Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Agony-Resolution Pathways: How Women Perceive American Men in Cosmopolitan's Agony (Advice) Column

Academic journal article The Journal of Men's Studies

Agony-Resolution Pathways: How Women Perceive American Men in Cosmopolitan's Agony (Advice) Column

Article excerpt

Numerous studies have looked at the effects of women's popular magazines and advice books on women's issues and in women's lives. For instance, women's magazines have been found to provide women with survival skills and outlets for day-dreams (Winship, 1984); to promote the "cult of femininity" and to reproduce women's oppression (Ferguson, 1983); to encourage women to relate to each other as women, but still allowing absent men to define how women should look (Winship, 1984); and to give women a basis for addressing concerns, offering support, and constructing virtual communities of, and for, women (Seneca, 1996; Shevelow, 1989).

Another theme found in many of these publications emphasizes a gender ideology dealing with "self-help" with its emphasis on women focusing more on developing themselves rather than helping others (Friedan, 1963). However, this "self-help" literature provides women only with "an illusory cure for what ails them, collectively, as a culture" (Simonds, 1994, p. 227). In addition, there was the theme about the polarity between feminism and femininity (Friedan, 1963; McRobbie, 1997, 1991; Sheridan, 1995; Stuart, 1990; Winship, 1987) as well as arguments that such polarity has "gone for good" (McRobbie, 1994, p. 8).

None of this work, however, has questioned how women perceive men and what men mean or could mean to women. To open up this fundamental but neglected domain of cross-gender perceptions, "agony columns" (what some call "advice columns") provide an excellent source of data that has been underutilized in scholarly research.

This paper uses a grounded theory approach to examine the perceptions and depictions of American men in the Agony Column of a leading women's magazine, Cosmopolitan ("Cosmo"). As a magazine for modern women in 28 countries, Cosmo was chosen for its international appeal to so-called "modern" adult women--both single and married. The readership can also be presumed to be favorable to being "cosmopolitan" in tastes and outlook in an increasingly globalized world (Chang, 1999b; Winship, 1987).(1) Cosmo's Agony Column was chosen because of its mundane, "everyday" nature; it is a direct medium for expressing, sharing, and consuming difficult experiences in gender relations among real people in their everyday lives.(2) The Agony Column provides an excellent, but underutilized, data source for examining women's issues and worries about gender relations. Unlike other print sources used, the Agony Column provides a highly structured set of data, since each Agony letter involves a problem, an Agony Aunt, and a "solution."

Overall, there were two rationales for this study--one has to do with the self-disclosing nature of Agony letters; the other with the pivotal role played by the Agony Aunt in defining and specifying norms of cross-gender encounters. The first rationale suggests that when women are in "agony," their perceptions of men may be "distorted" toward the negative direction. Such "distortions" may actually reveal more about women's fundamental values, ideology, stereotypes, and projections of deep-seated anxieties about men compared to what women perceive about men in their "happier" moments. In addition, these publicly portrayed anxieties may give insights into the range and richness of worries that women have about men. These insights can provide a counter to men's studies that focus exclusively on what men make of men or what men perceive that women make of men. Such self or imputed perceptions risk being too stereotyped.

The second rationale was that the column's adviser (or the column's "Agony Aunt") has a pivotal and legitimating cultural role to play in identifying, validating, or challenging who is to blame, what is blameworthy, and what reasons "count" in problematic gender relations. The Agony Column thus combines popular concerns with more "expert" or "experienced" voices. Such "expertise" provides another basis for the legitimacy of any advice, while giving highly specific insights about the construction of modern womanhood in particular, and gender relations in general. …

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