It is unclear if Esquire anticipated the immediate and furious backlash to its most recent cover story, An American Boy, which featured a portrait of a white teenage boy. Perhaps the backlash was part of a marketing strategy? Outrage is a useful form of publicity, after all. Esquire, an old fashioned general interest men’s magazine fighting for a sense of identity and relevance in an ever shifting media landscape, may have thought all of the condemnation would be worth it if it got their name trending again.
But if it wasn’t a cynical ploy, it was a mishandled, mismanaged, poorly executed version of a pretty good idea. As everyone jumps to censure Esquire for its perceived racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia for deciding to use a straight, white boy to represent what it means to be an American right now, they are missing that the idea to check in on the state of boys – even white boys – in a landscape that is quickly shifting for men, is sound.
Much of the outrage centered on the choice of the teenage boy. Despite Esquire’s announcement that this would be the first in a series of profiles, and that the series would include boys of different races and sexualities and genders, leading the series off with a particularly Aryan-looking lad was a tactical mistake. The angry response was inevitable.
In this changing conversation about representation, referencing old ideas about who is allowed to stand in for a typical American or a typical boy was careless. The history is clear. White men are allowed to represent America or humanity as a whole. Black men can only ever represent blackness, women can only ever represent femininity. Whiteness has been used as a universality, not a specific identity. Masculinity, whiteness, and heterosexuality have long avoided scrutiny, but the headlines about gun violence, sexual assault, and police brutality show we need to start examining these identities.
The problem, then, is in the framing of the piece, not necessarily the intention. As written in the editor’s letter, the idea came out of wanting to see how boys were responding to how rapidly culture was changing (so rapidly, it seems, that not even the editor fully grasped how the cover would be seen by others). Issues like “#MeToo, gender fluidity, Black Lives Matter, ‘check your privilege,’ and #TheFutureIsFemale” have shifted at least the perception if not the practice of traditional hegemonic hierarchies. The idea was to see how this played out in different regions and demographics.
The profile fails on this level. Writer Jen Percy neglects to contextualize Morgan’s ideas about women, sexuality, politics, or race. The profile spends too much time on what Morgan thinks about the world, rather than what he thinks about himself or his position within the world. It also too closely resembles the gawking the coastal media has done to the middle of the country since Trump was elected, finding itself fascinated by white resentment, Make America Great Again hats, and evangelical Christianity without being capable of much insight into any of these things.
But the potential for the project was real. Many of these cultural changes have happened in urban areas, in media and academic circles. #MeToo has focused its attention and energy on industries like media, Hollywood, higher education, and corporate culture. The privilege conversation came out of university systems. It would be interesting to gauge the influence these more liberal cultural changes have had on more conservative regions. Or perhaps the influence is more limited than one assumes, and then it would be interesting to see if these conversations have influence only in ideological and regional bubbles.
In the outrage, however, the whole idea of profiling such a young man is ridiculed. The media has received justified criticism in the recent past for writing sympathetic portraits of white nationalists or misrepresenting Trump supporters as economically disadvantaged. But again, that does not mean the pursuit is not worthwhile. Listening and understanding is an important first step to building on common ground, rather than simply condemning and banishing.
The idea that we’ve heard “too much” already from boys like Morgan is absurd. The only way a teenage boy from a small town in the midwest otherwise gets on the cover of a New York City magazine is if he becomes a football phenom or commits a mass shooting. While the midwest has a disproportionately strong political representation, it also has a disproportionately weak cultural representation. Regions like the midwest, the southwest, and the south are not the settings of TV shows or movies, their ideas and concerns are not given consideration in mass media. They do not see reflections of themselves when they turn on the TV, except for maybe on Fox News.
The editor of Esquire was right – if only about a couple of things. Ideological bubbles are not good for any of us. Understanding the experiences and world views of people who are different from us is worthwhile. And boys are slipping. They are dropping out of school, they are killing themselves, they are failing to go to college. If we want to create a culture where everyone thrives, we need to have some idea of who is getting left behind.