The Teen Boy in 2017
Our yearlong investigation into the life and times of the American teen male
To be a men’s site in 2017 means constantly grappling with the fact that it’s a very weird time to be a man. The mainstream essentially presents two completely different identities to choose from: There’s the poisonous alt-right “real man” on one side, and the sniveling, weak “cuck” on the other. Again, the only thing they seem to have in common is an appetite for beating the shit out of each other.
These polarizing archetypes are born out of anxiety over traditional definitions of masculinity, which are melting away along with our polar ice caps, and they leave out all the realities in between — like the blue-collar men who are ditching their coveralls for nursing scrubs, or the straight ones of the rural midwest who sometimes fuck each other. Men right now are confronted by female counterparts that out educate them, by a work economy where they’re shockingly absent, by a rising suicide rate and opiate addiction and by a major shift away from the concept of gender as a binary.
But what of the men who will follow? The men who are currently teen boys. What do they make of all of this adult male in-fighting, and what kind of men do they think they’ll grow up to be? Will it be more of the same — Pepe the Frog-wielding trolls on one side, a bunch of liberal “pussies” on the other? Or will one ideology win out? Or will these boys completely redefine masculinity in their own way, and in a way that’s completely unrecognizable to any of the men who’ve come before them?
Our decision to formally dedicate more of our coverage to male teens started with those questions — as well as a much simpler one: What’s it like to be a teen boy right now? We were even more compelled when we realized we had no idea what the answer was. While the inner-lives of teen girls are explored in Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Rookie, etc., there aren’t really any male equivalents. Or as one of our editors pointed out, there’s just Boys’ Life, a seemingly antiquated survival guide for an era when becoming a man is more complex than knowing how to handle a pump-action shotgun, whether you need a back saw or a jack plane to deal with a particularly tough piece of wood or how to craft the perfect walking stick.
It’s also easy to buy into the trope that teen boys are obsessed with dick-and-shit jokes, boobs and sports. Or to focus only on the ugliest, most awful stories about them — like hazing rituals that are basically sexual assault or just outright sexaul assault in the case of Brock Turner. “Our culture has unanimously agreed that putting boys together transforms them either into buffoons or barbarians, usually some grisly pairing of both,” writes Alana Massey in her opus on teen phenomenon One Direction, which will publish Wednesday. “They worship chaos and torment and diminish girls and women, the best we can hope for is to quarantine them from each other until they become men who can be civilized by women and work.”
But that, of course, is one-dimensional and unfair. And so, each piece we’re running this week — and over the course of the next year — tries to present a more nuanced view of contemporary boyhood. Case in point: For our launch piece, we asked Elmo Keep to do her version of Susan Orlean’s famed 1992 Esquire profile of an ordinary boy, this time turning the focus on a Mexican-American teen with dual citizenship (a kid who’s equal parts Minnesota and Oaxaca). Similarly, later this week, we will meet teen dads who were forced to grow up too fast, a group of athletes protesting for civil rights in Oakland and a teen fake ID expert who uses his to go to… museums. The rest of the series will run every other week for the remainder of 2017.
Throughout, we’ll see teen boys striving to be good — to be “men” on their own terms — with a surprising amount of grace. We have hope that this next generation might be able to push beyond the two archetypes we’ve offered them to something a little less divisive, and a lot more authentic.