Esquire has found itself embroiled in controversy on social media after a piece about a young white, middle-class teenager was chosen as the focal point for a piece on growing up in America in the March issue of the magazine, which was released during February ― Black History Month.
The piece follows 17-year-old high school senior Ryan Morgan from West Bend, Wisconsin. Morgan is featured in a powerful cover image on the March 2019 issue of Esquire. Overlaid over the image of Morgan, who is donning both a button-down and a hoodie and holding a sneaker, is the text: “An American Boy.”
“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,” it reads.
Readers are given a rundown of Morgan’s day-to-day, which includes his retelling of an altercation with a female classmate, an AP exam, interactions with his girlfriend, Kaitlyn, and his feelings.
In one section that unpacks how Morgan, who lives in a predominately Trump-voting territory, feels politically. He says that “last year was really bad.”
“I couldn’t say anything without pissing someone off ... Lots of drama over politics,” he says. “It ruined friendships and changed social groups. People were making friends based on their politics more than anything.” reads the piece, which says that, surprisingly, the most popular opinion at Morgan’s high school was “anti-Trump.”
The piece goes on to say: “Ryan, raised in Republican households, was surprised by the vitriol. ‘Everyone hates me because I support Trump?’ he says. ‘I couldn’t debate anyone without being shut down and called names. Like, what did I do wrong?’”
Later, we learn Morgan identifies as moderate: “It’s better to be a moderate, because then you don’t get heat.”
While there’s no question that being a child in today’s cultural climate is difficult, this reporter and many people on Twitter were confused as to why the magazine chose to profile a white boy in lieu of, say, any other American teenager. There are countless narratives of white men in history. Why, in 2019, are we adding yet another?
Esquire editor-in-chief Jay Fielden has answered that question for us in a follow-up to the cover about Morgan in an article titled, “Why Your Ideological Echo Chamber Isn’t Just Bad For You.”
Fielden talked about watching his 15-year-old son go through life and how he was inspired by him to wonder about childhood in the 21st century.
“As adults, it’s actually pretty easy to cop out: We don’t have to go to school, that bossy institution that pokes and prods you while people you don’t particularly like get to watch. Add to this the passions and change this moment has unleashed — #MeToo, gender fluidity, Black Lives Matter, ‘check your privilege,’ and #TheFutureIsFemale — and the task of grappling with the world has to be more complicated for kids than it’s ever been,” writes Fielden, who goes on to explain that his son has played a game in class that intrigued him.
The game divided the classroom into zones named “Strongly Agree,” “Strongly Disagree,” “Kind of Agree,” “Kind of Disagree.” Kids who felt “I Don’t Know” could stand in the middle of the room. The game involved someone reading issues like “gun control,” “abortion,” and “legalized marijuana” aloud and students went to the area that best expressed their view on each topic.
Fielden says that moment coupled with an editorial meeting where an editor mentioned Susan Orlean’s 1992 account of the day-to-day life of a 10-year-old boy led the publication to decide to follow Orlean’s model but “to enlarge it into a series on growing up now — white, black, LGBTQ, female — that will continue to appear in coming issues.”
“The question of what it’s like to be a kid these days had been on all our minds, but how could we grapple with an experience so sprawling?” he wrote.