The Problem With New York Mag's "Canceled Teen"

It's missing some key context

Sad young boy teenager sitting alone. Continuous one line drawing. Vector illustration

New York Magazine published an 8,000-word cover story yesterday, titled “Canceled At 17,” about the ordeal of a pseudonymous teen boy whom the writer Elizabeth Weil describes as “enormously appealing but also very canceled.” That odd descriptor sets the tone for the piece: an extremely sympathetic framing of one male high-school student’s ostracization — a brutal, but typical adolescent experience — dressed up in the jargon of “cancel culture.”

According to Weil, the canceled teen, nicknamed “Diego,” stumbled into trouble last summer after showing a group of friends a nude picture of his underage “beautiful girlfriend.” When school started that fall, one of his classmates told the girlfriend; she dumped Diego; and within a few weeks, “most of the other students in his grade had stopped talking to him.” This incident happened to coincide with the return to in-person classes, following 18 months of restless online learning, and a reckoning within the school itself over how it handled Title IX complaints. That November, after an unspecified number of similar incidents at the school, students planned a walkout “over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.” The protest was targeted at the administrators, but at some point in the process a list appeared on the girl’s bathroom wall naming “PEOPLE TO WATCH OUT FOR.” It included, among others, Diego’s name.

Weil uses Diego’s story as a parable for how teen bullying has evolved in the contemporary age. The story is devoid of real names, firm dates, and any semblance of location. The reader is told only that “this could have been in any American city this past January,” and later: “This was not just Diego’s school. This was all over the country.” Weil makes the case that anger about and activism over pervasive sexual misconduct — which she concedes is often justified and nursed along by the shortcomings of the adults and institutions responsible for addressing it — has mutated into an emotional and overreactive vigilante justice that pursues revenge irrespective of guilt, leaving students like Diego in its wake. “The whole thing was a distraction, counterproductive, pulling focus away from the school district’s failings,” Weil says of the bathroom names. “Classmates wrote them ‘out of anger and pure emotion.’”

Notably, the “anger and pure emotion” levied at Diego stemmed, not from some amorphous frustration with rape culture, but from the fact that he showed a naked picture of his girlfriend to a bunch of friends at a party. But even if you take Weil at her word that social media, evolving social mores, and post-pandemic agita have elevated the tenor of teenage hostilities, the story fails on many levels.

For one, it strips the pursuit of extralegal justice from the context of how the Trump administration has gutted Title IX and how the school in question was ill-equipped to protect its female students. (While the Biden administration recently announced plans to rollback some of those changes, they won’t take effect for several months). As Title IX attorney Alexandra Brodsky wrote in her book, Sexual Justice: “No one, I think, wants to live in a world where the Shitty Media Men list or bathroom scrawling is plausibly a top choice.” Unfortunately, that’s often how things go, and then we end up in a place where a legacy publication devotes thousands of words to the victims of cancel culture, rather than, say, administrators who ignore revenge porn.

But it’s not news to report on how things have always been. It’s easier to find a new angle on an old story and tap into a specious social dialogue about overzealous activists, than to dig into the drier legal reasons they were organizing in the first place. That framing device is helped along by Weil’s vagueness about where, precisely, this incident occurred. But the particulars are important here. “We need to look,” as one of the students puts it in the piece, “at why those emotions are there.”

It’s hard to consider the rationale without an understanding of the school’s context — the bureaucratic failures students are responding to or the climate they’re responding in. Weil herself conceded that Diego’s classmates, after returning from lockdown, were urging administrators to look into accusations of misconduct, or what she calls “interpersonal incidents,” from before classes went online. Weil frames this as an unreasonable request, calling it “stuff that no longer felt right after 18 months stuck at home.” And perhaps they were facile allegations. But without background about the school, who could know?

Consider, for example, the recent uprisings in the Bay Area, where Weil lives. While we do not know where Weil’s story is set, the events she describes closely resemble how those protests unfolded (at least one school held a walkout on the same date mentioned in the piece). And the circumstances there illustrate how crucial school context can be.

Back in 2020, Berkeley High held a high-profile walkout calling for better sexual violence resources from the school district. The protest shared many characteristics with the walkout Weil describes, including a bathroom stall list of “Boys to Watch Out 4.” This one was responding to a lawsuit against the district, filed by another BHS student, claiming that staff had failed to act, after she reported that a male student tried to rape her on campus in 2019. According to the complaint, the mandated reporter did not look into the perpetrator, though the victim provided names of at least six other students who had been similarly assaulted. Just this March, Berkeley Unified School District settled with the student for $365,000 — a payout her own attorney admitted was in the “high range” for such cases.

That protest took place weeks before the pandemic shut schools down, the last time many of these students were interacting in person. But when they returned last fall, “hundreds” of Bay Area students held similar marches across the greater metro area. There were walkouts at Bishop O’Dowd School, Oakland Tech, Oakland School of the Arts, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, George Washington High School, Lowell High School, and Abraham Lincoln High School, among others. The uproar culminated in a multi-school march on San Francisco city hall in December. Last month, one of the region’s fancier prep academies, Lick-Wilmerding High School, joined in with a march of their own. These followed or coincided with several other lawsuits filed against Bay Area schools over Title IX violations.

Weil was certainly aware of these nearby school movements — she mentions the Oakland School of the Arts, though mostly to use a racially motivated incident as representative of the whole. This is one of just two schools Weil cites by name, as evidence that the vigilantism she describes “was not just Diego’s school.” But Weil does not examine the context of the Bay Area’s protests or the allegations that led to their walkout — beyond noting that, again, “a group of students had been swapping nude images of female classmates.” This characterization makes it seem like the incidents are no big deal, just kid stuff that snowballed out of control — when, historically speaking, social ostracization is equally endemic to the American high school experience, and in this particular case, the students were mad that nude photos of them were being passed around like party flyers.

Perhaps the most distorting oversight, however, is the article’s characterization of Title IX. Weil describes Title IX as bureaucratic bandaid to the pervasive problem of sexual assault — “a sieve, a piece of ed code” — designed, not for students’ benefit, but to shield school districts from liability. The law, she concludes, ultimately does both “a poor job of stopping harassment and leaves students feeling ignored and enraged.”

There are, obviously, many shortcomings in the recourse Title IX provides recipients of sex-based discrimination — but any thorough audit would have to note the many, many ways it was defanged by the Trump administration. In fact, several of the specific failings Weil attributes to this “sieve” were imposed by Betsy Devos in 2020. That year, then acting as the Secretary of Education, Devos issued regulations that took a jackhammer to Title IX’s jurisdiction. Among other things, the new rules excluded incidents that took place off school grounds from Title IX coverage, limited when school staff are required to intervene in reported cases, and relaxed the protocols of how schools should investigate and address incidents of misconduct.

The very redress procedure that Weil holds up as the gold standard of conflict mediation — restorative justice — was gutted by these same rules. Typically, restorative practices require mediation with a trained practitioner; or as Weil put it, “a facilitated conversation among the people directly involved, with the goal of creating empathy and coaxing kids out of angel/devil, black-and-white thinking.” It is an involved process, the foundational principle of which, according to public health professor Mary Koss, who conducted the first national study on rape, is “that a crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm.”

But after the Trump administration intervened, that process was relaxed; the newer procedure, as Know Your IX manager Sage Carson told KCBS last fall, was closer to “putting the two parties in a room and essentially saying ‘talk it out.’” Instead of framing the issue around “one party that has caused harm to the other,” Carson explained, the new approach “rests on the idea that there is harm on both sides that needs to be mediated." You can see why someone whose naked picture was broadcast to their classmates might find this less appealing.

In many ways, the protests of the past years are a response to these Trump administration roll backs of sexual assault regulations. At least one group of activists said so explicitly — the Women’s Student Union at Berkeley High, which filed a lawsuit last March against the Department of Education over the very Title IX changes Devos imposed. That lawsuit was dismissed this spring on the grounds that the students did not have “standing” to make a claim. The Student Union filed a motion in March, announcing their intent to appeal to the Ninth Circuit. But Weil’s cherry-picked article does not get into these particulars. If she had, she might have written a story, not about students going scorched earth on their unwitting classmates, but about teens stemming the tides of conservative backlash.