Weird Words of Wisdom: Twin Sister Smackdown Edition

…or, Whose Vintage Advice to Teens is Weirder—Ann’s or Abby’s?

Dear Teen-Ager by Abigail Van Buren, 1959

Ann Landers Talks to Teen-Agers About Sex, 1963

“Just as ‘liquor is quiquor’ is a way to a neat little plot in the cemetery, it can also be a jet liner to sextra headaches.”—Abby

“You wouldn’t take a diamond and platinum brooch to try to pry open a jar of pickles with it, would you? Using sex in the wrong way adds up to the same thing.”—Ann

About the Authors: Identical twins Pauline and Esther Friedman, the children of Jewish immigrants, were inseparable as children. As Morningside College co-eds, they collaborated on an advice column for the school paper. They married in a double wedding. And they built matching careers—Esther became Ann Landers in 1955 at the Chicago Sun-Times; Pauline because the San Francisco Chronicle’s Dear Abby three months later.  Both their columns were hits in syndication. Ann Landers eventually reached 90 million readers, and Abby reached 80 million by 1995. Pauline’s daughter Jeanne Phillips started co-writing Dear Abby with her mother in 1987 and took over all writing duties by 2002, after Pauline was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That was also the year Esther died, bringing the Ann Landers column an end.

The Ann-Abby Feud: Understandably, Esther resented Pauline’s decision to start a rival advice column. The sisters went through a period of estrangement that included the publication dates for both these books. In 2005, Esther’s daughter, Margo Howard, published a collection of letters she’d received from her mother through the years.  Complaints about “Popo” (Pauline’s family nickname) figure prominently. “I can’t cut her out of my life completely, no matter how loony she gets,” one letter from 1981 reads. “She is too much a part of me, but I must myself protect against her in some way. She is too unpredictable—and destructive.”  

From Abby’s book, a sensitive illustration of the problems facing overweight teens

About the Books: The books’ titles reflect their differing focuses. Abby’s book covers various teen topics, from dating to dealing with teachers, from grooming to smoking. Ann’s book takes dead aim at the sex stuff. (That’s probably what most teens skipped to in comprehensive advice books, anyway.)

Changes in society probably influenced the difference in focus. Although only four years separated the books, those four years saw rapid changes in sexual mores. “The pill” became available for contraceptive use in 1960, and by 1963, America was on the cusp of sexual revolution. Of girls who turned 15 between 1954 and 1963, 48 percent had premarital sex before age 20. For girls who turned 15 between 1964 and 1973, the figure rose to 65 percent (Source: The Alan Guttmacher Institute).  

Differences in Tone: Abby’s writing style is much cutesier, and her book includes cutesy illustrations, as well. Ann can get a bit sassy, but mostly adopts a down-to-earth style. This reflects a real difference in their early advice-giving styles. As Time wrote in 1957, “Abby’s replies are slicker, quicker, and flipper.”

Examples of this style in Dear Teen-Ager include:

“If you’re under 18 there are more reasons for not going steady than Elvis can shake a hip at.”

“Men who are older tend to be bolder.”

“Troubles are like photographs. They are developed in dark places.”

Contrast that with a typical piece of advice from Ann’s book:

“Housework, particularly floor-scrubbing, is not only great for the female figure, but it’s good for the soul. And it will help take the edge off your sex appetite. Cooking, baking, and sewing will prepare you for homemaking. Energy siphoned off into these constructive channels will leave less energy for preoccupation with erotic fantasies.”

Abby would have probably said, “Keep scrubbing the floor, and you’ll be lusty nevermore”….or something.

A Shared Moose Obsession? Abby’s book includes one of her most famous lines: “Girls need to ‘prove their love’ through illicit sex relations like a moose needs a hatrack.”

Ann’s book reprints a letter from a girl with a loser boyfriend, and Ann’s response concludes, “You need this infant like a moose needs a hat rack.”

I don’t know which sister used the expression first, but it didn’t originate with either of them. Jack Benny made the phrase a running joke on his radio show in 1947.

The Double Standard: Abby took the double standard for male and female behavior for granted in 1959, while Ann rejected it in 1963.

Abby: “When a decent boy gets serious about someone, and thinks of marrying someone…that someone will be someone he respects. All boys aren’t angels, but most of them are looking for one.”

Ann: “No man should insist on a white-flower girl unless he is able to bring to the marriage the same credentials of purity.”

Homosexuality: Abby doesn’t mention homosexuality at all, but Ann devotes a whole chapter to it. This distinguishes her book from the other teen advice books I have from this period—few go beyond advising teens to seek professional help if they don’t develop an attraction to the opposite sex.

Ann sounds genuinely distressed by the mail she receives from desperate gay young people. “About 70 percent of the letters come from boys,” she writes. “Most of the boys who write are tortured with guilt and self-hatred. They live on the razor’s edge, terrified that someone may learn they aren’t ‘like everybody else’…Many who write are so ashamed of their physical desires for members of their own sex that they speak of suicide.”

She accepts the psychiatric wisdom of the time that labeled homosexuality as a mental disorder, but she does encourage heterosexual teens to be understanding toward their gay peers, who are “twisted and sick, through no fault of their own.”

Abby’s and Ann’s approaches to homosexuality in their respective books carried over into their newspaper columns. Abby mostly ignored the subject, and Ann stuck by her belief that homosexuality was a disorder until 1992, nearly two decades after the American Psychiatric Association stopped labeling it as one.

Ann’s Most WTF Comment about Homosexuality: “Some Lesbians who despise men enjoy arousing a male’s sexual appetite and then punishing him with rejection.”

Abby’s Least Helpful Advice: “…if everybody picks on you—well—don’t look now, but maybe something’s wrong with you!” (During my many years as a bullying victim, this would have cut me like a knife.)

Abby’s Most Surprising Advice, Which Follows Many Chapters Stressing Inner Beauty and the Need for Self-Acceptance: “Now maybe you’re one of those girls who were slightly short-changed above the equator. Hundreds of girls have written to me asking if it’s dishonest to get a little outside help (okay, ‘falsies!’) to put them out in front. To this I say, ‘Buy all the attachments you need!’”

On Smoking and Drinking: Both sisters advise against teenage drinking. Ann describes the decision she made at a young age—and maintained throughout her life—to abstain from alcohol. Interestingly, her daughter Margo writes that “I was considered ‘sophisticated’ even as a high school girl. I smoke and I drank scotch on the rocks.”

Ann has little to say about smoking; Abby raises several objections, which don’t include health effects. She even pulls out another double standard: “Even when a fellow happens to be a smoker himself, he prefers a girl who doesn’t smoke. It cheapens her appearance. It clouds the illusion of sweetness.”

Abby’s Most Ironic-in-Hindsight Use of a Celebrity to Make a Temperance Point: “Did Mickey Mantle tell Casey Stengel it’s old-fashioned to forbid smoking, drinking or late hours during baseball season? Of course not.”

Other Abby Quotes:

“A nice girl does not hand out a kiss—or kisses—on the first date, no matter how much she digs the boy. If he’s worth liking, he’ll respect you for it. Boys, hold your fire.”

“The bobby-soxer herself, Miss Junior Miss…is endowed by a mysterious but obviously prudent Nature with more slowly excitable sex responses.”

On handling a “mad lover” (21st century translation: a potential date rapist): “In an extreme case, where physical duress is involved, meet force with force. A right uppercut is unladylike, so you’d best settle for a stereophonic slap in lover boy’s fresh face…When he recovers from his chagrin, your best line is a brusque “Home James!” He won’t trouble you again.”

Other Ann Quotes:

“A girl who is called a make-out by her friends would do well to take stock of herself.”

“What am I saying? That a girl can be nice even though she goes all the way? Yes. The girl can be nice—but the girl is not very bright.”

Overall, I think Abby gets the Weirdness Trophy.

Other Entries in this Series

Weird Words of Wisdom: Prettily Bewildered Edition

Weird Words of Wisdom: Spanking New Edition

Weird Words of Wisdom: Chaperoned Edition

Weird Words of Wisdom: TMI, Dick Clark! Edition


One thought on “Weird Words of Wisdom: Twin Sister Smackdown Edition

  1. […] sometimes used the slangy, quip-heavy style that Ann and Abby relied upon in their early years. Generally, she seemed sincere in her efforts to […]

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