Marie Claire’s “love and sex” column
Women, men, and problematic gender roles
According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “advice columns have a long history in American journalism, reaching back to the “letters to the lovelorn” that appeared in eighteenth-century magazines and newspapers” (Bailey, 2005) which proposes an interesting topic for sociological discussion as to why this type of exchange between humans has been prevalent for over a century and what type of social norms the exchanges are producing and reinforcing. After close-reading Marie Claire’s (a popular women’s magazine) online advice column it has become obvious that the type of social norms that are being produced and reinforced are in fact problematically normative and dangerously counterproductive within a society which aims to empower its’ women. The magazine’s “advice column” slightly differs from typical columns where one individual writes in and one individual writes back providing advice, as this “love and sex” column provides a space for hundreds of people to comment and provide advice and commentary toward a letter/article submitted by (mostly, but not always) anonymous people. After skimming through and reading many submissions, it is obvious that the submissions and responses are not at all challenging social norms but rather encouraging and reinforcing them. Specifically, the patriarchal dividend is blatantly reinforced, women are constantly being represented (and representing themselves) as being overly concerned about their appearance in front of men and relying on their looks to achieve happiness and fulfillment, and males as all-powerful beings who need to be pleased and supported by women, (preferably those with nice, slim bodies and pretty faces). Within the “relationship advice” and “sex advice” section of the online magazine, males and females are casually discussed as fulfilling certain gender ideologies as if these ideas were somehow innate to humans and not socially structured. I would like to discuss two letters—or submissions, from Marie Claire’s advice column, specifically focusing on the representation of women and men within the letters. In one letter within the “relationship advice” column, titled “I’m Fatter than My husband” one anonymous woman discusses the debilitating anxiety that she feels after becoming “bulkier” than her husband, who she describes as “rock-star lean at 155 pounds” (Fatter Than, 2011). The anonymous woman who wrote in to Marie Claire, describes herself as transforming into “the fat wife” (2011) which is described as being a sort of oxymoron, as wives are supposed to be slim rather than heavy. Judging herself from her husband’s perspective she says, “he must have felt every bit of me — and that made me supremely uncomfortable” (2011). Further, the woman references a study published in the journal of Social Psychological and Personality Science that describes marriages as happier “when the wife is the skinnier party” (2011). To this, she says, “it made me question how my weight gain was affecting my own marriage” (2011). This confession initiates conversation as to the reasons why this woman, (and over one-hundred other women who commented below that could relate to the submission) judge themselves based off the way they feel that their partner views them, or in comparison to their partner, rather than the way they actually see themselves. Perhaps this question can be discussed by considering “the presentation of self”—the way humans think others are viewing them, gender roles, “lookism”—or the halo effect, the patriarchal dividend and the idea that women are valued for their physical beauty rather than other personality traits or successes in society. Everything about this letter, submitted by a woman to Marie Claire for public viewing, is reinforcing social norms that insist upon the “gender idea” of what a woman should and should not be, of the ideal “wife”, of a “beautiful”, happy woman. Within society, men are valued for certain characteristics; such as wealth/financial success, knowledge, power, race (i.e. Caucasian), and their ability to “get” a beautiful woman, or women, (“get” being language that is dangerously close to describing a predator/prey relationship) which reinforces the idea that women are somehow lesser than men and exist solely for the pleasure of men. On the other hand, women are valued much less for their successes and knowledge and in fact, often encouraged not to become more successful or better educated than their male counterparts for risk of being perceived as intimidating and thus, unattractive. Instead, women are valued for their bodies, often the size of their breasts, the width of their hips and their weight, as well as their overall appearance. Because of this, many women base their self-confidence and overall self-approval on the way that they believe others view them—specifically men. The anonymous woman who wrote this article, aiming to aid women who also feel “unworthy” of their husbands because of a few “extra” pounds, does an incredible job of encouraging this ridiculous and problematic social norm. It is interesting to ponder where this idea of the “perfect woman” came from, why the appearance of men seems so much less significance within a marriage than the appearance of a woman. There are many different ways to interpret this letter/article and analyze it alongside sociological theory. First of all, if we believe it to be true that better looking people—women specifically in this case, are generally treated better within society, it should come as no surprise that when women become “heavier” than the social structured idea of “beauty” would allow them to be, they will feel anxious, insecure and somehow less womanly. The woman describes this social idea—lookism, when she writes, “the heavier me felt sluggish, less confident, and less eager to pursue job opportunities” (2011). Why would a heavier version of herself be less successful within the job market? This idea gives credence to the idea of lookism as it is a common sociological conception that those who are better looking, thinner and overall more beautiful will have a better chance at a successful career, and plays into the idea that women are “expected” to always maintain a certain idea of beauty within their gender role. The second article which I would like to discuss is titled “The Truth About Bachelor Parties”, which was edited and re-submitted online for public viewing by Judy Dutton, a writer for Marie Claire, but originally written by a man, and aims to provide women insight and advice on the reality of bachelor parties and how to deal with the experience of a woman’s fiancé having one. First of all, this article is extremely shocking to a certain degree, yet sadly, not so surprising in another. The groom-to-be describes his, his friends, (and even in-law-to-be’s) cheating experiences in detail while at his bachelor party at a strip club, all the while poking fun at male bravado yet reinforcing the idea that men are able to do and get away with exactly whatever they want, whenever they want, and that women should accept this behaviour if they want to be “happy” within a marriage. It is written, “I picked a statuesque blonde with fake breasts and took a trip across the street" (2011), and describes his experience with another woman as “a socially acceptable chance to stray” (2011). It is important to question the characteristics that are here defining masculinity, and question, what are the characteristics that make men respected and powerful in society and why? The writer describes the behaviour of his male friends as jealous, proud and supportive of his cheating on his fiancé with “the blonde stripper”, and says, “they burst into cheers, as if I'd walked in with a Nobel Prize" (2011). It is unclear how this article aims to provide advice to women who are feeling anxious about their fiancé partaking in a bachelor party or having one of his own, rather than reinforcing the idea that women should accept this kind of behaviour off of their mates, as is it a “socially accepted chance to stray” (2011) and a “twisted celebration” (2011) of male bonds. If the shoe were on the other foot however, would this type of behaviour be acceptable by a group of women during a bachelorette party, or is promiscuity something that is accepted associated with the male gender entirely? Perhaps in this sense, the idea of “faithfulness” and “purity” as well as the idea that women are “supportive” and “dependant” are ideas that are associated with femininity and therefore men seem to stray from these characteristics and behaviours for risk of feeling or seeming feminine to others in society. After all, the “patriarchal dividend” implies that male characteristics will always trump female characteristics, and that men are always more powerful in comparison to females, thus able to “get away” with worse behaviour, thus contributing to the socially constructed gender roles for both men and women which are problematic within a society that aims to empower—not just its’ women, but all people.
It’s off-putting to read many examples from both men and women, (seemingly interested in providing life advice for other people) instead reproducing social norms throughout their confessions. These social norms are not productive or positive but in fact counterproductive, dangerous and problematic for all members of society because they contribute to false ideas of how people should be and create unrealistic expectations for all members of society. Because women have been conditioned to believe that their worth is in their looks, men to believe that the more beautiful women they sleep the more powerful/successful they become, we have become a society that constantly feels anxious about ourselves and our persona to others, as we desperately attempt to fulfill our “appropriate” gender role. Obviously, Marie Claire’s “advice column” lacks appropriate advice giving, but exists as a free space for individuals to go online and “purge” their insecurities, wrong-doings, guilt and fear. It would be refreshing to come across an article or submission describing a woman who describes herself as confident, successful and still beautiful without being a stick-figure , and a man who can openly admit his fears about marriage without masking them by being unfaithful and sleeping around. Unfortunately, women have been convinced that to be successful one must be “perfect” looking, and as a man, to express fear and emotion is feminine, so humans will continue to struggle to keep up with their gender ideology until the standards are less impossible to maintain. Clearly, Marie Claire should stick to fashion advice and make-up tips and leave the publishing of stereotypical, non-productive “advice column-ing” alone.