Unpacking NY Mag’s Teen Cancel Culture Piece

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Speaker 1: The tick, tick, tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Speaker 2: Welcome to The Wave Slate’s podcast about gender feminism and the list of boys names written on the girls bathroom wall. Every episode you get a new pair of women to talk about the things we can’t get off our minds. And today you’ve got me. Heather Schwedel, a staff writer at Slate and me.

Speaker 3: Rebecca Onion, a senior editor for Slate.

Speaker 2: This week, we’re discussing a controversial longform article that appears on the cover of the latest issue of New York Magazine under the headline Canceled at 17. Written by Elizabeth Weel, it’s about a high school student named Diego who gets, quote unquote, canceled for showing a nude photo of his then girlfriend to some other kids and everything that comes after that. And the thing that really fascinated me about the story initially is the dynamics of it are just the exact opposite of what I would have expected them to be during my own high school years in the 2000s. Then it was unimaginable that the whole school would stand up for Fiona Diego’s acts and ostracize Diego. But that’s what happens in this story, and that’s progress. But but is it, though, Rebecca, why did you want to talk about this?

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Speaker 3: I thought the way that this was written was extremely fascinating. It’s designed to make the reader feel sympathy for this guy who did something that, you know is very wrong, uncomfortable and upsetting. But it’s also kind of tapped into a lot of people’s pet topics in discourse right now. You know, obviously cancel culture, revenge porn, what the pandemic did to kids and all of these things have made people react in a very, very virulent way.

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Speaker 2: We’re going to talk about all of that. We’re going to talk about the choice to center the piece around Diego rather than the girl he wronged. Certainly some of the backlash the piece received and it did receive a lot, including a post publication, Gawker scoop about the article that makes the discussion even more complicated. So all of that right after this.

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Speaker 2: Hey Waves listeners. If you’re loving the show and want to hear more, subscribe to our feed. New episodes come out every Thursday morning. While you’re there, check out our other episodes, too. Like last week’s episodes about Gone Girl and Roe versus Wade. Welcome back to the Waves. Now we’re going to try to spend some time unpacking the premise of the piece, why it’s so grabby and why it drew so much attention and why drew so much criticism to.

Speaker 2: So first, I guess we should specify what it means when we say that Diego was cancelled. So what happened there is that when word got around school of what he did, most of his friends stopped speaking to him. Word spread that he was an abuser and his friends who did still speak to him, they had to do so secretly because they didn’t want to be cancelled by association. Also, his name appeared on a list of boys to look out for in the girls bathroom at school. He lost his job. He got very depressed and so on.

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Speaker 2: So in this piece, we’re getting to see Cancel Culture and MeToo, which have been these hot button topics for a few years now for adults. And we’re getting to see how they’ve trickled down into teenagers lives. And also playing into this is the pandemic and how isolated kids were during it. It was a time when many of them were spending so much time alone, so much time on social media, which can be a place that’s very toxic. And it’s hard to see others as as humans, you can encourage some kind of binary thinking. So I think all of these things combine to paint a picture of a high school environment in the article that’s just really unfamiliar to a lot of adults.

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Speaker 3: Yeah, it’s interesting because the perspective on social media, which of course is like the idea of how different it is to be a teenager now that there are social media is like endlessly fascinating. I feel like if you’re a person who grew up without it, as both of us are, the way that it’s depicted in the article is that while these kids were at home, I think she says it’s 18 months that they’re out of school.

Speaker 3: During that 18 months, like, a lot of people started reflecting on previous interpersonal situations that had occurred at the school and decided that they didn’t sit well with them. And it’s interesting because it’s like in some ways Elizabeth Wheeler is sort of implying that that was like a bad thing, that it was like a like that there. When I say they, I mean mostly the girls at the school that there are sort of realizations that they had when they were away from the school were, I don’t know, groupthink or something. She does not use that word. I don’t want to put that word in her mouth. But that there is this sort of like turnaround in their thinking that came from not being around people. And maybe like it’s implied, reading a lot of like social justice stuff online.

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Speaker 3: It’s interesting because as a reader, I’m like, part of me is kind of like, well, maybe that’s good. Like, maybe, you know, I don’t know. So you kind of sort of paint it as something that is totally negative. And part of me thinks like, oh, like if we all have a chance to step back from our lives and, like, reconsider our social relationships and, and think about them more intensely, like maybe that’s that’s a good thing. But it’s also interesting that, you know, the revelation that we hinted at in the introduction and that came from the Gawker scoop the day before recording this podcast sheds new light on this.

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Speaker 2: Yeah, let’s get into the revelation. So Tarpley hit a reporter at Gawker, published a piece in the days after the article came out that revealed that one of the writer, Elizabeth Will’s kids had gone to the school. That is the focus of the story. I was initially willing to give the writer more of the benefit of doubt than I’m now inclined to. We should note that we all told the waves via email. I didn’t know 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. She did confirm, though, that her child’s time at school overlapped with Diego’s. I was thinking that it’s that’s not ethical. It’s not ethical to write an article about your child’s school and not disclose that.

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Speaker 3: We should be clear that she doesn’t mention any of this association in the article and indeed represents the school as a school that could be anywhere in the nation. Tarpley In before getting the scoop about the association with the child was sort of guessing that this could be a Bay Area school because the schools in the Bay Area High schools have had a bunch of Title nine related walkouts like kids protesting cases of abuse at the school that they feel were not handled well, kids protesting changes in the Title nine rules. And for you, that changes things quite a bit.

Speaker 2: I think it just undermines her credibility. I think there’s still value in the article, but her not disclosing that. It just makes me question how fairly she’s telling this story. And you just mentioned it’s a school she knows really well. So in some way it’s like, oh, why shouldn’t she write about a school she knows really well? But you just have to say that you’re doing that. If you do that and I. Guess she couldn’t because that would reveal, you know, the subjects of the piece and, you know, they wouldn’t have their privacy.

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Speaker 3: Ironically, it’s happened anyway, although we should say that Gawker did not reveal the name of the school.

Speaker 2: Another thing that created a lot of discussion, I mean, before we found all of that out is the discussions around shunning and bullying. In the article. What did you think about that?

Speaker 3: Yeah, this was something that people online really hit on, which was sort of an interesting critique to me because I sort of mean. But, you know, I have in mind this particular thread from Amanda marcotte, a writer who basically wrote about her own experience being shunned in high school, which came about because she wore Nike’s to school instead of Keds. And she didn’t know that Nike’s were for boys and Keds were for girls. And in her story that, you know, that she told her in her tweet thread about it, that was sort of like led to her having just basically no friends for the rest of high school. I don’t know if it’s because a lot of people on Twitter were shunned. But, you know, I personally was not shunned, but I saw it happen to a lot of people. So people have these stories in their minds.

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Speaker 3: And then the next leap that people make when reading about someone like Diego who gets shunned after he does something like actively transgresses, is to say sort of almost like borderline good. You know, we’re turning this like weapon of teenagers onto people who deserve it for once, which is a reaction that doesn’t kind of sit right with me because I don’t think anyone should have that happen to them. But I don’t know. Does that critique have any validity for you?

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Speaker 2: It’s hard because especially if you in high school have had some some sort of thing like what happened to Fiona happened to you. I mean, this feels karmically just I can see that. But like, yes, now where we’re shunning the perpetrators and maybe they’ll learn and maybe there will be less of this. But I think you’re right. I think just because it happened to some people doesn’t mean we should subject more people to it. No one should be shot.

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Speaker 3: And. Well, I don’t know. I guess maybe that’s like sort of the deeper question at the heart of the question, like the discussion of cancel culture and bullying in this story is like, could this have been stopped? Or like, is this just something that’s like a malign evil force that’s out there in teenage life and like, it’s shifted around to point itself at this like supposedly adorable and sweet 17 year old this time.

Speaker 2: We’re going to take a break here. And in our next segment, we’ll get into some of what the writer says she was trying to do in the piece and whether she achieved that. But if you want to hear more from Rebecca and myself on another topic, check out our Waves Plus segment where today we’re talking about our own high school experiences.

Speaker 3: Please consider supporting the show by joining Slate Plus.

Speaker 3: Members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast, no paywall on the Slate slate and bonus content of shows like Amicus, Slate, Money, and of course, this one. To learn more, go to Slate.com, slash the way of class.

Speaker 2: We’re back. And now we’re going to try to think through the point the writer was ultimately trying to make in this piece. And we should note that, Elizabeth, will we invite her to come on the show? And she declined. But she did ask that as her statement. We read this paragraph of her piece. Let’s just come out and say it. It’s a horrifying time to be a young woman. The world is burning and bleeding out. Adults are not fixing it. Teenage girls are poised to have fewer rights over their own bodies than their mothers had. The sane response. The awake, healthy, nonviolent dick response is to feel panicked, frantic, hung out to dry, devalued and unsafe. Who are they supposed to believe is looking out for them? The schools, the courts, elected officials? Well, anything get done to make the world better if they don’t do it themselves.

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Speaker 2: So we can ask, how is this mob justice possible and leave it there? Or we can ask what happened to this cohort to unleash what Northwestern legal scholar Deborah Turkheimer described as a primal scream, a scream that conveys in its roar, messy, full of collateral damage, is way that we don’t trust our institutions. We’ve been betrayed by our institutions. And so all that’s left for us is to do this.

Speaker 2: She’s talking about the article in general. Students have created this culture of public shaming. And a culture of public shaming is not a good thing. But that’s happened in the absence of any kind of system for dealing with these issues through through the school, through national educational policy.

Speaker 2: Girls continue to be victims of rape culture. Perpetrators don’t have a path toward redemption. And some kids get roped into all of this who are guilty of less than what they were accused of or in some cases, completely innocent. In real story, we hear about kids who are canceled accidentally, kids who are canceled and don’t know why. Rebecca How do you think she did?

Speaker 3: It’s so interesting to me that she wanted us to read this paragraph because a lot of the critique of the piece besides the high school shining has always happened. And we’re only mad now because it’s a boy has to deal with the subjectivity of it, the way that it inhabits Diego, his mind, instead of Fiona’s. So, for example, we could maybe talk about the way that it was written a little bit, because this is something that, again, critics brought up quite a bit. There’s sort of like a like a John Green young adult fault. And her star is kind of writing about Diego, his life and also about Fiona, which really makes it clear that the writer is trying to get inside Diego’s mind. So, for example, she describes Fiona as almost psychedelic, like beautiful, pale celestial skin, a whole galaxy of freckles, a supernova of red hair.

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Speaker 3: So we don’t really know very much about her personality, her likes and dislikes, though. You get to hear all about the kinds of stuff that he likes to do, even small details down to like what’s what’s on his bedroom walls and what kinds of deodorant he uses. And Little Grace notes that kind of flesh out this picture of this person. Whereas Fiona really doesn’t get that same treatment when critics kind of articulated this as a main problem with the story.

Speaker 3: I found the discussion really interesting. So I think that I think by sharing this paragraph, I don’t want to read thoughts into her head, but I think she’s sort of trying to say, like, look, I said the things that you guys are saying, you know, like one of the main things that people would say is, okay, so why are we having this story from the point of view of a boy? Like so many bad things are happening to girls right now. And she’s like, look, this like beautifully crafted paragraph that I’ve put in here kind of like covers me for that, which is an interesting move on a, on a writer’s part that I kind of recognize. It’s like basically this piece was framed as being about a boy because that makes it unusual. This is my argument. I’m saying this. You can see if you agree. And the question is, if it had been framed around Fiona, would it have read the same or been as interesting to people or been sort of noteworthy or newsworthy or generated the amount of comment that this piece has generated?

Speaker 2: I do think that’s an interesting question. I think that the writing style is subjective. I wouldn’t have called it, you know, John Green ask. I mean, I think she was trying to do something novelistic. And if you already don’t like the story, like, you probably are not going to like that. I mean, the story does feel like it’s too much about Diego. And knowing that that she’s a mother at the school he goes to does make me think even more about that choice. And like, what did she know about this situation?

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Speaker 2: It would have been a different story, too, to focus on Fiona or highlight the activism that these women are doing at Bay Area High Schools these girls are doing. And a less interesting one, I think and I think our job as journalists is to tell the truth, certainly. And there are a lot of choices we can make in what to highlight and and what not to. And we certainly don’t want to put out clickbait, just something that like this is going to rile everyone up and get a lot of clicks.

Speaker 2: But we want to write compelling stories, and it’s interesting to think about things from Diego’s point of view. I mean, it’s certainly it comes in in a context that that you have to read the room. But it just is a more interesting story that Diego did something wrong. And we’re still kind of talking about whether there’s a path for redemption or trying not to write him off. If if the story was just about these amazing kids who were fighting their administration or a completely innocent kid who was canceled. And I think that the moral gray area is a lot of what’s compelling here.

Speaker 2: Before we head out, we want to give some recommendations. Rebecca, what? Are you leaving right now?

Speaker 3: Okay, so I’ve finally gotten on the boat of what? Someone on Twitter is called The Sad Astronaut Show. I think that was Katherine Van Aaron coining. But it’s the show for All Mankind, which is on Apple TV plus. Now, this is a sort of alternate history show about what would have happened if the Soviets got to the moon first and therefore the Americans felt compelled to continue the space race. So it’s like early 1970s through Today Show about like a much more ambitious and aggressive American space program.

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Speaker 3: And the reason I’m bringing it up on the waves is that one of the things that happens in the early parts of the first season is that the Soviets put a woman on the moon. And so in response, Richard Nixon says we ought to get some lady astronauts up there. And so there is four. And then later on in the seasons, many more women who join the astronaut corps. And so basically, it’s like a core of both women and men who are doing, you know, colonizing the moon and then sort of mining the moon.

Speaker 3: And now I’m partway through season two and they’re sort of figuring out what their next step is going to be. It’s partially created by Ronald Moore, who created Battlestar Galactica, and it’s like romantic and kind of scary sometimes and like suspenseful. And it spends a lot of time with its characterizations and their development. And I love it. I can’t wait to go home tonight and watch in their episode.

Speaker 2: I don’t love space, but when you say romantic, they get a little interest. And yeah, yeah, right.

Speaker 3: There is a lot of space technology. There’s a lot of like, Oh, how are we going to get this, you know, coupler to the ship in time for it to be fixed, whatever, like that kind of stuff. So I’ll warn you about that. But it is it is fun the other way.

Speaker 3: Now, what are you what are you going to recommend?

Speaker 2: I’m also going to recommend a TV show, Amazon Prime’s The Summer I Turn Pretty. This is a seven episode series and it’s based on a book by Jenny Hahn, who is the same author who wrote that to all the boys I loved before books, which became these huge Netflix movies and I think are adorable, especially the first one.

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Speaker 2: So it’s just like candy for this summer. This girl stays at a beach house every summer with family friends. They’ve always regarded her as just the little sister, while she’s, like, in love with them and worships them. Her family, friends. But then one summer, you know, the summer she turned 16, she shows up and she’s grown up and they notice and it’s really cute.

Speaker 2: I think if you’ve ever read like a novel set, like over one summer at the beach, like there’s just a familiar arc. It follows, but it just does it so well. And this, this show totally could have been a movie, but I love that it’s a seven episode series. Just pure pleasure. Cute boys, love story, totally light and fun and maybe everything some of you are looking for right now. I certainly was.

Speaker 3: I love it. So you can either pick dramatic astronauts who are drinking in bars to get over their status, not being assigned to the mission. Or you can pick fun teens at the beach.

Speaker 1: That’s it.

Speaker 2: That’s our show this week. The Waves is produced by Shannon Roth.

Speaker 3: Shannon Paul is our editorial director. Alicia montgomery is vice president of Audio.

Speaker 2: We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.

Speaker 3: The waves will be back next week. Different hosts, different topic, same time and place.

Speaker 2: Thank you so much for being a Slate Plus member. And since you’re a member, you get this weekly segment where we are going to talk about mistakes we made in high school. So, Rebecca, I’m going to make you start.

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Speaker 3: Oh, my God. Oh. Oh. Okay, let’s see. It’s so interesting to think about how different my life would have been in high school if social media had existed. Because I feel like one of my biggest mistakes I made in high school was getting very caught up in the world of high school. And the only the times when I was by far the happiest were like over the summer, or like when I went on programs that were like with kids who didn’t go to the high school. And I could get a sense of the bigger world and, and I’m not really sure how like that could be fixed really. Like, but it seems like kids who have social media get to do that a little bit more. Like, I mean, maybe it’s toxic in a lot of ways, but it seems like it would have probably helped that. So yeah, I think a mistake I made in high school was getting like extremely tunnel vision about the like, dynamics within the high school where I was. What about you?

Speaker 2: I also think I got too caught up in the wrong things in high school. Or that. That sounds bad. I just get caught up in, like, anything bad, but I just think I was like, laser focused on school and, like, completely channeling my anxiety into being obsessed with my grades and SAT scores and like, being totally, like, ignorant of the world outside of that. Like the Iraq war was going on when I was in high school and I did not have an opinion about it. I was not out protesting it.

Speaker 2: I guess I just wanted to respond to you were thinking like, I don’t know how it’s like, could that have been different? And I feel that way too. Like, could it have been any other way? How would I not have been? Like, that would have been great. It in general, I, I this is a cliche, but I have a lot of regrets about things that I didn’t do rather than things I did. It sounds like it’s it’s a little that way with you, too.

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Speaker 3: Yeah. I think going back to the question of like, could this have been any different? Like, could a time traveler me and like a 14 year old body, like, do this any differently? I’m not sure, but I yeah, I mean, I definitely have more regrets about things I didn’t do than things I did, but I was trying to do the bad things all the time. But I didn’t like I wasn’t invited to the places where the bad things were happening by bad things. I just mean like drinking and hanging out at parties. Like, I wished that was me more. And when I think about, like, my own daughter going through high school, that’s the thing that I’m terrified of is like that. If you want to be friends with people and the friends and like and the people invite you like, my mom was lucky that, you know, I didn’t get invited to the places where the like truly grim stuff was happening. But I would have gone if I’d been invited, probably.

Speaker 3: But but I think one of the major regrets I have is just like being very worried about what I wore all the time. Like, I felt like I couldn’t figure out what I what I should be wearing, and I still don’t know what I should be wearing. But I’ve been released from that by living in a town where nobody dresses like at all. Anything like everybody just wears whatever, like L.L.Bean in Patagonia or like Target. Like people just wear like functional clothes here. I don’t know, in high school you can’t really be released from that. And the amount of like stress I felt over how I presented like what? Not like a in a gender way, but like more just like, am I like an indie rocker or am I like trying to appeal to, like, guys who might want a jock? You’re a girl, or, like, am I trying to? I don’t know. Like, I didn’t have a strong sense of it. And so I just sort of muddled forward and I put like more, more energy into it than I should have probably.

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Speaker 2: Yeah. When I was thinking about this question, I was thinking, should I bring up a specific clothing item that I truly regret and I don’t know if I have one. I wore a lot of just like flare leg jeans from the mall. I mean, I wish I had figured out my hair in high school, but. Oh, well, but I think on the larger question of worrying about how you presented yourself, that that’s another huge thing that I wish could have been different. But I don’t know how it would have been.

Speaker 2: You know, I think I felt really bad all the time about how I looked in high school and had really low self esteem and you know, all the things like thought I. It’s fat and ugly and like, how could I go back and not think that it’s horrible? Like, it really set me on a path of feeling really badly for a really long time. And I hope that girls today don’t experience as much of that.

Speaker 3: I feel like they probably do, to be honest. Like, I don’t know. I know there’s body positivity, but well, I was worried about the like size and shape of my body, but more so, I just was like, who? Like, what kind of. Person. Am I like, Oh, you don’t like it? What’s my style? And that was way more important in high school than it has been in adult life, but it’s still important in adult life. And I suspect that if I lived in a bigger city, I’d still be stressed about it. But when it comes to sort of like, you know, presenting yourself in a way that fits into like an archetype, I guess maybe is the way I would put it. I just never figured out how to do it. Really?

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Speaker 2: Yeah, I think I didn’t care that much about that. I mean, I actually do think back to like. There’s an outfit I’m thinking of now. This was in eighth grade, but I wore, like, really short shorts, and I just, like, cringe so much when I think of those shorts that I think I have completely rejected shorts in my adult life. But like, I think in an attempt to, like, look cute and wear what the popular girls were wearing and in a way that, like, I didn’t feel comfortable with, I think that’s natural and something that happens. But also it’s just really hard worrying about how you look and what boys will think of you.

Speaker 3: And that goes back to the having more outlets out outside of the school thing. And that’s what I’m like really trying to think about when it comes to my own daughter is like, how can I afford her as many opportunities as possible to know that like. You know, in some schools, people don’t care about X, Y or Z thing that seems so important to you and your school.

Speaker 2: Or for me that like it. Literally does not matter where you go to college. Stop worrying so much about your grades and just there is so much more in life to that you should be concerned with and like figuring out who you are and making friends and like having adventures, maybe making mistakes. I mean, feels so much more important than anything I was worried about then, and I feel really regretful about that.

Speaker 2: Someone, actually, a dear co-worker, said to me once that she thinks that in high school everyone has to have this like one moment where like you confess your love to someone and get totally rejected and it’s devastating. I totally agree and wish that I had done that or I don’t know. I think a lot of the things that you don’t do in high school, I think it’s just good to make mistakes. And I was too afraid of making mistakes. Is there a bonus segment or a topic you’re dying for us to take on in as last segment? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at the waves at Slate.com.