Ryan Morgan is a 17-year-old student from Wisconsin who likes grouse hunting, hanging out with his girlfriend and playing Madden NFL on his Xbox. He appears to be ordinary in a lot of ways — or presumably, editors at Esquire magazine perceived him that way, which is why they put him on their most recent cover with an all-caps headline: “An American Boy.”
The story promised to unpack “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.”
Some people weren’t having it. “Happy Black History Month, everybody,” news anchor Soledad O’Brien tweeted sardonically Tuesday. “We do not need more features about how tough it is to grow up male and Caucasian,” read another response. “We need more coverage of how tough it is to navigate the patriarchy.” The author of the Esquire piece defended the story to CBS, saying that she hadn’t approved the cover line and found it misleading. Hot takes abounded, and different commenters claimed the backlash proved the original story was necessary. In short, it was America in 2019.
Certainly, Morgan doesn’t represent all white men. Part of the blowback occurred because he represented a specific male who, born of media desire to understand red-state voters, already gets a lot of coverage: a conservative-leaning Heartlander grappling with a changing order — one who’s heard of #MeToo but worries about its impact. Morgan discussed how he sometimes felt persecuted because he likes President Trump, and he felt silenced as a male. Editors displayed one of his quotes on the cover: “I know what I can’t do, I just don’t know what I can do.”
The other reason there was consternation, I expect, wasn’t about Morgan at all, but about a broader question we’re culturally grappling with. How should we talk about white men today?
We talk about them all the time, in the sense that Donald Trump, Robert Mueller, Elon Musk, a dozen televised Bachelors and movie-star Chrises (Pratt/Evans/Pine/Hemsworth) are all white men in regular conversational rotation. But, how do we talk about them like an anthropologist would? Recognize them without lionizing them, analyze them without demonizing them — how do we tell their stories while remembering that their stories, as a group, were often the sole narrative, told at the expense of others’?
Esquire’s editor, Jay Fielden, explained that the piece would be part of a series, one that would feature teenagers of various backgrounds: “white, black, LGBTQ, female.” The story about Ryan Morgan could turn out to be one piece of an illuminating whole.
But it’s still noteworthy, I think, that editors chose to begin their series with him. Not only because February is Black History Month, but because the choice reinforces the idea that being white and male is the standard version of being human. That other versions, with other bells and whistles, would be released in the coming months — but if you were looking for the classic floor model of a person, a straight white man is who you’d get.
The evening I first started to read about the Esquire controversy I saw another headline, about presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). She’d just done a radio interview where she was invited, as she often is, to discuss her relationship with race and gender. The hosts asked her to respond to people questioning “the legitimacy of your blackness.”
Harris isn’t alone. It’s rare to find an interview with a woman or a person of color where they’re not asked specifically about being a woman or a person of color. “Kirsten Gillibrand’s unabashedly feminist campaign,” read a Tuesday New York Times headline about the New York senator and likely presidential candidate, which went on to discuss Gillibrand’s “woman plus” platform.
Women are asked to talk about their identities because we recognize that those identies matter — that women’s accomplishments, struggles and worldviews are all related, in some way, to the lives they’d lived and the bodies in which they’d lived them.
We haven’t requested the same introspection from white men. They haven’t been asked to talk specifically about how being male impacted their worldviews; they haven’t been asked how being white has shaped their opinions on policy. You don’t ask the floor model what it thinks of being a floor model, you just wait for, I dunno, the new self-parking feature to come out so you can use the original floor model as a standard for comparison.
I thought of Kamala Harris, and then I thought of Ryan Morgan.
It’s time — it’s beyond time — that we figure out ways to talk thoughtfully about what it means to be a white man. The problem isn’t that Esquire wrote a story about Morgan; the problem is that it presented the story using a rapidly outdated way of thinking: that white men are the default model. That the #MeToo movement can be seen as a metaphorical assault on white male identity rather than women’s attempt to avoid being literally assaulted.
I’m actually deeply interested in “what it’s like,” to use Esquire’s language, to be a young white man. But to do that, we need to ask them questions like we ask Kamala Harris, or Kirsten Gillibrand, or Ben Carson, or other nonwhite or female Hollywood producers or CEOs. Not, How is your life difficult right now, but How do you think your life has been shaped by the identity into which you were born?
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.