New York magazine’s ‘Canceled at 17’ isn’t just an article – it’s ammunition | Arwa Mahdawi

Any day now Roe v Wade is expected to be struck down in the US. Any day now women across more than half the states in the US risk losing control over their reproductive choices. In some states, women impregnated by rape or incest will be forced to carry babies to term. Women who miscarry will have to worry about being prosecuted for murder. Meanwhile, in Texas, Republicans have just passed a platform declaring homosexuality “abnormal” and are continuing to wage war on trans people.

If you think that all of this makes it a rough time to be a woman or a marginalized person in America, then you’d be very wrong. No, as it turns out, it’s a terrible time to be a young man. You see, it’s not women’s rights going backwards that we all ought to be worried about – it’s the fact that women’s rights have gone too far.

That is the rough premise of an 8,000-word cover story published by New York Magazine on Monday titled “Canceled at 17”.’ The story is about a teenage boy called Diego (a pseudonym) who shares nude photos of his girlfriend, “Fiona”, without her consent. People at their school turn against Diego, he loses most of his friends, and is “canceled”. One girl, Jenni, charitably still rides in Diego’s car, but puts a jacket over her head when she does so. Things are rough for Diego: he hangs out with his pet rat (“Toe”), writes bad poetry, doesn’t eat much, and sleeps a lot. The story ends on a tragic note: Diego, we are told, skips his own graduation. However, he does attend four proms and is off to university in a new town where he can start fresh.

8,000 words. Let me repeat that: 8,000 words. This high school drama got 8,000 words in in a national magazine. Why? Well, because it’s part of a wider phenomenon, according to the writer. “This was not just Diego’s school,” the article states. “This was all over the country.” A few examples are rattled off: “A boy touched a girl’s waist without consent at a Spirit Week rally – shunned by his community and called a sexual abuser. A student accused a boy of touching her at a school dance – major investigation, lawyers on all sides.” All across the US, young men, we are told, are having their lives ruined because young women, high on #MeToo and internet activism, are over-reacting to silly little things like their nude photos being shared.

But that’s not really true, is it? What happened to Diego is very much an anomaly. Let’s be honest here: in most cases where a guy shares a girls’ nudes without her consent, the girl is the one who ostracized. She’s victim-blamed; she’s ridiculed; she’s shamed. The article even inadvertently admits that Diego’s ostracization isn’t standard. Diego, we’re told, starts hanging around with kids who aren’t from his school and opens up to them about why he’s been cancelled. “Almost no one met his disclosure with much besides sympathy,” the article states. “[The other kids] were all like, ‘Don’t worry, bro. You’ll get through it.’ ” Or: “‘Your school is wack as hell.’”

There is a saying that “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” That quote illuminates the heart of every handwringing article about “cancel culture”, including this one. Some people are accustomed to their actions having consequences; some people are not. Bad male behaviour has traditionally been brushed off with excuses like “boys will be boys”, or “locker-room talk”. It’s certainly never been much of an impediment to career progression. Nearly a quarter of the supreme court has been accused of sexual misconduct. When a man actually does face consequences for his behaviour, it’s greeted with shock and awe – a disturbance in the natural order of things.

I’m not saying, by the way, that I believe Diego deserves to have the rest of his life ruined. I’m not saying that he deserves to be shunned wherever he goes; that people should shout “shame, shame, shame!” when they see him on the street. What I’m saying is that the mob justice (if that’s how you want to describe teenagers being mean to each other) meted out to him isn’t emblematic of some kind of new normal. It’s simply an example of the fact that teenagers can be cruel; in this instance, they chose Diego as their target. More importantly, it’s a reflection of the fact that the school Diego and Fiona attended didn’t have the right processes in place to deal with Fiona’s nude photos being shared. The institutions and adults that should have protected Fiona let her down; kids took justice into their own hands. The moral here isn’t that #MeToo has gone too far, it’s that it hasn’t gone far enough.

This article, it’s important to note, wasn’t published in a vacuum. When the mainstream media publish stories that imply #MeToo is out of control, it helps to accelerate an existing backlash against feminism. It helps to push a false narrative that young men are being victimized by the mores of modern America. It helps to create an environment in which women are hesitant to come forward about abuse because they’re worried they won’t be believed. It makes it easier for the likes of Fox News to spin lies about feminism and it makes it easier for Republicans to pass regressive legislation. The New York Magazine story isn’t just an article: it’s ammunition.