We are driving through Holborn when a group of four or five young women, probably in their late teens, dashes across the road without checking to see if the lights are in their favour. They encounter oncoming traffic and start screaming. As they lunge onto the narrow island in the middle of the road they are shrieking and holding onto each other. One of them waves her right hand up and down in front of her face, making rapid fanning movements.
My wife, referring to the fanning, says “I hate it when girls are like that.”
I venture that what we’ve just seen has its antecedents in Victorian times, when ladies would lose consciousness rather more frequently than is now the custom. For reasons that aren’t instantly apparent, teenage girls are emulating their 19th century ancestors in terms of a theatrical and gestural vocabulary of hysterical prostration.
In this case, the theatricality serves as shorthand – the girls don’t actually faint, they behave as though they are about to, then fan themselves back to a state of coolness. It’s doubtful that they ever really thought that their conscious state was in jeopardy, more that a demonstration of this possibility to their friends will serve to reinforce certain shared values of the group.
What is it that these febrile teens are experiencing then? Have they become enfeebled in some way that facilitates vasoconstriction, tachycardia and hyperventilation? Surely not. So how come they have picked up on a behaviour that went out of fashion in the early 20th century?
People still faint, of course, but generally not in ways that are primarily designed to signal their specialness. It was certainly the case that Victorian fainting was seen as an aristocratic pursuit, a marker of sophistication, delicacy and privilege, and to faint was to assume these distinctions.
But given that our teens are not noted as Victorianists their swoony affectations must derive, despite their 19th century hue, from rather less historically distant sources.
I blame teen television. American and Australian early evening teen series feature a degree of hystericisation that makes standard soap melodrama look like CCTV in a bank. If the teen ejaculation “Oh/my/God!” signals the onset of sensations akin to those experienced by the hippy when intoning “Far/fucking/out!” then we are merely in that part of the world where the mightiness of phenomena threatens to flatten the flimsy thing that is the adolescent subject. When, however, this suggestibility is metabolised in the script meetings of youth TV it transmutes into a ludicrous nerviness that jumps with tremulous excitability between zonk-out and martinettish mastery.
Such is the scarcity of psychic spaces in which to express the vertigo induced by the busy-ness of existence that young people, according to the etiquettes of teen TV, will form extreme relationships with the materiality of the world: young women will vaporise and young men will become hard. Both modes are covered by the popular cry “It’s a knock-out!”
Both modes have their basis in real teen behaviour but, under the guise of endorsing this behaviour, teen TV consistently delivers a caricature that turns the teen inside out so that the visibility of the nervous system – like a plastinated Gunther von Hagens exhibit – is seen as more important than its role in content delivery.