Once a naff mark of 00s media, agony aunts are back and surprisingly better than ever. We track their steady rise.
It’s a lazy Sunday evening and there is a nagging problem in your life, so who do you turn to? A good friend? Your therapist? Perhaps instead you grab your phone and fire off the dilemma to a 30-year-old, perennially smiley TikToker named Tinx. As the self-proclaimed “big sister” of the app, Tinx’s rise to fame (she has over 1.5 million followers) has hinged on her uncanny ability to forge a sense of intimacy with her followers while positioning herself as a woman In The Know.
A regular question looks something like this: “Tinx! Why do men always ghost? I’m too old for these mind games.” Tinx will then dispense advice so comforting that you will feel enlightened regardless of whether or not you relate to the dilemma. Now, in collaboration with SiriusXM, she’s unveiled a new podcast and radio show that sees followers call in to seek her sought-after words. Even as someone who has always been slightly suspicious of advice, I am hooked.
I’m not alone. If you haven’t noticed, agony aunts are back with a boom. Whether it’s Stylist’s own monthly advice column Ask Billie, which sees our fashion and beauty director Billie Bhatia field readers’ concerns – from worries about making friends as an adult to body and intimacy hang ups. Or The Cut’s buzzy Hola Papi, where writer JP Brammer guides readers on everything from what to do if your coming out moment feels anticlimactic to feeling jealous of a hot friend.
In the newsletter world, writer Heather Havrilesky’s Ask Polly, formerly of New York Magazine, is in high demand, while writer Haley Nahman has incorporated a monthly advice column into her popular Maybe Baby newsletter. If you’d rather listen to your advice, then there are a plethora of ways to get your fix – from comedian Chelsea Handler’s new Dear Chelsea podcast to the podcasting giant Dear Sugars, which is now in its fourteenth year. I could go on.
Perhaps, then, our revived interest in the form speaks simply to human nature and downright nosiness. “The earliest advice columns date back to the 1690s, if you can believe it,” says academic Danielle Bainbridge, who hosted the PBS show Origin of Everything, which explored the history of agony aunts in an episode.
“In the beginning they focused more on societal questions and philosophical puzzles from ‘experts’ or gatekeepers of knowledge. But with rising literacy rates, they shifted to address more issues related to women in the late 19th century, with columnists like Dorothy Dix becoming popular.” Dix’s advice centred on marriage and home life – and at its peak in 1940, Dix received around 100,000 letters a year and had an estimated readership of 60 million.
Surprisingly, though, the advice column’s pivot to ‘women’s issues’, which went on to eclipse the genre, was in some ways an accident. “It was a magazine publisher called John Dunton who first hit on the idea that his readers’ own dramas were much more interesting than politics or current affairs.”
“He published the first letters in the Athenian Mercury in 1691, but after a few years, his postbag was so full that he needed more people to reply to the letters, so he decided to hire some women writers to lend a feminine touch. The idea quickly caught on,” explains Tanith Carey, author of Never Kiss A Man In A Canoe: Words Of Wisdom From The Golden Age Of Agony Aunts. “The first ever magazine just for women, The Ladies’ Mercury, established in 1693, had a section just for questions from women. After that, the agony aunt’s page mainly became geared to women.”
But this was not exactly the picture of sisterly guidance you might at first mistake it for. “There was a total lack of sisterly solidarity towards the women writing in,” adds Carey. “This is because for a long time agony aunts saw their jobs as maintaining the high moral tone of their publication and upholding societal expectations of the day. So if women wrote in complaining about their treatment by boyfriends or husbands, they usually got told to put up or shut up. Well into the 40s and 50s, agony aunts continued to tell women a wife’s job was to prop up the male ego, look pretty on the doorstep when they came home from work and pay them compliments.”
It was the sexual revolution of the 1960s that (thank god) finally shook the column world up. “Modern agony aunts like Marje Proops led the way by talking with a newfound directness about sex. It is at this point that agony aunts’ replies start to move into the modern world,” adds Carey.
Today, sexual freedom and the complications of relationships are a key marker of most advice columns you’ll come across – and it’s the honesty of these letters and, sometimes, their shock-factor that pulls us in. When JP Brammer began his much-loved column Hola Papi! in 2017, for example, it was for the dating app Grindr, which was launching a new content platform.
“It was meant to be a sort of joke column,” he explains. “Imagine Dear Abby as a gay Mexican man on Grindr. But the letters were very personal and moving, and so it eventually became a much more serious endeavour. I think a lot of people sent me letters just to have someone to talk to or to put their feelings down and send them to someone. I think that loneliness and a longing for connection are defining features of this age we’re in.”
For some, there is the question of the ethics in dispensing advice without the psychology degree to back it up, but for most columnists this is a moot point. “Advice has never been the sole propriety of professionals,” says Brammer. “I always make it clear that I’m not a therapist, that I’m really just some guy. But if you think about it, it’s usually our friends who we go to for advice; it’s sitting in a bar talking to your pals about your problems.”
At a time when meaningful connections feel harder to come by for many, it’s the trusted stranger – whether a TikTok star, a podcaster or a favourite newsletter writer – that we find ourselves turning to. “It brings a feeling of pleasure and solace in troubled times,” adds Brammer. “Reality is messy, of course, but it can be nice to find refuge in the small universe of someone’s column.” We couldn’t agree more.