The June 20–July 3 issue of New York Magazine includes a cover story by feature writer Elizabeth Weil that explores what it is like to be “canceled” in high school, where calls for accountability for bad behavior can often spiral into bullying, false accusations, and permanent ostracization. Students and school administrators alike appear ill-equipped to handle allegations of sexual misconduct, racial disparities among the accused, and the lasting impact of the pandemic’s social isolation.
Editors first started discussing the phenomenon of high-school “cancel culture” in early 2021, when Stella Bugbee, then the magazine’s editor-at-large, noticed a story like this playing out in her child’s school and wanted to explore the complex social fallout for teens involved in similar situations. But finding a way to intimately report the story proved challenging. By fall of 2021, Weil had identified a collection of students willing to share their experiences. Working closely with her editor, Genevieve Smith, Weil spent months in conversations with a “canceled” boy and his classmates, examining how girls’ demands for accountability for perpetrators of assault and harassment evolved over the school year.
“Kids returning to high school were in so much pain. They felt in some ways as if they had carried water for the rest of society, as schools shut down during the pandemic even though so much else did not,” says Weil. “Their betrayal by institutions and adults unleashed a ‘primal scream’ and that deeply resonated with me. Teenagers are crying out for help and need adults to lead them, gather communities, and foster a culture where people can apologize for mistakes, forgive, and be compassionate to one another.”
The cover, a pen drawing by American artist and designer KAWS, was inspired by his sculpture Separated, a nod to the social isolation examined in the story. “As the father of two young children, imagining what life might be like when they become teenagers, I understand the concern that comes with navigating the complexity of relationships and how that is layered with the realities of the pandemic and social media,” says KAWS. “I think all young people make mistakes, and now we’re in an environment where the documentation and amplification of that mistake can be seemingly endless.”