When Elizabeth Weil’s New York magazine cover story, titled “Canceled at 17,” dropped, the internet immediately lit up. It tackled a thorny subject (“canceled”!). It involved teens (juicy!). And it was dazzlingly written. (“This nightmare began sweetly.” I mean!)
The piece centers on Diego (a pseudonym, as all the names in the piece are), who showed a nude picture of his girlfriend to other kids, and then is subsequently ostracized by his peers—that is the canceling that occurred. The online debate about the piece immediately zeroed in on the question of whether we really need a piece of journalism that centered a “canceled” protagonist who actually did do something like sharing a nude of a teenage girl, when so many teens suffer severe ostracization for, say, wearing weird clothes, and do not benefit from generous framing that taps into the current zeitgeist. Personally, I was not a fan of a piece that centered Diego’s experience in all of this, and how hard it has been on him.
But others of my colleagues disagreed—the piece was impressively reported, for one thing, but maybe more importantly, it placed Diego’s story in a larger trend. Another girl at the same school was cast out for years for blurting out a racist comment as a sophomore that she instantly regretted. Some boys were being named and shamed for doing … apparently nothing bad at all. And, maybe this obsession with ostracization—OK, cancellation—existed outside of just this one high school. Maybe it was a problem everywhere. As the piece itself said, “this could have been in any American city this past January, on any bus.”
Some writers questioned the universality of the high school cancellation narrative presented here (yes, it really felt like everyone in this narrow world was talking about the piece). And then Tarpley Hitt, at Gawker, published a classic little Gawker scoop: Elizabeth Weil had had a kid at the very school she’d been writing about. The debate pivoted into a new spiral—Weil’s editors had known about her connection but had determined that it hadn’t affected her reporting and didn’t bias her, and so they had declined to disclose the connection in the interest of preserving the anonymity of the school and the story’s characters.
Ethically, this is confusing territory. It is not forbidden for Weil to have covered this story, especially if she really truly didn’t have any connections to the many kids she talked to for it. It’s true, as New York magazine’s statement on the matter points out, that writers find stories via their extended social networks all the time. (This is a big reason why the diversification of newsrooms is so urgent.)
But it still feels a little inherently weird to have a writer cover their own child’s high school without sharing with the reader that that’s what they’re doing. While the high school cancellation narrative does not seem to be an isolated incident—Weil lists a handful of examples of boy-shaming run amok at various schools—is the dynamic really so typical?*
I emailed Weil, who confirmed that her kid had indeed overlapped with Diego, but noted that that overlap happened well before these events unfurled. Weil also said:
I didn’t know any of the subjects personally and I haven’t had a kid in the school in years. There was no personal conflict. This is not a personal story. Gawker is being Gawker.
To unpack this further, we asked Heather Schwedel, a staff writer at Slate, and Rebecca Onion, a senior editor, to discuss the piece, and the conflict, on our chat show on gender, The Waves. (We invited Elizabeth Weil on, but she declined.) You can listen to that here:
For my part, I found Heather Schwedel and Rebecca Onion’s discussion to be nuanced, and they made me see more value in the piece that I initially did. I hope you give it a listen.
But I still can’t help but think about all the schools in America where the kids are not taking up the social justice language that they may have seen operating in their specific communities. All the schools in America where it is not the boys that we have to worry for—but still the girls. I wonder if this story—about perhaps too much and too zealous and even too cruel justice—could have been more of an anomaly that it first seems. Because it wasn’t any school in America. It was Weil’s.
Correction, June 30, 2022: This article originally misstated that Elizabeth Weil didn’t do a broad survey of American high schools to find this story. Weil says she talked to dozens of people in nine different states before settling on this story.
Update, June 30, 2022: This article has been updated to clarify Diego’s actions.