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Stop coddling boys who hurt girls
In general, I try not to write columns that are responses to specific articles—I prefer to do broader pieces. But every once in a while, a publication will run something so shockingly bad that I have to make an exception. This is one of those times.
New York Magazine’s “Canceled at 17”—complete with a cover commissioned from celebrity artist KAWS—runs with the ominous subhead, “When kids make mistakes, and classmates never forgive.” Yes, it’s yet another missive on ‘cancel culture’. And like so many of its predecessors, the piece wants us to believe that #MeToo and women coming forward about sexual assault and harassment have gone too far.
What makes this article special, though, is that it’s a perfect example of how sexism and mainstream media collide and collude to convince Americans that abusive men are the real victims. And in a moment when misogynist backlash is on an upswing, pieces like this are more dangerous than ever.
Author Liz Weil, we’re told, has investigated the “fallout” at an American high school after a list of boys “to watch out for” was posted on a bathroom wall. Weil tells the story of one of those boys, who she pseudonymously calls Diego.
It takes Weil twelve paragraphs to tell us what, exactly, Diego has done—but not before she calls him “enormously appealing” with “dark, goofy, and sad” eyes; “surprisingly sweet and funny”; a “fan of Nivea deodorant, Air Jordans, and Taylor Swift” who “hangs out in skateparks”; and a kid who made a “stupid mistake.”
And what was the mistake that this charming, goofy boy made? He shared nude pictures of his girlfriend without her consent, something that is not actually a ‘mistake’ at all, but a crime.
Weil wants us to know, however, that ‘Fiona’ was “Diego’s first real girlfriend, and she was almost psychedelically beautiful: pale, celestial skin, a whole galaxy of freckles, a supernova of red hair.”
This detailed description of a teenage girl’s attractiveness is not accidental, but offered as an excuse. When Weil writes about the night Diego showed Fiona’s nude pictures to multiple people—asking readers to “please consider setting aside judgment for a moment”—she describes him “show[ing] a nude of his beautiful girlfriend...” As if he couldn’t help but share her beauty with the world. As if it was a compliment.
In the approximately 8,000 words that Weil spends writing about Diego, there is no other investigation, questioning, or examination of why he might have done this terrible thing. Just his girlfriend’s ‘psychedelic’ beauty, that’s it.
And while we don’t hear much about how this impacted Fiona—what it did to her social and school life, how it impacted her mental health and the way she trusts people or views relationships—we do hear an awful lot about the impact it had on Diego once his peers found out.
He was “heartbroken and depressed,” writing “bad poems” and sad songs; he “barely ate for weeks” and “slept for 12 hours a night.” Weil paints a full picture for who Diego is as a person—a junior ranger with a pet rat named ‘Toe’ who has a post-it note on his phone case reminding him to “be kind and respectful to everyone.” Fiona, naturally, isn’t afforded the same humanizing treatment. (Feminist philosopher Kate Manne has a term for when men who hurt women are given this kind of disproportionate compassion: ‘himpathy’.)
The article is a perfect example of how sexism and mainstream media collide and collude to convince Americans that abusive men are the real victims.
Weil does find the time, though, to let readers know that Fiona thought Diego’s social shunning was deserved because “he acted like a jerk that past summer, partying a lot, even breaking up with her for a bit”—making it seem as though this young woman wasn’t actually upset about her nude photos being shared, but petty high school bullshit.
This is how backlash is brewed—not by raving misogynists on Reddit, but by established reporters and flashy magazine covers. Not with sexist slurs, but sly nods that trigger widely-held biases. Why go with run-of-the-mill victim-blaming when waxing poetic about a boy who shared his girlfriend’s nudes is so much less obvious?
Let’s be real for a second. What do you think happens more often: An abusive boy is shunned by his peers, or an abused girl is blamed and shamed? We all know the answer—so why does the anomaly get a New York Magazine cover while the literal epidemic of girls who are unsafe at school goes ignored?
The truth is that there is a really interesting piece to be written about girls who do things like post a list of boys’ names in a bathroom, or share their rapists’ names on TikTok or Twitter. These are young women who know they’ve been completely and utterly failed by institutions, and want to have some measure of protection and power. Their stories are far more interesting than a boy who doesn’t like facing the consequences of his own actions.
I don’t doubt that Diego, and other boys who have been outed as abusers, have lost friends or had a hard time. But here’s the thing: That’s good. People who hurt others should face social repercussions. And if high schoolers are going to be over-the-top or mean, better that they aim their teenage ire at abusers rather than victims.
Maybe if a younger generation of men grow up believing their lives could be negatively impacted—or even ruined—by sexually assaulting or harassing someone, then they’d actually stop sexually assaulting and harassing.
But that’s never going to happen as long as the mainstream media is around to coddle boys who hurt girls, telling them that they’re the real victims.
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