Sweet sick teens: Gothic narratives of American adolescent sexuality

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Pivotal to the transition into adulthood is sexual maturation, an inescapable rite of passage which this article investigates across a range of contemporary American media. Beginning in the 1980s through the turn of the twenty-first century, the works in this archive tend to represent the increasingly politicized, stigmatized adolescent body as a conflict zone, a liminal precinct in which sex, illness and death often intersect to traumatic and Gothic effect. They consist of culturally influential ‘indie’ narratives that bridge the gap or, at times, blur the line between the mainstream and cult subculture. Starting from Victor Turner’s seminal work on the adolescent’s passage into adulthood, I place the concept of liminality side by side with the cultural imagination of the frontier. The sex and death dichotomy that characterizes adolescent sexuality shares with the fundamental trope of the frontier a wide array of Gothic connotations. Pre-existing scholarship on Gothic teen studies has yet to extrapolate on the portrayals of sickly teen bodies that run rampant in Gothic works. To append this missing link, I discuss Freudian drives, Susan Sontag’s illness metaphors, and Priscilla Wald’s readings of contagion narratives to lay the groundwork for the connection between sex, illness and cultural anxieties that these late-century narratives communicate. Indeed, I understand contemporary Gothic along the lines of Catherine Spooner, who quipped in her 2006 monograph that ‘[l]ike a malevolent virus, Gothic narratives have […] spread across disciplinary boundaries to infect all kinds of media…' (2006: 8). I consider sick teen bodies across a variety of works under two main headings: first, those that rely heavily on anaesthetized imagery to evoke the Gothic. Beginning with 2015‘s genre-bending It Follows (Mitchell), I work backwards to trace its clear-cut intertext - The Virgin Suicides (Coppola, 1993), a teen dream-turned-nightmare likewise set in suburban Detroit. The second heading explores decidedly more violent works, among them the graphic novel Black Hole and the horror film Ginger Snaps (Fawcett, 2000), which juxtapose adolescence and supernatural monstrosities that act as carriers of disease. The female is often at the centre of the narratives at hand, and though these works explore the world of minors, rarely, problematically are ‘minority’ bodies represented. Common to these works are stigmatized figures who fight for individual expression yet often fail to emerge from the adolescent stage as autonomous adults, due either to their unwillingness to conform to mainstream culture or the failure of this culture to integrate them.

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... These conversations are not just directly about sexuality but about the various plots, characters, and narratives that comprise adolescents' emerging stories as sexual people. Traveling to the worlds of Mark and Anna shows how it takes time and requires support for adolescents to express and address uncertainties about their personal power, family structure and relationships, social structures and fit, and sexuality as they become adult members of society (Koehler, 2017). Earlier in this article, we defined landscape as a noun, but it is also a verb. ...
A cancer diagnosis heralds the onset of significant life changes. The various experiences of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from cancer during adolescence and young adulthood are complex and disruptive. Emphasis on treatment and recovery often overshadows other social and developmental imperatives for adolescents and young adults. Acknowledging, exploring, and crafting one’s own sexual identity is a significant milestone achieved during this time, and it is one that is interrupted by the arrival and treatment of cancer. There is value in understanding how adolescents and young adults compose sexuality amid cancer experiences, and how this composition contributes to their ongoing stream of life experiences after recovery. As part of a larger study of sexuality and adolescent cancer, we undertook a narrative inquiry with Anna and Mark, two young adults who experienced cancer during adolescence. Over 14 months, we met with Anna and Mark, drawing on different narrative inquiry approaches to explore their past and ongoing experiences and to build negotiated stories of those experiences. We explored resonant threads between the stories, which help show the depth and complexity of sexuality as it is experienced in the midst of and after cancer. Two resonant threads are discussed: inward and outward looking, and sexuality and survival. The inquiry reveals the richness of self-composition amid competing stories of cancer treatment, disruptions to family and socialization, survivorship, what it means to be a young man or woman in the world, and the sense of a developing sexual self.
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