Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making something out of nothing: "hysteria" and the teenage girl

Thanks to a link from a colleague and Facebook friend, I came across an opinion piece in the NYT by Caitlin Flanagan: Hysteria and the Teenage Girl. Flanagan, who has written a series of self-satisfied and occasionally infuriating articles about women and girls for The Atlantic over the past half-decade, has never been a favourite of mine. I should have known from the start that I wasn't going to like her article, but -- having been a teenage girl myself -- I find myself irresistibly drawn to reading whatever gets written about them in publications of note.

Needless to say, I wasn't surprised when I got to the central paragraph of the article. After describing outbreaks of "mass hysteria" among teenage girls (and eliding the fears of girls living in warzones with those of girls living in small town New York), she gets to her point:
Female adolescence is — universally — an emotionally and psychologically intense period. It is during this time that girls become aware of the emergence of womanhood, with both the great joy and promise that come with it, and also the threat of danger. Much on their minds is their new potential for childbearing, an event that for most of human history has been fraught with physical peril. Furthermore, their emergence as sexual creatures brings with it heady excitement and increased physical vulnerability.
Ah yes. The psychological pressures brought forth by impending motherhood -- that common cause for hysteria since time immemorial. It doesn't help that Flanagan writes off feminist critiques of hysteria as a medical diagnosis as the unscientific bitching of empowered "womyn" while simultaneously taking a potshot at Title IX. But that fact that she goes right ahead to ditch the half-century critiques of the medicalization of women's bodies in order to embrace essentializing tropes about childbearing and fertility gets my goat.

If Flanagan had bothered to crack a book, she might have happened upon Lorraine Kenny's Daughters of Suburbia, which has entire chapters dealing with the phenomenon of 'hysteria' among teenage girls. During a in-depth ethnography of a suburban high school in Long Island, Kenny witnesses a similar event to the one Flanagan describes: when one girl experiences a series of social injuries -- a boy maliciously pops the birthday balloons attached to her locker, and a gym teacher humiliates her in front of her classmates -- more than ten of her female classmates (as well as two boys) begin complaining of nausea and dizziness, some of them actually vomiting and all of them ending up in the nurse's office. Kenny wisely makes the decision not to attribute this spate of "illness" to the girls' subconscious fear of childbirth, but rather to the social forces at play in the girls' lives: what she calls "the tragedy of being normal".

Being normal is something Kenny's Long Island girls, along with white suburban girls across North America, both strived for and felt discomfort with. Being normal, while a goal to achieve among peers, is also seen (in the girls' terms) as "sooo boring". In order to pierce the the 'cultural starkness' of white suburbia, the girls "fill in their sooo boring lives with a plethora of spoken and written stories...What hovers in the space beyond the mall is an excessively normal life that the girls...clutter with consumer items, organized activities, and stories of personal tragedies, petty jealousies, and locally minded disputes." This, in teenage girl terms, is called drama. In Kenny's terms, it is an attempt to make the culturally barren and socially reviled status of white teen girlhood interesting, and ultimately claim a space for self-definition and containable rebellion.

Whether or not you buy Kenny's argument, the point here is the same one I've made with respect to evolutionary psychology and the role of sociology in public discourse. Articles like Flanagan's perpetuate the idea that girls are somehow hardwired into behaving in specifically gendered ways. I'd like to see a different narrative pursued in the mainstream media, one that takes into account the insights of disciplines like sociology and cultural anthropology. We've had the "teen girls are crazy because of their baby making hormones" story for a while now. I think it's time for something new.

1 comment:

Protagitron said...

Oh gods, Caitlin Flanagan. What makes it worse is that she's a good stylist, which means her articles go down easy, at least until I realize how ridiculous they are. And that most of what she writes that's supposed to be universal about teenage girls is really just true for one person - Caitlin Flanagan, age 14. Apparently her new book Girl Land is also dire.

Post a Comment