Lizzie Procter lives! Young women and hysteria

Generally, I’m not in the business of debunking inane articles by folks who seemingly keep their notoriety alive by pissing off feminists. It’s a rather tedious and thankless job, especially given that there are more important and interesting feminist issues to tackle. But somehow I feel compelled to suspend my usual position on inanity to take up Caitlin Flanagan’s recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Flanagan addresses the phenomenon of mass hysteria amongst teenage girls, and deduces from it that adolescence is a difficult time for young women. Groundbreaking stuff, indeed. Alas, there’s more. She determines through an astute research regimen of googling and pondering followed more pondering and googling that what hysterical young women really need is protection from the big scary world, because they will inevitably succumb to hormonally-induced and socio-culturally predicated bouts of “emotional extremes and high drama.”

“Most parents of adolescent girls will never have to contend with episodes of hysteria of the kind experienced by the cheerleaders. But anyone with a teenage daughter can attest that this is a time of emotional extremes and high drama, of girls who are one moment affectionate youngsters and the next screaming banshees. “What’s gotten into you?” the perplexed mother in “The Exorcist” wonders about her demonized daughter; it’s a question that the mothers of non-possessed girls often ask during the teenage years.

What girls need during this time is a stable and supportive space in which to work out all of this drama. In many respects a teenage girl’s home is more important to her than at any time since she was a small child. She also needs emotional support and protection from the most corrosive cultural forces that seek to exploit her when she is least able to resist. Most of all she needs some privacy to work to make a way for herself as a strong and confident young woman. The emotional swings of normal female adolescence attest to its intensity, and they are also the reason girls need and deserve more protection during this time of their lives. As a neurologist treating the New York girls said: “These girls will get better. We have to give them time and space.”

What really has me irked about this is less the shoddy intellectual connection between this case of mass-hysteria in upstate New York and the human-condition of the teenage girl, and much more the cursory (if even that) dismissal of the power and awesomeness of teenage girls. Flanagan manages, in an impressive feat of rhetorical incoherence, to make girls’ hysteria both pathological and inevitable at once. Here’s why I think that her assessment of what happened in LeRoy, New York misses the/any mark:

She pathologizes adolescence in a particularly harmful way for young women. Adolesence is tough. In fact, it is tough for kids of all genders. Setting aside the logical fallacy, known in philosophical circles as “misleading vividness,” she uses the example of the recent case to portray young women, all of them it would seem, as potentially unstable. While I do not dispute that adolescence and puberty are transitional times, and that during these times young people need support, what I take issue with is the way that she extrapolates this particular case to be symptomatic (nerdy pun intended) of some vaguely sketched girl-culture. This is not only grotesquely patriarchal and paternalistic, but it denies agency to the many young people who bravely face the challenges of adolescence. It also brings me to my next point.

Flanagan’s “analysis” of hysteria is offensive in it’s oversimplification. It is offensive in the context of mental illness and in light of the very difficult work being done by disability rights advocates to create a world in which people who experience mental illness and disability are treated with dignity. Young women “screaming like banshees?” I mean, what are we talking about? Some hypersensationalized portrayal of female-gendered youth? Some notion of a mysterious psychotic episode? Is this hysteria commonplace or is it a mystery? There are real young people with mental illness disability and living with and through such experiences takes a tremendous amount of courage. Adding half-baked, paternalistic social analyses to the mix does nothing to support them and reduce the stigma that they face.

In fact, while we’re on the topic, let’s really talk about this thing. Neurologist Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, who has worked with the girls for the last three months, has recently diagnosed them with “conversion disorder” or mass hysteria, a condition that, while rare, does occur (and not just in women). Dr. David Reiss, MD, Interim Medical Director of Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, also says that mass hysteria is something real. He explained that “conversion disorder” means that the symptoms have no physical causes, but they are indeed real. Conversion is related to somatization (physical symptoms caused or exaggerated by psychological problems). Dr. Reiss says the difference between conversion and somatization, is that with the latter there is generally a physiological basis for the symptoms, which are then exacerbated due to psychological factors. So, yes, this is a real thing. In which case, folks who experience it need medical attention and care and real understanding. Not merely, “a stable and supportive space in which to work out all of this drama.” (Please note here that Flanagan has awfully conveniently just written a book about the fact that young girls need this kind of space.)

There is a socio-cultural context in which female-bodied and female-identified people live and grow up. That context exists in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. If we’re going to address it, let’s really address it. Let’s talk about race and it’s relationship to sexualization. Let’s talk about the gender-gap in certain professions. Let’s talk about pop-culture and feminism. Let’s talk about homophobia and transphobia that are acutely felt for many, during adolescence. Let’s talk about poverty and access to education. Let’s have a genuine dialogue about girls, and young people of all genders and their ability to actualize their dreams. There are real problems young people face and there is the stunningmind-boggling grace with which so many respond (there are hundreds more issues and organizations, you get the idea).

Let’s talk about that.

Join the Conversation

  • athenia

    We talk a lot about “safe spaces” in the feminist community, so I find Flanagan’s solution of a safe space interesting. However, she thinks this space is at home.

    “In many respects a teenage girl’s home is more important to her than at any time,/b> since she was a small child. She also needs emotional support and protection from the most corrosive cultural forces that seek to exploit her when she is least able to resist.”

    Unfortunately, The Home for many people is not a Safe Space.

    • Eesha Pandit

      Thanks, athenia, for raising this great point about safety and the home. They are not synonymous, necessarily. This kind of half-baked thinking is pretty irresponsible, and exhausting. Anyway, great point.

  • rdhdwrtr

    Thank you so much for writing this! I read Flanagan’s op-ed in the Times yesterday and was furious that there was no comments section where I could voice my opposition to her views. I hate how Flanagan always tries to make women–especially young women–seem like they are fragile creatures in need of “protection” from the big bad world. Arguments like this are not all that different from policies in other countries and cultures that force women to dress “modestly” and to only be allowed out of the house with a male chaperone. All of this is done under the guise of “protecting” women but it’s really just oppressing them.

  • Margo

    Real in depth scientific analysis there- I googled mass hysteria in young women. Google gave me results with stories of mass hysteria in young women. Ground breaking! Seriously this woman is nowhere near qualified to properly analyze this issue- and it shows in her oversimplification and generalizations of a complex problem. Yes, adolescence is hard for a lot of young girls, but attributing someone’s genuine psychological problem to female fragility is just offensive.

  • Franzia Kafka

    I like this line: “Pubescent girls, it seems, are manifestly more likely to exhibit extreme and bizarre psychological symptoms than are teenage boys.” Huh. So, is boys shooting up their schools a more acceptable and less extreme and bizarre symptom of psychological illness than hysteria? Flanagan’s whole piece is really a piece-of-crap generalization, not to mention ahistorical. Hysteria has a long and distinguished history of being used by medical professionals and male religious leaders to lock women up in mental institutions when they were deemed too sexually promiscuous, loud, self-assured, or independent (that is, too threatening to male power and patriarchal order).

    Though the girls’ problems need to be treated seriously, I think it sucks that the psychological establishment is still using a term with such gendered and derogatory connotations. These symptoms could have been easily renamed and given a new title with less baggage, as has been done with many other psychological diagnoses. The minute these girls got the “hysterical” label slapped on them, we get idiots like Flanagan crawling out of their holes, laughing and pointing their fingers at “those hysterical silly gurls!”, playing on the word’s connotations of frivolity, unreliability, irrationality, and infantile emotional chaos.

  • Franzia Kafka

    P.S. I understand that “conversion disorder” would probably qualify as an attempt to re-name “hysteria,” but I don’t think it’s good enough. To me, attempting to carry over the term “hysteria” from the 19th century, with its tremendous sexist baggage, is akin to attempting to carry over an ailment like “neurasthenia,” a racialized fatigue disorder which afflicted “civilized” (white) upper-class people and was rooted strongly in anxiety over white race suicide ( ; see also Gail Bederman, _Manliness and Civilization_), and which has been largely (and rightly) abandoned by the psychological community.

  • Kristen

    Her ideas are just downright creepy.
    There’s a pretty interesting radio interview with her here:
    She has no facts or data to back up anything she says, just “I once heard of a girl who-” anecdotes. Then Irin Carmon gives a pretty good counterargument. Very entertaining.