Thursday, April 11, 2013

Hail the arbiters of masculinity: 'Dear Abby' and Ann Landers

For a long time, a couple of nationally syndicated newspaper advice columnists, twin sisters named Eppie Lederer and Pauline Phillips, better known as Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren (Dear Abby), held a mirror up to our culture's views on sex and gender. Their columns on gender issues, especially the ones written from the 50s to the 70s, are a sort of microcosm of a culture intent on keeping femininity in check and on insuring that males conform to a certain masculine ideal. We suspect it is a good sign that a lot of people likely will find these views not just old fashioned but infuriating.

Take, for example, their views on the issue of modesty. In 1969, a parent wrote to Dear Abby complaining because her 14-year-old son's school told him he would have to swim in the nude with his male classmates, and the boy felt uncomfortable about it. Abby offered no sympathy: “[H]e had better overcome his shyness about nudity in the presence of other boys,” she lectured, “or he is apt to be uncomfortable much of his life.”

Abby's sister, Ann Landers, was even more direct. In a 1974 column, she bluntly told a 15-year-old boy who was embarrassed to shower with other boys: "You have a problem, Son." She rejected the boy's assertion that the school was invading his privacy as "a cover up for something else." She told the lad he needed to see the school counselor, there was something wrong with him.

When the genders were reversed, however, the answer was completely different. A 13-year-old girl wrote to Dear Abby in 1967, complaining that her school expected her to shower with other girls. Compare Abby's advice here with the advice the wise sisters gave to the boys. Not only was there nothing wrong with the girl, but Abby declared the following: "No girl should be forced to stand naked before other girls if it disturbs her."

Ann agreed, and in 1974 column she justified the girl-boy double standard: ". . . girls are reared to be more modest about their bodies" than boys.

The double-standards get even more bizarre. Abby, in 1970, didn't see anything wrong with a father walking around the house naked since the couple's only child was male: "If a teen-age boy sees his father in the nude, so what?" But Ann Landers, in 1973, said that when a 17-year-old boy pulled the same stunt in front of his mother, he needed professional help and lacked a sense of propriety.

Wait, here comes my favorite. According to Ann, a boy who liked to look at a neighbor woman sunbathing in the nude is in need of professional help. That sort of conduct, she cautioned, doesn't bode well for his future.

But -- and this is almost unbelievable -- Ann had completely different advice when a 31-year-old female doctor's aide wrote confessing she conducted medical tests on a nude 19-year-old man, even though it wasn't necessary for him to be nude. He was embarrassed, but the aide admitted that she "enjoyed the situation immensely," and hoped it would happen again with other young men.

Did Ann slam her for invading the young man's privacy? Did Ann tell her she needed "professional help"? Of course not. "Everyone has fantasies," Ann told her. "Stop feeling guilty."

Excuse me while I bang my head against the wall. (For anyone who thinks I made up that one, here's the link.)

As daffy as Abby and Ann could be, their readers could always top them. A reader wrote to Abby complaining about neighbors who allowed their 16-year-old son to cavort around their house naked, even in the presence of his mother, father and sister. Read the following, and ask yourself if the neighbor was paying a little too much attention to this boy:

"In the morning, he gets up around 6:45," the neighbor revealed. "He walks into the kitchen and fixes a bowl of cereal. Then he stands at the counter, watching the morning sports shows while eating his breakfast in the nude." (The neighbor even knows what he watches on TV!) The neighbor proceeds to answer the question that's on everyone's mind: "There is absolutely no evidence of arousal of any kind." (I mean, aren't we all thankful for neighbors who monitor our sons' penises?) The reader continues: "When the bathroom becomes available, he goes in for a shower." (We're disappointed we aren't told what kind of soap he uses.)

For once, Abby offered the all-too observant neighbor good advice: ". . . hang curtains on your windows."

See also our piece 'I went to the prom with a sissy!'