Is Dan Savage Our Ann Landers?

Is Dan Savage our generation's Ann Landers? And is that a good thing?

By writer Benjamin Dueholm's admission, Savage is an unlikely heir to a woman as famed for her meatloaf recipe as her counsel: with what he calls Savage's "Chaucerian panorama of correspondents" and status as "a kind of gonzo avenging angel for the nation's sexual minorities," the sexpert is not exactly ready for prime time, nor would he want to be. Yet in recent years, Savage has acquired not just the late Landers' desk, but a kind of mainstream acceptance, ubiquity and respect that might have been unthinkable a decade ago. He's not just the most-read advice columnist in America, but, with the launch of his upcoming MTV show, likely to be the best-known, too. And, of course, even those who'd never touch his explicit and irreverent column can get firmly behind the "It Gets Better" campaign — and have.

But Dueholm makes the point that Savage's world is in its way as moral as Landers' — albeit with more furries. To Savage, certain things are sacrosanct — openness with a partner, honesty, reciprocity, autonomy. In his words, "In ways that his frequent interlocutors on the Christian right wouldn't expect, Savage has probably done more to uphold conventional families than many counselors who are unwilling to engage so frankly with modern sexual mores." Well, that and the natural primacy of non-monogamy, which Savage cleaves to with a preacher's zeal.

I have mixed feelings about Savage as arbiter, because what's idiosyncratic, admittedly arbitrary, deliberately provocative in the context of an alt-weekly's back page takes on another kind of authority when the stage gets larger and when the speaker has the weight of "It Gets Better" behind him. And it worries me that Savage's ugly views about weight, and occasional negativity about female anatomy, should get the same airing, and the same consideration, as his much-needed sex-positivity. And that's the question: does the good of having Savage's views out there — in the really out-there sense — make up for the defiant offensiveness of these other views? In a way, his is a tricky case: whereas you could dismiss Ann Landers as mired in a prior time, it's harder to do that with someone so firmly rooted in the now. Sure, maybe we can pick and choose what advice to take — but can a teenager, watching him on MTV, make those same distinctions? On balance, I'm really glad young people will have an example of sex-positivity in front of them. Savage is writing his columns on Ann Landers' desk now, and surely he's aware of the significance of that as well as the irony. Let's just hope he remembers, with great power comes great responsibility.

Rules of Misbehavior [Washington Monthly]