The inherent problem with Esquire Magazine’s recent portrait selection has nothing to do with the fact that Ryan Morgan — the subject of its March 2019 cover — is straight, white or male. It’s because we all know a Ryan Morgan –– someone whose disconnect from politics and the news cycle stems from a place of privilege and ignorance. The cover, boldly declaring “The Life of an American Boy at 17” captures what it’s like to grow up in a country divided by issues of “social media, school shootings, toxic masculinity, [and] #MeToo.” However, writer Jennifer Percy struggles to get coherent thoughts out of Morgan on any of the topics, leaving readers wondering about the lost potential of this first part of a series about “Growing Up in America Today.”
Former Editor-in-Chief of Esquire Magazine, David Granger, believes that Esquire is not merely a fashion or health magazine: “It is… a magazine about the interests, the curiosity, the passions, of men.” Despite this, the narrative chosen was strangely average. Morgan’s parents are divorced, he likes watching sports and playing Xbox and doesn’t seem to have to worry about violent crime near him, as he and his friend struggle to recall anything dramatic that’s happened in their town in the last 10 years. When the interview moves to the topic of school shootings, Morgan merely says that he doesn’t understand why white men are often school shooters, with his girlfriend chiming in that schools in the area are starting gun drills. They discuss briefly some potential threats made to the school and the overall increased security, but nothing else.
Even the right-leaning Washington Examiner called the piece “stupidly boring” –– it doesn’t follow Morgan’s train of thought, it follows his itinerary, trying to conjure social commentary out of regular school day conversations.
Morgan, unlike other teens, is bored by Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter. He complains that “he can’t win” on social media: if he disagrees with someone, they will just call him stupid, or tell him straight white men shouldn’t be commenting on issues of women’s rights or the LGBT community. The same thing happens if he tries to express himself –– something that happens to millions of others everyday. At the end of it all, Morgan simply says “I guess they think since I’m not a girl, I don’t have an opinion.” And that’s all the analysis he provides. This isn’t a new or refreshing take on social media –– it’s something that’s been going on for years.
Writer Jennifer Percy attempts to highlight the modernity of the situation fail, most notably when she asks Morgan about the #MeToo movement. He says he has “heard of it in class,” and asks the reporter to explain its significance.
Chicago Tribune writer, Monica Hesse, writes that Esquire’s choice of Morgan as the first of many American portraits “reinforces the idea that being white and male is the standard version of being human.” In light of Black History Month and the racial tensions that plagued 2018, Esquire’s goal to paint a picture of “Divided America” is off to a rough start. Morgan never once discusses race, and the town he lives in is 95 percent white.
While the young man’s story is still one worth reading, it’s not the one we need to hear right now. Morgan’s portrait is one of privilege: he doesn’t worry about politics, nor what’s going on in the world around him. Is this really the narrative media should push as representative of the “American Boy?”
“The Life of an American Boy at 17” had many potential ground-breaking pathways, but it chose not to take any. In a time where the discussion surrounding toxic masculinity, student activism and political polarity has become more intense than ever, Esquire could have at least chosen a guinea pig that offered something to the discussion. But Morgan doesn’t –– he doesn’t know what #MeToo is, thinks the president is “funny” sometimes and is mostly disconnected from social media. He’s shocked at the divide that political affiliation has caused within his high school, but this just shows his classmates’ convictions are stronger than his. His disconnect from politics comes from a place of privilege, conveying the idea that politics aren’t important to him because they don’t affect him personally.
Morgan’s narrative is simply not compelling, nor is it well-timed. For the last few years, social media has challenged traditional media to focus on narratives of traditionally marginalized groups, and Esquire fumbled majorly.