The cover of Esquire's March 2019 issue. (Credit: Esquire) (Esquire Magazine/Esquire Magazine)
Opinion writer

"I still don’t really understand it. I know what I can’t do, I just don’t know what I can do.”

Ryan Morgan, the 17-year-old who graced the cover of Esquire’s March issue in the first of a series of planned pieces about growing up in contemporary America, probably didn’t intend his lament to come across as either thoughtless and privileged or as a concise statement of a major American problem. Instead, he was telling a story about an incident in which he got into a brief physical altercation with a girl in his school’s computer lab. The Esquire story, by Jennifer Percy, has been widely vilified. Lost in the kerfuffle was the fact that Morgan posed a reasonably good question: Helping boys figure out what they can and can’t do has major implications both for them and for American girls.

It’s perfectly reasonable to be vexed that Esquire offered up Morgan as its first representative of American boyhood. He lives in Washington County, Wis., which the census defines as mostly urban; a similar percentage of children live in rural areas, and even more live in the suburbs. His parents are divorced and share custody; 68.9 percent of American children live in two-parent households, 65 percent of them in a household where their parents are married. He’s white, which 51 percent of American children are, though there’s a case to be made that white 17-year-olds aren’t the American boys who could benefit most from profiles in major magazines.

(I find it somewhat less persuasive to suggest that Percy gives Morgan some kind of pass: The piece is a classic example of using unadorned prose and minimal framing to allow a subject to expose himself, teenage parochialism and all.)

That said, living through a major shift in cultural norms is a confusing process. The potential sea change confronting Morgan, and other kids his age, is full of seeming contradictions and hypocrisies: a sharp focus on misogyny even as boys have worse outcomes in some categories; much discussion of a metaphorical war on privileged white boys even as black boys and teenagers face genuinely lethal threats from the police. Adults haven’t ironed out these conundrums and built a better, clearer world for Morgan to grow up in, either.

It’s simultaneously true that women are more likely to experience domestic violence, that the gender pay gap is real, and that women are dramatically underrepresented in important centers of power and that teenage boys are more likely to drink frequently and heavily, their rates of college enrollment are falling, and they are more likely to die by suicide than teenage girls. This complementary array of statistics can lead to an unseemly and unproductive competition for who ought to take precedence. Does the war on boys need to end? Or is there still too much of the patriarchy left to smash?

As with most battles of the sexes, the choice here is at least partially a false one. There are plenty of policy and cultural changes that could be good for both men and women, for both boys and girls. Reducing the number of guns in circulation could make domestic violence incidents and suicide attempts less lethal. Tearing down the cultural norms that glorify binge drinking could make girls safer from sexual assault and lead to fewer tragedies like that of Tim Piazza, who died in 2017 while pledging Penn State’s chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Closing the wage gap could take pressure off men to be primary breadwinners, allowing them to pursue a different range of professions or to become full-time caregivers, depending on their inclinations.

And for Ryan Morgan, in particular, what he can do — and what he doesn’t have to — ought to be much broader than whether he can fight back if a girl hits him.

He may think that being a mother is “probably the hardest job in the world." But he deserves to grow up in a society that makes it easier for dads to be present in their children’s lives. He can show more curiosity about the world around him and the debates roiling his classmates and his community. And the adults around him ought to be giving him more and better guidance in that process. (In one anecdote, Morgan says his mother tells him a story about a girl who broke her own arm for attention, while in another, one of his teachers runs a bizarre classroom exercise that seems designed to exacerbate partisan divides.)

Morgan’s father, Owen, says, at one point, that his son “could do so much more” than work for the local water utility. "Hopefully he’ll realize that.” A profession and a scuffle aren’t the only times boys such as Ryan Morgan will face big questions about what they’re capable of, and what their options truly are. They deserve help in finding good answers. The stakes are too high for them, for teenage girls and for the rest of us to ignore what they’re asking.

Read more:

Alexandra Petri: Profile of Holden Caulfield, an American boy

Andrew L. Yarrow: Why progressives should stop avoiding men’s issues

Letters: On the Kavanaugh allegations, teens have more wisdom than adults today