Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Touched by le Roy: Teens, Tourette's, and YouTube in the Twilight of Neoliberalism

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Touched by le Roy: Teens, Tourette's, and YouTube in the Twilight of Neoliberalism

Article excerpt

In early 2012, a story swept across broadcast and cable television, newspapers, the New Yorker, Slate, the Hujfington Post, and the Atlantic: in October 2011, roughly fifteen teenage girls in the town of Le Roy, New York, had begun exhibiting mysterious Tourette's syndrome-like symptoms, including spasms and verbal and nonverbal vocal outbursts. Some had also begun posting about their condition and experiences on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.1 Relating an isolated occurrence among a statistically insignificant group of people, the story went viral, thanks in no small part to aggregators such as the Hujfington Post and Gawker. Most coverage circled around questions of diagnosis. It also portrayed the young womens use of social media more as a pathogenic vector-a means by which thenillness spread-and less as a tool in their efforts to share their situation with the world.

That illness was eventually identified as collective conversion disorder, more commonly called mass hysteria. The questions that drove mass media reporting on the story, beyond what caused that outbreak, included: What caused the outbursts and spasms? Were these symptoms psychosomatic? Were they caused by environmental factors, or perhaps faked? And what drove the women to perform them online and on television? Concern about the root cause of the outbreak also bracketed the young womens own quest for an explanation for their circumstances. Faced with a diagnosis of conversion disorder, they, along with their parents, rebelled, accusing the school district, their local health system, and the state of failing to locate an organic cause for the outbreak.

Popular and professional concerns about regulating adolescence have lately expanded to include anxiety around what I refer to here as "intermediated" adolescence-a biosocial event/process that unfolds across a range of social and mass media. These concerns are often articulated through neoliberal discourses about social media's effects on personal competitiveness and success, less often in terms of a politics of intermediated social life. Intermediation weaves through this event and its reportage, raising further questions about the role that both mass and social media played in its circulation, transmission, and containment. This essay explores the event's etiology and symptomatology by examining how it articulated the circumstances of these young women as adolescents, as women, and as members of an aspirational middle class in structural and institutional conditions increasingly hostile to that class, generation, and gender. Because media effects theories also address these questions, it compares the general premises of dominant media effects models to newer, decentered theories of "insect media" and "virality" in analyzing this intermediated event. The essay also considers how the Le Roy, New York, outbreak may offer a lens through which to examine the ways we model, regulate, and theorize the intermediated and gendered adolescent's passage from childhood to adulthood as a social good.

A durable narrative in media studies and communication since the early twentieth century has been that popular media, when consumed by developing children, have effects on those children that may negatively or positively alter their futures.2 Rich in data, but poor in syntheses that support its basic premises, this narrative has origins in early twentieth-century social sciences and persists to this day. A profound popular investment in this belief has also abetted the development of media industries and products that purport to be good for children.3 Both media effects research and the industries defined in relation to it depend upon that initial premise: that developing children, as subjects in formation, consume the messages and affective experiences that media offer and from them create the adult subjectivities they eventually occupy. During the Depression, studies by the Payne Fund framed moviegoing as a significant factor in children's eventual success as adults. …

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