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.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Quick Hits: Procrastination Edition

It's the early part of the semester here in Ann Arbor, which can mean only one thing: I have tons of work to do, and I'm not managing it as well as I should be. Research and writing have taken over my life, including the times when I'm not actively working on my article. Although last term ate up all my blogging willpower -- it's hard to want to write more words when getting out a pile of them on a specific topic is the only thing on your to-do list for today -- I've decided that keeping things updated is both an effective means of procrastination and a way to take a break from reading past issues of the ASR over, and over, and over, and over.

For those of you who are looking for some good reads to distract you from more important things, I've got a few that should serve just fine:

  • From back in May of this year, Jonathan Franzen on technology and love in the NYT. The article also covers birdwatching and mirrors, but as with any Franzen piece, it's best to let him take you along for the ride:  "To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self...Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn." 
  •  A fantastic piece on Anonymous by Gabrielle Coleman in Triple Canopy. Coleman's exactly the right person to be writing about Anonymous -- a professor at McGill University in Montreal, she styles herself an anthropologist of "digital media, hackers and the law". But unlike most writers on the subject, Coleman clearly has an affection for Anonymous and 4chan, the community that sprouted it. It's not often you hear 4chan called "endearing", but it happens here. Also has one of the best explanations of "for the lulz" that I've seen in a more traditional-style publication. 
  •  On the subject of online activism, the SOPA/PIPA protests led to a lot of good links floating around. While most of them were of the "here's why SOPA is bad for the internet" variety -- a statement with which I heartily agree -- I also wound up devouring a few less targeted pieces on intellectual property in general. If you don't mind your politics Left, this piece by sociologist Peter Frase is an excellent parsing of the intellectual property debate, as specifically relates to legislation like SOPA/PIPA: Intellectual Property and the Progressive Bourgeoisie. An unexpected response from the left is here at Mr. Teacup's highly readable blog: Facing the Google Vanguard.

On the subject of Franzen: his recently published collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, is one of a kind. Drawing its title from his fantastic 2007 piece in Harper's (a must-read!), it's got essays on everything from sci-fi to Dylan to clerking in a used bookstore to sex in cinema. On top of that it has two of my current favourite essays, both of which have inspired me to get back to blogging: "What I Learned at the Science Fiction Convention" and "Postmodernism as Liberty Valance". Can't go wrong with titles like that!