Chronic Youth

Disability, Sexuality, and U.S. Media Cultures of Rehabilitation

288 pages

2 halftones

October, 2014

ISBN: 9781479841424



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Julie Elman is Assistant Professor of Women's & Gender Studies at the University of Missouri.

All books by Julie Passanante Elman

The teenager has often appeared in culture as an anxious figure, the repository for American dreams and worst nightmares, at once on the brink of success and imminent failure. Spotlighting the “troubled teen” as a site of pop cultural, medical, and governmental intervention, Chronic Youth traces the teenager as a figure through which broad threats to the normative order have been negotiated and contained. 
Examining television, popular novels, science journalism, new media, and public policy, Julie Passanante Elman shows how the teenager became a cultural touchstone for shifting notions of able-bodiedness, heteronormativity, and neoliberalism in the late twentieth century. By the late 1970s, media industries as well as policymakers began developing new problem-driven ‘edutainment’ prominently featuring narratives of disability—from the immunocompromised The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to ABC’s After School Specials and teen sick-lit. Although this conjoining of disability and adolescence began as a storytelling convention, disability became much more than a metaphor as the process of medicalizing adolescence intensified by the 1990s, with parenting books containing neuro-scientific warnings about the incomplete and volatile “teen brain.” Undertaking a cultural history of youth that combines disability, queer, feminist, and comparative media studies, Elman offers a provocative new account of how American cultural producers, policymakers, and medical professionals have mobilized discourses of disability to cast adolescence as a treatable “condition.” By tracing the teen’s uneven passage from postwar rebel to 21st century patient, Chronic Youth shows how teenagers became a lynchpin for a culture of perpetual rehabilitation and neoliberal governmentality.


  • “Julia Passanante Elman has written a fine cross-disciplinary study that pulls from the fields of disability studies, popular culture, adolescent literature, queer theory, sociology, and history.”

    Children's Literature Association Quarterly

  • "Chronic Youth is a gripping read; a fascinating and much welcome addition to studies of disability and youth – moving beyond dominating and naturalised tropes of youth-as-becoming and disability-to-be-overcome to instead engage with the politics of ‘adulthood’."

    Disability and Society

  • “[…] Elman’s critiques of particular media content have value.”

    The Journal of American History

  • “In her rigorous, ambitious, and timely study, Chronic Youth, Julie Passanante Elman powerfully demonstrates how the transformation of the teenager from rebel to patient in the US not only reflects an understanding of the teenager as a problem to be managed and solved but has also participated more broadly in an ongoing normalization of a culture of rehabilitation as ‘coterminous with good citizenship’ for everyone.”

    Journal of American Studies

  • “Chronic Youth is a timely study whose meaning message of ‘growing up’ will appeal to readers of the journal, and Elman’s clear and concise writing will enthrall others as well.”

    ournal of the History of Childhood and Youth

  • Chronic Youth is cultural studies at the top of its game—a whip-smart read that makes groundbreaking contributions across a diversity of disciplines. Its voice is passionate; its case studies are meticulously parsed; and its conclusions more than mere food for thought. It is, in sum, a profound treatise on how and why we worry, police, manufacture, and delude ourselves into the faux crisis that is the teenager in contemporary American cultures.”

    —Scott Herring, author of Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism

  • “With rigorous and insightful analysis of popular media representations, Elman shows how disability has increasingly become an all-purpose referent for the ‘problem years’ of transition from childhood to adulthood. Bringing disability and femininity into the framework of youth studies in order to address a neglected intersection of experiences, Chronic Youth provides a wonderful example of what disability studies can bring to media studies of the body.”

    —David T. Mitchell, George Washington University