An opinion column by Caitlin Flanagan in the NYTimes today, entitled “Hysteria and the Teenage Girl,” maps out for us why it is that girls experience “hysterical reactions” to stress more often than do boys, especially in the pressure-filled teenage years. She lists separate episodes in which groups of girls or young women from various cultures—two batches of female American cheerleaders, 900 Arab girls in the West Bank and some female Israeli soldiers, communities of Tanzanian schoolgirls—apparently fell prey to shared (contagious?) psychological reactions to stress, exhibiting “Tourette’s like” behaviors, compulsive laughter, or fainting with no apparent physical bases. Flanagan sees here a version of the recurring psychological distress and domestic conflict that many parents of teenage girls she encounters routinely report. Thinking about these seemingly related phenomena compels Flanagan to assert to her readers that boys and girls are different and ultimately, to quote a neurologist’s finding that, “These girls will get better, they just need time and space.”
My own teenage daughter read the column and, with evident disgust (which I suppose, could have been induced by hysteria) said of Flanagan: “It’s like she is just saying ‘Who cares what happens to teenage boys!’ She doesn’t bother to find out why these girls reacted this way, or what other factors might have been involved…the only common feature was their craziness!”
“Girls look weak and susceptible,” she added, “Flanagan makes them look like delicate creatures!” Even at 16, provoked by such insults perhaps, she got it. To treat these females’ behaviors as “extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms” you’d have to be (in my daughter’s words), “looking for extreme behaviors only in girls, just refusing to see anything boys did as hysterical or extreme!”
She said it better than I could have and made me realize why a critique of Flanagan’s points belongs in a blog about STEM equity: Because Flanagan so blithely denies that social structures may set girls up to see themselves as less sturdy than boys, promoting such stress reactions.
Moreover, essentialist expectations of female weakness and incapacity like those Flanagan broadcasts might precondition girls to see themselves as innately physically or psychologically vulnerable. Her perhaps sincere sympathy for the suffering girls in fact perpetuates such disempowering myths, not least by utterly ignoring the social, educational and economic inequities with which so many young women live.
Are some, or even most, teens emotionally vulnerable? Of course. Do conditions of impending adulthood, or poverty, or war, put people (of any age) in a position of psychological unsteadiness? Without question. But the presumption that we should not be surprised when girls or women reveal such vulnerability because it is inherent in their femaleness is to set the cause of women’s rights, and equal participation in social and cultural institutions of all kinds, back by decades. Read this quote from the column and see if you agree with me that this might have been exactly Flanagan’s intention:
“Hysteria is the most retrograde and non-womyn-empowering condition. It’s not supposed to happen anymore (we have Title IX!), but it won’t seem to go away.”
“Won’t seem to go away”?? With folks like Flanagan treating psychological upset as gender-derived, primarily biological, and devoid of social or political cause, it’s no wonder.