Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation

Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation

Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation

Chronic Youth: Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation

Synopsis

The teenager has often appeared in culture as an anxious figure,the repository for American dreams and worst nightmares, at once on the brinkof success and imminent failure. Spotlighting the "troubled teen" as a site ofpop cultural, medical, and governmental intervention, Chronic Youthtraces the teenager as a figure through which broad threats to the normativeorder have been negotiated and contained. Examining television, popular novels, science journalism, newmedia, and public policy, Julie Passanante Elman shows how the teenager becamea cultural touchstone for shifting notions of able-bodiedness,heteronormativity, and neoliberalism in the late twentieth century. By the late1970s, media industries as well as policymakers began developing new problem-driven'edutainment' prominently featuring narratives of disability- from theimmunocompromised The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to ABC's After School Specials and teen sick-lit. Although this conjoining of disabilityand adolescence began as a storytelling convention, disability became much morethan a metaphor as the process of medicalizing adolescence intensified by the1990s, with parenting books containing neuro-scientific warnings about theincomplete and volatile "teen brain." Undertaking a cultural history of youththat combines disability, queer, feminist, and comparative media studies, Elmanoffers a provocative new account of how American cultural producers,policymakers, and medical professionals have mobilized discourses of disabilityto cast adolescence as a treatable "condition." By tracing the teen's unevenpassage from postwar rebel to 21st century patient, Chronic Youth showshow teenagers became a lynchpin for a culture of perpetual rehabilitation andneoliberal governmentality.

Excerpt

A dark-haired teenaged boy prepares to attend a Fourth of July beach party to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial and to pursue the pretty girl next door. After packing the essentials, his sunglasses and shorts, he makes sure there is enough oxygen in his air tanks for the voyage. As the boy shields his eyes from the sun, his parents carefully navigate his plastic-enclosed stretcher’s wheels through the deep sand and toward the other teenagers, who gleefully dance to rock music or dive for errant volleyballs. Later in the evening, as fireworks streak across the darkened sky, the girl of his dreams finally sits beside him. He had been attempting to avoid the merciless stares of the other partygoers all evening, but now, through his clear plastic window onto the world, he awkwardly avoids her eyes for an entirely different reason. Shyly, he slips his fingers into a thick black plastic glove to take her hand. The sparks quickly fizzle, however, when he discovers that she has only flirted with him to win a bet with another boy. Watching helplessly as she scampers away to join a group of chuckling boys, he angrily beats the clear walls of his antiseptic bubble in betrayal. He demands that his parents return him to his hospital room, the only place this disabled teenager, born without a functional immune system, might be safe from germs if not from a broken heart.

The boy was the teen heartthrob John Travolta. He was playing the fictional character Tod Lubitch in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), a madefor-TV romantic drama that was loosely based on the highly publicized lives of two young children without functioning immune systems, David Vetter III and Ted DeVita, “bubble boys” who lived and died in isolation from the germ-filled outside world. ABC’s bubble-boy-meets-girl-next-door teen romance may seem a bit bizarre at first—just a peculiar bit of 1970s ephemera. However, rather than interpreting The Boy in the Plastic Bubble as a medical drama or an otherworldly story about a rare disability, critics at the time uniformly recognized it as a classic adolescent coming-of-age narrative. In the words of Tom Shales, a TV critic for the Washington Post, “Any teenager who feels isolated, picked on, or odd should be able to identify with . . .

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