does esquire know any other “american boys”?
February 13, 2019
Ryan Morgan is a 17-year-old white boy from West Bend, Wisconsin. He enjoys being a guy (because being a girl sounds hard). He’s an “outsider” who doesn’t belong to a particular clique. He is a moderate Conservative who wants to be an environmental engineer. Most noteworthy of all, he made the cover of Esquire magazine as the premier story in a series on what it’s like to grow up in America in this day and age for teenagers from different backgrounds. Ryan landed the first cover as the representative of the practically untouched point-of-view of the straight white male in America and his story gets to get told because, well, he’s confused.
“I know what I can’t do, I just don’t know what I can do,” he says in response to an altercation he had with a girl at school who grew irritated with him and hit him, prompting him to hit her back on pure instinct. Ryan got in trouble and his mother’s response to the situation was to speak about the instances where women lie about being physically abused. This is just in the first paragraph. What we find out beyond that point is Ryan’s day-to-day schedule, hopes, dreams and what he thinks of Trump and his misogyny. “He is respectful towards his wife, as far as I know,” he said. “I don’t think he is racist or sexist.”
The profile conjured up a sense of deja vu that I couldn’t shake, long past the final sentence. There’s no way on earth that I know Ryan personally but I do know this boy. I’ve read about him. I’ve watched numerous versions of his story on stage and screen. His room looks familiar, even at first glance because I’ve looked into at least 100 rooms like it. I can vividly conjure the image of the three scoops of mash potato he had for lunch because I’ve seen his screen doppelgängers lament about the same dreary meal. I’ve been fed a thousand versions of his hopes. I’ve witnessed a thousand versions of his dreams. I know Ryan’s story because we have all been told, outright and subliminally, that his story and stories like it matter. It’s baffling that Esquire would think it was doing anything groundbreaking by further propagating that worn-out narrative.
In fact, according to Esquire Editor and Chief Jay Fielden — formerly of Town & Country — the inspiration for the piece was the culmination of an Esquire profile Susan Orlean wrote in 1992 on the day-to-day life of a 10-year-old boy and Fielden’s 15-year-old son. In his defense of the piece, he wrote a rebuttal titled “Why Your Ideological Echo Chamber Isn’t Just Bad For You: It’s Also Bad for Your Kids.” The irony is staggering. Especially because, in Fielden’s words, “what we asked Jen to do — and she did brilliantly — was to look at our divided country through the eyes of one kid.” You’re telling me Jennifer Percy managed to do that in a country that has been a straight, white Christian male eco-chamber for centuries? Groundbreaking.
“We disagree as a country on every possible cultural and political point except, perhaps, one: that private life, as a result, has also become its own fresh hell,” Fielden laments. It’s no party realizing that the personal has always been political when your livelihood isn’t protected by the color of your skin and tax bracket. Fresh hell is a vacation for marginalized groups. Fielden goes further to say that “a crackling debate used to be as important an ingredient of a memorable night out as what was served and who else was there.” This past year has given the public an appearance of white men being held accountable for their actions and that has devolved cultural discussion into what they can and can’t say and do. They have entered a new world looking to hold them accountable to what they say and do — because we have seen how the combination of their power and opinion manifest into tyranny — which can’t be fun for the demographic of people who enjoyed nights of robustly being blasé about the suffering of others over their favorite glass of red.
Like Ryan, I too am confused. In what is likely the most significant moment in modern politics, this white male editor, in a sea of white men editors, has decided that the way to unpack our current political turmoil is through the lens of the most protected class of people in the world. To top that all of, it’s Black History Month.
In July 1968, not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Esquire spoke to James Baldwin about the state of race relations in America. Their main line of questioning may have been “Can Black people cool it?” but they provided Baldwin the page inches to truly expound on the gilded ignorance that has people like Ryan confused about the current state of affairs and the antagonism he experiences because of his identity. “It came as no revelation to me or to any other Black cat that white racism is at the bottom of the civil disorders,” said Baldwin. “It came as a great shock apparently to a great many other people, including the President of the United States.” The fact that that assessment still rings true today is no longer terrifying — it’s tiring.
Esquire started a series meant to explore the experiences of the modern American teenager with a white boy while the editor claimed it was an argument against the echo chamber. Why not release all at the same time? Why start with a white boy during Black History Month? Would it have been too much to start with a Black child? Trayvon Martin’s birthday was just last week. Was he not an American boy? Jamel Myles was a 9-year-old Black boy from Colorado who committed suicide after being bullied for coming out as gay. Was he not an American boy? In a time where the political is synonymous with turmoil, this is the statement that Esquire wanted to make? That the lens we needed to see a divided nation through was a white boy grappling with growing up in a country mired by a divide created by people that look like him. In the words of Baldwin, “It is certain in any case, that ignorance allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Ryan enjoys the privilege of getting to be a confused teenager while Black and Brown families around the country have to prepare their children to go out in the world without being killed and blamed for it. Growing up is a different ballgame when your odds of growing old are severely diminished. What frustrates me most is, oddly enough, that that article even had to be written. We could have spent this Black History Month speaking about all the 17-year-olds that don’t get to even experience the anxiety linked to growing up today. This is where Fielden directed his power — away from Black people. I guess that is the story of America and its beloved white boy.
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