ issues; and “Miss Lonelyhearts” at the Winnipeg Free Press—have been joined by a host of specialized columns for especially fraught topics. There’s Toronto Life’s “Urban Diplomat” for the conundrums of city living, The Globe and Mail’s “Nine to Five” and The Cut’s “Ask a Boss” for workplace frictions, Slate’s “Care and Feeding” for parenting queries, and Refinery29’s “Taking Stock” for financial advice. Some popular online forums also borrow the format, like Reddit’s “Am I the Asshole?,” where users describe tricky personal situations and the forum’s 6.5 million-and-counting followers assess whether they acted like a jerk.
Today’s advice columns are a record of subtle cultural changes–especially when it comes to gender roles
In the digital era, our propensity for getting personal online gives advice columns viral and voyeuristic potential, as well as the chance to be neurotically niche—the messier, the better, and that includes the columnists themselves. A new wave of advice columnists is moving away from clear answers and moral authority and toward embracing chaos. Their own flaws—complicated relationships, imperfect parenting—help them relate to equally turbulent readers. Unlike columnists of the past, they tell readers to dive into conflict rather than avoid it. While advice columns have historically toed the line between deconstructing societal expectations of gender and reinforcing them, the sage confidantes of today do away with the status quo entirely.
The history of advice columns shows a drift away from authority. The very first such column was so invested in expertise that the publisher, John Dunton, made his up. The Athenian Mercury, a 17th-century London magazine dedicated to answering anonymous reader questions, is often credited with inventing the format during a time of massive change. Press and religious freedoms were expanding—it was a liberating era, and a disorienting one. Readers had questions. Dunton knew it was good business to answer them.
But who could possibly be qualified to address the anxieties of such a disconcerting time? The Mercury received questions ranging from pre-Google wonderings (“What is the cause of the winds, and whence do they come, and whither do they go?”) to complex moral quandaries (“Dancing, is it lawful?”) to inquiries about hot-button political issues (“Is it proper for women to be learned?”). Its answers were ostensibly penned by the “Athenian Society,” a group that Dunton publicly portrayed as an intellectual fraternity, complete with curly-haired wigs and floor-length robes. In reality, it was Dunton and three of his buddies.
Fast forward to the mid-20th century. No longer the purview of fictitious societies, advice columns had traded in intellectual authority for social prowess—and, importantly, feminine expertise. Journalism was still a heavily masculine field. Women made up only 32 percent of reporters in the United States in 1950, and they were often confined to fashion and gossip, topics considered less serious than hard news. Since advice columns mainly covered domestic issues, they required emotional labour only women were thought capable of. These columns, now housed within major news outlets, gave women writers not only a byline, but a shot at bona fide social power.
By the 1960s, the two most popular columnists were, bizarrely, a set of competing twins. Pauline Phillips and Esther “Eppie” Lederer (née Friedman, in both cases) wrote as Abigail Van Buren of “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, respectively. The “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” columns were widely syndicated. At their height, they appeared in 1,600 newspapers combined. And their innumerable fans didn’t just read their columns—they were driven to action by them. When Phillips published a column about the importance of writing a will, hundreds of thousands of people created their own for the first time. When Lederer wrote an antinuclear column, the White House reported that over 100,000 loyal readers sent letters to President Ronald Reagan backing her up. That same column made its way into the hands of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, delivered personally by Lederer’s friend, petroleum magnate Armand Hammer.
These two 20th-century columns carved out a uniquely feminized section in an overwhelmingly masculine media environment, but the content itself wasn’t radical. As columnists, Phillips and Lederer were arbiters of proper social behaviour. Jessica Weisberg, in her book Asking for a Friend, writes that they both saw their roles as “inherently centrist”—they were less interested in “what was right” than “what was normal.” That philosophy often translated into advice that reinforced the toxic gender roles of the day. Phillips’s columns told readers that it was “unwise for a married woman to hold down a full-time job outside her home,” and that women needed “a husband who projects masculinity and authority.”
Lederer took an especially hard-line stance on divorce. “I do not believe that a woman should live with a man who abuses her,” she wrote. “In such cases, I recommend separate roofs and child support. That is not the same as divorce. In my book, marriage is forever.” According to a friend of hers, Lederers’ response to conflict was, in general, to “dismiss it or rationalize it.”
But neither columnist was so attached to her opinions as to never change her mind, writes Weisberg. They did, at times, help normalize more progressive ideas. Phillips developed a reputation for her open-minded stance on queer issues. In 1973, homosexuality was removed as a disease from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That same year, in response to a letter that noted another advice columnist (presumably Lederer) called queer people “sick,” Phillips penned the following: “Homosexuality is a problem because of an unenlightened society that has made it a problem…all they ask is to be allowed to love in their own way without facing the charge that they are ‘sick and twisted.’” Two years later, she received a letter saying that her response had stopped a young man from taking his own life.
In today’s much more inclusive advice landscape, queer people have their own advice columns. In 2019, Canadian writer, poet, and essayist Kai Cheng Thom started writing “Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse,” published at Xtra (I’m a regular contributor to Xtra but do not know or work with Thom). The questions Thom receives straddle the personal and the political—how to reconcile feelings with worldview. One letter writer told a friend to take up less space in anti-racism work because they’re white-passing, and wondered if they’d been too harsh. A trans reader asked Thom if it was “bad” to “see [herself] as a biological male who lives socially as a female.” Thom’s responses draw from her background as a social worker as well as her trans identity. While she does provide concrete advice, she usually counsels readers to be courageous. They already have the answers—they just have to be brave enough to look for them.
The new-guard columnists question the status quo. Their message is it’s okay to critique values and institutions
Last June, a reader wrote in to ask whether it was ever okay to cancel someone. “What do you do when someone has caused harm and is refusing to take accountability, even when given multiple chances?” they asked. “Torn in Toronto” described a person they knew who they said was lying to people in the queer community. They were conflicted, saying they didn’t believe people are disposable, but didn’t know how else to make this person take responsibility.
“I do not know the answers to your questions. I only know what I believe, and I have been wrong many times before,” Thom wrote back. The advice was, in a way, a caution against the very act of seeking advice, or putting too much stock in one person’s take. “It can be very tempting, when life poses its difficult questions, to seek resolution in the words of a famous writer, activist, guru or sage,” she wrote. “How much easier it would be if we could only cede our moral responsibility to another person, some great and wise shining star. Unfortunately, all the shining stars I have ever known (and I have known quite a few) have all also been wrong many times.”
Advice columns have changed drastically since the heyday of Phillips and Lederer. Today’s columns tend to be longer, sometimes verging on essays. Thom’s answers have hit 1,500 words. “Ask Polly,” written by Heather Havrilesky, is known for being particularly lengthy, sometimes crossing the 2,500-word mark. The lengthening of advice columns is likely due, in part, to being online, no longer bound by newspaper word counts. But beyond the technical conventions of the genre, there’s been a more substantive change.
Modern columnists have abandoned the idea that they have any special authority. Thom, in her response to “Torn in Toronto,” implies that every person is uniquely qualified, and uniquely responsible, to make their own decisions—no one, not even an advice columnist, can replace one’s own well-considered judgment.
She’s not the only one. Alison Green, the creator of her self-run blog, “Ask a Manager,” and the columnist behind The Cut’s “Ask a Boss,” says that what she doesn’t know plays an important role in her writing. “It’s hard to start with a single set of assumptions,” she says. “I find that I need to include a lot of caveats in my answers, like, here’s the answer, but, by the way, if your boss is actually this way, then this won’t work, and you need to do this other thing instead.”
Some columns go further. Having all the answers is not just impossible, it’s overrated. Granados encourages readers to lean into life’s disorder. “Experience is so much more important than the sense of being ‘together’ in a societal way. I always urge people to experience a lot of things,” she says. For her, respectability is boring, having a long-term partner too early in life is inadvisable, and flaunting your personality on a first date is vital, while being liked on a first date is not. Thom is also keen to advise readers to hold their complications and conflicts up to the light, rather than avoid them. She ended her response to “Torn in Toronto” by suggesting they face the mess united. “There are answers in the murkiest places,” she says. “Let’s go searching for them together.”
Maureen Scurfield has written the “Miss Lonelyhearts” advice column for the Winnipeg Free Press for over 40 years. Back in 1980, when its editors decided the paper needed a “lovelorn” column, Scurfield raised her hand. “I had a very interesting and active love life, and started dating when I was in Grade 8,” she says. “I dated a lot of people, and different types of people, had a lot of relationships—some of them good, some of them bad, some of them ugly. So I said, ‘I can do this.’” These days, the Free Press still publishes Scurfield’s column online seven days a week, and the newspaper says she answers over 1,000 letters a year. When she writes, she sits at a long, sturdy desk and finds deep focus, tuning out the eccentricities of her writing room. Behind her is an electric organ from the seventies and a collection of busts. One, named “Pindi,” is made from shards of broken teacups. The man who made it told her that his favourite sound is the cacophony of teacups shattering on restaurant floors. Whenever he heard them hit the ground, he would run over to ask for the remains.
Scurfield guards the letters she receives, as well as their senders’ identities. But the paper sometimes turns individual questions into forums for public discussion, often including responses from others who want to chime in. “There are some regulars,” she says. For Scurfield, these inclusions are inherently valuable. “I want people to see that other people care, too. Even if they look at the letter and say, ‘Well, that’s a dumb answer.’ At least they realize that somebody else in the city thought about them, sat down, and wrote a letter,” she says. “In the end, we’re all human beings and we all have a lot of things in common.”
Many in the advice column game have theories about why columns maintain cult followings. It could be, as Scurfield suggests, that we see ourselves reflected in other people’s problems. Green, of “Ask a Manager,” thinks it’s either that or the complete opposite. “It’s interesting when they are relatable, and it’s also interesting when they’re not at all relatable to our own experiences,” she says. “You get a glimpse into a completely different life than the one you are leading. There is something voyeuristic about it.”
Elyse Vigiletti holds a PhD in literature and print culture and uses her formal training to study advice columns as a hobby. She thinks readers are simply drawn to compelling narratives. “At the end of the day, these are just stories,” she says. “It’s like watching the climax of the movie, where the advisor tells the protagonist something they really need to hear. People are obsessed with that.” In some cases, there’s also the inherent pleasure of watching someone get called out. “People do read these for catharsis.”
Whatever the reason, it’s clear that readers aren’t bored by the formula. In addition to fostering anonymous confessions and opinions in unprecedented numbers, the internet has lifted the burden of lugging your problems to the post office. This ease also applies to readers who, no longer forced to hunt down a physical newspaper, click on advice columns in droves. Green’s personal advice column, “Ask a Manager,” for example, racks up almost three million monthly site views. Ellie Tesher, at the Toronto Star, says her editors frequently relay that her column has gotten more hits than anything else at the paper. And Carolyn Hax, one of the advice columnists at The Washington Post, is the Post’s most-read writer, period. Like with Miss Lonelyhearts, people don’t stop at reading these columns. They feel moved to write in, adding to or contesting the columnist’s take. Despite the centrality of a single voice, advice columns are not monologues—they’re exchanges, even communities.
One 2022 Hax column, about someone’s cat-hating boyfriend, amassed over 6,000 reader comments. Hax herself started with a short, blunt response—“Team Cat. No question. And I don’t like cats”—before explaining that the cat was simply a “hairy decoy,” distracting the letter writer from questioning whether their partner was willing to accept their authentic self. Readers commented passionately on both the literal issue (the cat) and the deeper implications (the state of the relationship). “How can you really love someone who lied to you, shows no interest in trying to overcome his distaste of cats for your sake and the sake of the relationship?” one wrote. “Keep the cat, drop the guy.” Another emphasized the stakes of the problem at hand, saying their friends encountered this issue early on in their relationship, and it remained a “raging” conflict until their divorce.
There is evidence that in addition to hearty column readerships, advice columns benefit news organizations. Seeing the success of the Hax column, the Post decided to expand its advice offerings by adding four more columnists, and it’s seen the initiative draw in new readers. Bill Carey, senior director of strategies at Slate, told Nieman Lab in 2019 that advice columns help Slate build its audience base across the site. “From an audience development perspective, the advice columns are a dream,” said Carey. “We’ll see loyalty build within the advice column, and then they start reading more of Slate as a whole.” But as columnists move away from authority and toward more nuanced, open-minded approaches, readers, too, expect a modernized standard.
No longer forced to hunt down a physical newspaper, readers now click on advice columns in droves
When the news broke of Ann Landers’s death in 2002, Ellie Tesher was in Stratford, Ontario, reading the Star, where she’d worked for almost 30 years. She’d been a general-assignment reporter, an investigative writer, a features writer, an opinion columnist, a lifestyle editor, and the first female editor of the Star’s Sunday paper. During that time, the Star was part of the Ann Landers syndicate, so news of the famed columnist’s death was splashed across the front page. As Tesher read Landers’s obituary, she said to herself, I could do that. She wrote an email to John Honderich, at the time the Star’s publisher, whose father, Beland, the former publisher, “thought the world of Ann Landers and brought her to the office,” says Tesher. “Ann Landers was an icon to him.” She didn’t dare use the word “replacement”—she had nerve, but not that much. Instead, she asked Honderich what he thought of a made-in-Canada advice column hosted at the Star. “He sent back a single word—lunch—which meant we were going to do it.”
So began the “Ask Ellie” column, now in its 21st year. At first, Tesher tried to imbue the column with the sharp humour that Landers had been famous for. In response to a man’s long list of qualities that made him datable, she wrote, “You forgot to mention that you’re also sly—at least in trying to use my column as a Personal Ad.” In reply to a man complaining about his wife’s weight gain while insisting he wasn’t “shallow,” Tesher corrected him—maybe not shallow, but certainly “a tad self-centered.” In recent years, though, she’s found that readers want something different. “The world has changed hugely,” she says. She attributes a shift in reader temperament to the pandemic and economic downturns. “It’s been very hard on a lot of people,” she says. “Their attitudes and anger come out much faster than they used to.”
That there are new limits to what readers will accept was made clear last summer, when Tesher responded to a woman seeking advice about her boyfriend, who had threatened to kill her on multiple occasions because she’d been unfaithful. Verbal threats had escalated to horrifying close calls—he had gone as far as to point a gun at her head, promising to shoot. “Is this anger warranted because of my cheating?” she asked. A section of Tesher’s original answer included this: “Your own careless cheating throughout what you called a ‘relationship’ was deplorable and led to this frightening situation.” Tesher told the letter writer that she had played “loose and careless” and that she needed to “recognize the danger” she’d placed herself in by trifling with her partner’s pride.
Tesher was on her way home from a cardiologist appointment when she got a call from the Star’s public editor, Donovan Vincent. It was the day the column had been printed, but Tesher, who writes her columns a week or two ahead of time, didn’t know that. “He said, ‘You need to write an apology.’ I had no idea what he was talking about,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You wrote something that really needs an apology, Ellie.’” After rereading the story, she remembers saying, “Oh, my God, that’s awful. That’s horrible. I’m so embarrassed.” Later, Tesher wrote an apology and changed the wording. “It was just a nightmare.”
Tesher says it was the one time in 20 years she had not reread a response before filing it. She had been worrying over an upcoming cardiology appointment that day, which she hoped could explain her recent chest pains—the cause of which would eventually lead to a major surgery. “I am 81. The chest pain was around where you think your heart is. It worried me. I was jittery about it,” she says, explaining her distraction. “That’s the only explanation. I’ve never given it to the Star or anybody else as an explanation, because you can’t excuse it.” As for how that column made it to print, its editor, who remained unnamed, was quoted in an op-ed saying that he was reluctant to usurp Tesher’s authority. “I would be keenly wary of stepping in and even suggesting to a columnist of this standing that their perspective be reconsidered,” he said. “I was thinking about her right to say it, and not thinking about what the Star’s perspective would be.”
Readers were irate, accusing Tesher of victim-blaming. Some claimed that the incident was part of a pattern, linking it to a 2011 column where a reader had written that she felt uncomfortable about her husband having sex with her while she was asleep, saying it felt “almost the same as rape.” Tesher had responded by writing, “If having ‘sleep-sex’ with your husband feels so unsafe, you have bigger marital problems going on.”
Tesher says she’d pictured her own daughter, Lisi, when she wrote the recent column about the threatening boyfriend. (Incidentally, Lisi Tesher had already taken over writing three to four “Ask Ellie” columns a week.) “If she ever told me that she was cheating on her boyfriend, husband, whoever, every night, and that she’s living with a guy with a gun at her face, I would go mad,” she says. “I would go mad, screaming at her in order to save her, you know?
“I became the villain because I wrote the bad thing and I had to apologize and they made me rewrite the apology several times,” Tesher continues. She says the Star’s editors took out sentences that illustrated her empathy, including one about how she’d reached out to readers regarding the #MeToo movement, asking them to share stories of sexual assault to show how lasting the impact could be. “I feel sick about it,” she says of the ordeal. “I’ll probably feel sick about it forever.”
Clearly, advice that treats systemic problems as individual struggles—par for the course at the height of Phillips’s and Lederer’s columns—is no longer the norm. Within Canadian media, there have been other indications that audiences are less inclined to follow advice that reinforces languishing gender roles.
From late 2017 until late 2018, Chatelaine published an advice column written by Canadian singer Chantal Kreviazuk. In her final dispatch, she responded to a reader’s question about open marriages—the reader and their husband didn’t have kids, and the reader was interested in exploring outside flings. Kreviazuk’s answer was not so different from what one would expect from mid-20th-century columns. “I get the sense you feel that not having kids gives you a sense of entitlement to bend the ol’ vows…that the sanctity of marriage is in ‘lite’ mode.” She went on to tell the reader that their desire for outside relationships is an indication that they’re not bringing as much to their marriage as they should, and that if the reader hopes to find satisfaction, they’ll only find it with their husband.
Kreviazuk says this column was the most memorable from her year with Chatelaine, and that it exemplifies the difficulty of giving traditional advice in the current era. “Now that we’re more and more in a self-serving society, it becomes more relevant and, in all honesty, more sad.” Referring to open marriages, she says, “In my humble opinion, that’s a love addiction.” Kreviazuk also claims that her column ended because divorce is now more profitable than marriage. “Publishing is always to some degree chasing industry, right?” she says. “Turns out there was more demand for divorce industry opportunities.” (Chatelaine declined to comment for this story.)
Regardless of why Kreviazuk’s column ended, it seems doubtful that someone so reverent about marriage could have survived much longer in the advice column trenches. Advice columns are a record of subtle cultural changes—especially when it comes to gender roles. In an essay about the evolution of advice columns, cultural historian Joanna Scutts wrote that their history is “the history of social change—how secular authorities take over from religious ones, or how an unspeakable scandal like divorce becomes an unremarkable norm.”
On June 29, 1975, Eppie Lederer wrote an unusual column. It did not include a letter from one of her readers, nor did it include any advice. It was in this column that Lederer, after decades of telling other women that “marriage is forever,” announced her own divorce. “In my 20 years as Ann Landers this is the most difficult column,” she wrote. “The sad, incredible fact is that after 36 years of marriage Jules and I are being divorced. As I write these words, it is as if I am referring to a letter from a reader. It seems unreal that I am writing about my own marriage.” She admitted that she could not account for the events leading up to the end of their relationship. “The lady with all the answers does not have the answer to this one,” she wrote.
In the months and years preceding this moment, Lederer had been softening her stance on divorce. In March 1975, a reader wrote in thanking Lederer for helping her come to terms with her own. That reader said she repeatedly saw Landers encourage other women to ask themselves, “Would my life be better or worse without him?” “I couldn’t get those words out of my mind,” she wrote. “Finally I mustered the courage to file for divorce.”
“The white woman who’s feminist-but-not-too-feminist has been the main go-to for advice columns,” says an observer
Advice columns have long been places of change—but only a particular kind of change. Elyse Vigiletti says that while advice columnists are sometimes credited with pushing the needle forward for women, they’ve historically only been willing to go so far. “There has to be a certain amount of rebellion in any good kind of coming-of-age or problem-solving process, right?” she says, but because they are framed as individual questions, “they’re able to sidestep larger, heavier social critiques that would really make them political writing.”
When Phillips criticized parents over their attitudes toward their queer children, she never went so far as to take issue with heteronormativity more broadly, and Lederer, even during her own divorce, never wrote about the inequality of men and women within marriages. More recently, Tesher and Kreviazuk looked at relationship problems through the lens of individual failures, without reference to the systems the letter writers exist in. At its worst, this way of thinking can lead to the victim-blaming trap that Tesher fell into—your problems are your responsibility. “The knowledgeable white woman who’s feminist-but-not-too-much has been the main go-to for advice columns,” Vigiletti says. “And it’s a very white-women-dominated way of looking at the world. That idea of ‘Let’s manoeuvre as best we can and reclaim as much of our power as we can within this system’ is inherently a very pop-feminist, white-feminism kind of move.” (It’s worth noting that Lederer’s softening to the possibility of divorce, published months before announcing her own divorce, would have been written when she knew what was on the horizon in her own life.)
The new guard’s willingness to question the status quo tells us it’s okay to critique values and institutions rather than ignore the context of our problems. Granados, for example, is quick to show readers how their feelings about themselves and their relationships are influenced by dominant ways of thinking. When addressing a reader experiencing an “existential crisis of aging,” Granados points out that this is more than an individual’s psychic problem. “Personally, I don’t believe in ‘thirty under thirty’ lists and find them nefarious for both the ones that get chosen for the title, and those that measure their success against them,” she writes. “Capitalism is nourished by the idea that we must take the finite number of years between graduating and turning thirty to achieve the most you possibly can, with little to no regard for your personal well-being.” In another column, she responds to a young reader who feels pressured to mold themselves to fit the expectations of people they date. “The feminist in you should not feel ashamed,” she writes, “because that is what we’re all up against.”
Kai Cheng Thom’s writing expands this ethos. Her columns deal explicitly with personal problems that are impacted by broader social issues. When a trans woman asked how to navigate her partner’s past sexual trauma, Thom made sure to mention that prejudice against trans women and their sexuality can affect how they move through the world. “Trans women carry with us great social stigma. The dominant culture tells us that we are sexually deviant and disgusting,” Thom wrote. “I encourage you to really take the time to care for yourself—to remind yourself that you are good, that you are lovable.” In another column, she points out that miscommunications in queer dating are sometimes due to a lack of precedent. “The mainstream heterosexual world has, for better and for worse, developed some well-established social scripts for sex and dating,” she wrote. “Queer and trans people, however, in following our collective impulse toward transgressing social norms, are often making things up as we go along.”
To some, advice columns may seem niche, old-fashioned—trivial. But we know from their history that beyond reflecting social change, they become catalysts for it, too. They have latent potential to spur readers into action. Columnists like Thom and Marlowe Granados are more attuned to the way that social ideas surrounding gender, sexuality, and age impact people’s personal lives. This understanding is leading the advice genre—and its readers—to places they’ve never gone before.
In October, a gay man in his fifties wrote in to “Ask Kai.” Identifying himself as “Timid,” he described coming out later in life, and feeling grateful to have found joy in being out and proud. He told Thom he wanted to give back by helping queer youth, but was afraid of being labelled a “groomer.” “I’ve never had any reason to think I could be dangerous to young people (I’ve always been partial to older guys, honestly!), but for some reason I’m still terrified of it,” he wrote.
Thom urged her reader to resist internalizing homophobic narratives that wrongly frame queer people as “dangerous.” She contextualized these fears within attempts to justify vilifying queer people using children as a convenient pseudo-concern. But Thom didn’t stop at illuminating the broader context, nor did she stop at counselling him on how to navigate the world as is. She advised him to do what he could to dismantle that world and build a new one. “So what are we to do, Timid, when the heterosexual world intrudes on our inner thoughts, convincing us that we are evil and unworthy of connection? Well, on the practical side, there’s always the time-worn advice of working through one’s internalized homophobia with a sympathetic counsellor and queer friends our own age—always a good idea. On the more ideologically interesting side, I want to say: Let’s go to war with the heterosexual world. Let’s kill the homophobe in our hearts and trample its grave.”
Advice columns no longer instruct readers on how to survive oppressive systems. They give us permission to burn them to the ground.