The March 2018 Esquire cover story “The Life of an American Boy at 17” brought no end of critique upon itself. Was it justified, necessary critique, or was it evidence of what Esquire‘s editor called a “Kafkaesque thought-police nightmare of paranoia and nausea”? Writing in Pacific Standard, Patrick Nathan takes advantage of time and reflection to pen a thoughtful, pointed essay on what it means to be “neutral” when you work in systems — of politics, of journalism, of culture — that are themselves seeped in racism and misogyny.
The piece is written as if Ryan is an unfamiliar or exotic subject for profiling. In fact, he is the institutionally approved median, or neutral, of young masculinity in America, at the center of two centuries of culture, entertainment, law, education, art, and politics. America was built, mostly by slaves, for boys like Ryan.
I’ve always known who he is, because Ryan is the model I was supposed to imitate—at least until my queerness got in the way. So it’s not only insulting that Esquire assumes I can’t see him—that any queer, or any person of color, any girl or woman, can’t see him. It’s cruel. And it seems a deliberate cruelty, because all Esquire has done is to re-emphasize this neutrality, this apparent normative ideal, which makes the rest of us un-American.
Clinging to this false neutrality, Esquire has only strengthened the ideologies of whiteness and toxic masculinity. Percy may not have done this on purpose, but neither is Ryan, on purpose, a bigot whose unchallenged ignorance can and will harm other people. This is what people mean when they lament the inevitability of “the system”: Percy is doing what the system asks of her—recording what happened and who said what—and doing it well. Ryan is behaving like the boy the system wants him to be. Jay Fielden, Esquire‘s editor, is equally faithful to this system, where words are transparent and self-propagating tools of something called civilization.