Esquire magazine launched a series of reported essays this morning with an article titled “The Life of an American Boy at 17.” It featured a tall, handsome, but not particularly dynamic white kid from Wisconsin who thinks he’s likely to end up working at a “water plant.” Thousands of people who don’t subscribe to Esquire, or normally read Esquire, or fit in with Esquire’s target demographic are furious about the choice of subject. Or at least they are pretending to be. Our future water-plant worker is just too unbearably privileged for the leading minds of New York media. He shouldn’t be represented this way. For reasons that aren’t altogether clear.
The outrage that this article exists in is recursive in quality. It begins with a presumption that this particular subject, a tall white teenager who vaguely supports the president, should not be “centered” — or given attention at all, that he has earned too much attention. Again, these aren’t Esquire subscribers or regular readers. The question occurs: “Aren’t you in control of your attention? Couldn’t you just ignore this article?” Apparently not. And because there is outrage that he got attention, the controversy itself becomes the cause of further controversy. The people claiming they don’t want to “center” Esquire’s cover subject draw him into the center of a hurricane.
Some of the excuses for the outrage are made up. How many women were in the decision-making process for this article? (The article’s author is a woman.) “Why are you centering whiteness? Are you defining American as white and male?” (It’s only the first in a series looking at white, black, and LGBTQ teen subjects). “Why did Esquire do this in February, which is Black History Month?” (It’s the March cover subject). But March is Women’s History Month! Although my favorite complaint is when people say, “Who thought this was a good idea?” Why isn’t someone an acceptable answer?
Seriously, why can’t someone be interested in this? Why does a men’s magazine that creates journalism jobs by selling ad space to luxury brands aimed at men have to cater to everyone but privileged males? Why should it be having BuzzFeed’s conversation imposed on it? Like much of the anger directed at National Review, boycotts and canceled subscriptions aren’t a threat when they come from people who decided they hated you decades ago.
Most of the critics, if they could read (and we shouldn’t presume), would find that a great many of their preferred topics and narratives about the world are subtly represented in the story, which looks at American society through this young man’s eyes. As he sees it, the world is ready to lash out at him for being what he can’t help being, for reasons that are unintelligible to him. The reaction to the article more than proved the point.
And by the way, if it wasn’t Esquire, the outrage would have been about Bloomingdale’s. The department store stocked a T-shirt with the words “Fake News” on it. If it weren’t liberals leading the outrage, it would be conservatives, moaning about the Oscars or something. Because we live in the age of the tattletale.
And worse, we don’t even tattle to the authorities. How many real attempts at persuasion were sent to Esquire’s editor? Instead, we tattle to the anonymous online mob. Or, occasionally, we tattle to mega corporations that advertise, hoping that they see the mob and dole out the real punishment that matters.
You would think that an age of diversity would be less anxious and vindictive. You’d think that it would privilege institutions that make judgments and stand behind them, rather than complaints made by randos who can’t. You would think that the forces that a diverse age called upon would be reasonable, full of liberality. Instead it’s thousands of idiots, pretending to be mad, pretending that the March issue is about February, that a men’s magazine should be about anything other than men, and that a kid destined for the local plant in Wisconsin is privileged.
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