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The Controversy Over Esquire’s White ‘American Boy’ Cover Story is Just… Sad

To figure out what it’s like to be a teen in America today, Esquire found a white boy in Wisconsin. It wasn’t the best idea. But the backlash speaks volumes.

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The internet has pushed back against Esquire magazine’s March issue, which features 17-year-old, white Wisconsin high schooler Ryan Morgan on the cover. No, this isn’t the next Timothee Chalamet. You’ve never heard of this kid and you never would have if it weren’t for the profile, which tries and fails to use Morgan’s mundanity to explain what it’s like to grow up “white, middle class, and male in the era of social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, #MeToo, and a divided country.” This is apparently not something that interests the Internet.

Esquire is being lambasted for putting a white boy on the cover during Black History Month (it’s actually the March issue, but this still feels like a dumb and unforced error) and also for suggesting that Morgan, a conservative kid in a conservative part of the country, is actually average. Data suggests most young people are, in fact, fairly liberal, which doesn’t mean that Ryan Morgan isn’t an interesting subject, but does suggest that Esquire doesn’t have any particular interest in fulfilling the promise of their headline, “An American Boy.”

Also — and this is more an editor’s critique — It’s a boring story. Morgan has very little insight into what it means to be an American boy. (Why would he? He’s 17.) And Editor-in-Chief Jay Fielden’s Editor’s Note justifying the story seems somewhat out of touch. Still, the story is not offensive and Morgan seems like… a kid. Watching Fielden and Morgan get flamed on Twitter is a bummer. This whole thing feels like it was supposed to be an exercise in empathy, but it fell flat.

Things might have gone differently. And they still might. Ryan Morgan’s story is one in a series that Esquire is producing about the experience of American teens. Future stories will touch on the experiences of black, female and LGBTQ kids. That’s fine and it’s nice that Fielden, who is the father of a teen, is investing resources in covering teen issues at a time when, yes, it seems complicated to be an adolescent. Still, starting with Morgan was always going to piss people off. Maybe it was designed to do so. Hard to say.

From my perspective, as a father, the big miss here has to do with insight. The article offers very little outside of an infographic that crops up halfway through. One number there reflects a stark reality: The suicide rate among young men has increased by 44 percent. Why? In reading about Morgan, no answer is presented. Instead, Morgan is treated as an exotic subject — he is for a celeb-focused magazine — but he’s described as a bored and seemingly incurious teenage boy. The article feels like a disingenuous inquiry into a serious subject.

Should we care about white boys? Absolutely. And we should want to know why they shoot up schools and kill themselves. Something is wrong. But if we really want to find out what that thing is, we’re going to need to go deeper. West Bend, Wisconsin may not have all the answer. Ryan Morgan certainly doesn’t.

The problem here isn’t the impulse, it’s the execution. Should people be empathetic to Ryan Morgan? Of course, they should. He’s a kid. It’s ridiculous and morally untenable not to care about kids. The problem here is that the article doesn’t justify the decision to publish it. (For the record, there are bigger sins. Publishing is an inexact science. We here at Fatherly screw up all the time.)

The Esquire controversy feels endemic to an uncomfortable moment. Everyone wants to talk, but nobody wants to listen. There’s not much else to take away.