Advice columns are a little like cats: they may not actually do much, but they're fun to look at. Also like cats, not all advice columns are created equal. After the jump, we grade a few of the major players.
We can't rate all the advice columns on the internet (and we had to eliminate some for reasons of bias), but the following is a representative sampling. The grades, like advice, are totally subjective.
Dear Prudence, by Emily Yoffe
Unlike, say, Prudence Farrow, Emily Yoffe does not put up with any nonsense. Nonsense includes: masturbating too much, "using up [a woman's] most fertile years," and having doubts about a generally decent boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse. Though she sometimes provides a refreshing kick in the pants, or gets mad on behalf of people who aren't mad enough ("You're a generous and forgiving person. I'm less generous and forgiving"), but she also name-checks Emily Post a lot and seems creepily in favor of settling. She's not quite Dr. Laura, but she might be a little bit Lori Gottlieb.
Favorite topics: bad manners, terrible family secrets, silly relationship problems (his toupee!)
Words of wisdom: On masturbation — "Get a grip and give it a rest. Maybe if you make the decision to do something else with your hands (whittling? knitting? flossing?), you'll find you aren't so obsessed with your urges. Then masturbation will become a pleasurable thing you do sometimes instead of a twice-daily necessity."
Friend or Foe, by Lucinda Rosenfeld
Friend or Foe focuses on friend drama, mostly of the female persuasion. Since Rosenfeld has only written three columns, it's hard to tell how she'll turn out, but as we've mentioned before, her column is predicated on a pretty competitive view of female closeness. Then again, her advice-seekers aren't doing anything to dispel this view. One writes that her so-called friend "swiped a significant amount of my Crème de la Mer" even though said friend "is beautiful, wrinkle-free, and rich-and I'm so not any of the above."
Favorite topics: back-stabbing, moisturizer thievery, and the baby as status symbol
Words of wisdom: "Clearly, your friend Haley was jealous and didn't know how to deal with your expanding belly. Similarly, the appearance of her own potential sperm donor has made her less threatened by the sight of all those Build-A-Bears strewn across your living room floor."
Savage Love, by Dan Savage
Dan Savage has been hugely influential, and we bet lots of college kids have traveled the trajectory from reading his columns aloud and laughing at the "freaks" to realizing that kinks don't make you bad or crazy, and accepting said kinks in themselves and others. Savage has added several important terms to the American sexicon — concerned yet time-strapped friends can now tell their deluded buddies to DTMFA. And he was using his column to raise awareness about gay marriage and gay rights long before Prop. H8 came on the scene. But he also subscribes to some troubling stereotypes — that only girls can be bi, for instance, or that black people are more homophobic than whites. He's also not particularly sympathetic to people who gain weight while in relationships. So while Dan Savage is a pretty good guy to have on your side if you're a superhero fetishist, he's not so good if you are, say, a bi black dude with body image issues — or if you believe, like Megan, that "a columnist who is all about letting people know the safest way to drink other people's urine" should be a little more open-minded about things like male sexual fluidity.
Favorite topics: open relationships (for), coprophilia (against), sexual word coinages ("santorum"), dumping-the-motherfucker-already
Words of wisdom: "Look, SAD, this isn't a relationship. It's a hostage situation. Your boyfriend is an asshole. Wait, maybe I'm not being fair-to assholes, which are as delightful as they are functional. Your boyfriend is a piece of shit, a loose stool, a santorum slick. And you, my dear, have the worst case of lousy-relationship-induced Stockholm syndrome that I've ever encountered."
Since You Asked, by Cary Tennis
I have to admit that Cary Tennis, with his long, loopy, and sometimes frankly unhelpful answers to equally long and loopy queries, has a special place in my heart. Maybe it's his acknowledgment that advice usually says more about the advice-giver than the problem at hand, or his unwillingness to come down hard on one side of any issue — until, when you least expect it, he does. Cary is kind of like a dithering, slightly dotty grandma — she goes off on tangents a lot, and sometimes she doesn't even answer your question, but she knows that life is complicated, being a good person is tough, and ultimately the only advice she can give is her own totally fallible opinion.
Favorite topics: writing, alcoholism, vague dissatisfaction, ennui
Words of wisdom:On the creative life — "But the work, that is another thing. The real work is staggering; the real work is work. It is not dream. It is pushing against the wall; it is hearing what we do not want to hear; it is doing the numbers; it is learning the new terms as they come along; it is sitting through evaluations and self-evaluations. It is an eternal object lesson in our powerlessness and our smallness. The real work is grinding and slow. "
Obviously the primary point of any advice column isn't really to help advice-seekers — it's to entertain and soothe the readers, who, while we may not share the exact problems discussed, still have various shitty things in our lives that we want to feel better about. The guy who slept with his stepmom and the woman who likes oral sex from her dog make our own dilemmas seem smaller, but what really separates the great advice column from the so-so is its ability to make us feel that life is livable, that we are going to be okay. And sometimes the best way to do this is not to tell people what to do, but to acknowledge that we live in an uncertain universe, and that we all need to learn, in our own way, how to cope with that uncertainty.