Returning to the notion of the “abnormal,” how’s this for a story: In the New York Times Sunday Opinion section today an epidemic of hysteria sweeping a high school
cheerleading team was described in a piece called Hysteria and the Teenage Girl–a mysterious event that resulted in Tourette’s-like symptoms of facial tics and outbursts. 14 girls “caught” the hysterics of a once bubbly cheerleader who woke up from a nap completely changed. If that isn’t strange enough, it has happened in multiple other inexplicable cases across past decades–from laughing attacks to mysterious reactions similar to what happens when a group of people are gassed. In all cases, it was adolescent women who experienced these seemingly psychosomatic episodes. What is it about the teenage girl that makes her susceptible to hysteria? Is it all hormones and biology, or do we socially construct the expectation for irrational behavior and emotional intensity? Caitlin Flanagan, author of Girl Land and this Op-Ed piece, suggests influence from both sides as she states;
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. They are also sharply aware that soon they will have to leave home forever, and at the very moment when they are most keenly desirous of its comforts and protections.
In a society where gaining complete independence now often doesn’t occur until after college, is it possible that a new age group could be susceptible to this sort of mass hysteria? Could Emerging Adults (18-25 year olds faced with the growing pressures of completing higher and higher levels of education and traversing an unsteady job market) break down–crossing hysterical gender lines? Or, on another note, should we talk more to adolescent girls about what they’re going through instead of brushing off every emotional incident as “hormonal?” Are we still stuck in the 19th century understanding of female hysteria despite our claims of forward-thinking modernity?