The newly defined genre of “teen sick-lit,” which first arose in the 1980s, is awash with tear-jerking stories of ill adolescents who seek only to find the love of their life during their final days. ”Rick and Robin are soul mates, but the tragedy is that they are both fighting leukemia,” says one Amazon reviewer of a book she highly recommends. But University of Missouri researchers are arguing that the genre promotes negative stereotypes about the ill and thus may be instilling prejudices regarding disease and disabilities in young readers.
“Teen sick-lit depicts its chronically ill protagonists, who are usually white middle-class females, merely as vehicles for well people’s emotional development rather than as self-actualized women with their own experiences, perspectives, and emotional needs,” said study author Julie Passanante Elman in a statement.
In an analysis of around 100 “teen sick-lit” books, Elman and her colleagues found that few book authors bothered empowering the ill. Instead, sick characters are set apart as abnormal and their will to live is often equated with a desire to have a traditional heterosexual relationship—usually with someone healthy. Characters that step outside this equation or break traditional gender roles are encouraged to conform or are ostracized.
For example, the study describes one female character who loses an eye to cancer and choses not to wear makeup because she does not want to cause an infection in her eye socket. Rather than allow their friend to go without makeup in public, her female peers pressure the cancer surviver into wearing makeup in a way that avoids contact with her empty eye socket. Examples like these, the authors argue, show how the books’ emphasis on the effects of illness on girls’ bodies relates to society’s focus on women’s sexual attractiveness.
“‘Teen sick-lit’ reinforces the idea that an individual must adjust themselves to society in order to succeed,” Elman said.
The books do have a few redeeming qualities. They acknowledge and accept the sexuality of sick people, for example, which is a subject normally considered taboo and avoided in medical dramas. Teen sexuality is also discussed out in the open. And some characters are portrayed as fully developed human beings who manage to form romances with other sick people instead of pining for a healthy lover, such as soul mates Rick and Robin.
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