Tanya Wexler’s new romantic comedy “Hysteria” is deeper than it appears on the surface. The film uses the real and little-known history of the vibrator and hysteria in Victorian England as a backdrop for the fictional story of an ambitious young doctor, Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) and Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), an early suffragette.
While the movie treats its subject matter with a light hand, Charlotte’s activism on behalf of working class London women and agitation for women’s political rights strikes a deeper chord. Wexler may have chosen to focus on the humorous aspects of the setting and characters, but the premise carries unavoidable parallels to the modern feminist movement and the current war on women in American politics.
In the 1880s, London was experiencing an epidemic of “female hysteria,” a medical diagnosis that encompassed everything from gynecological disorders to sexual dissatisfaction to unstable moods. Hysteria was first described in the medical literature of ancient Greece in the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The cause was deemed to be “a wandering uterus,” which was thought to move throughout a woman’s body, causing disease. The 2nd century physician Galen believed the cause of hysteria was sexual deprivation, and prescribed marriage for single women, more frequent sexual intercourse for married women, and the “medical” administration of a vaginal massage by a midwife in certain situations. The usual treatments for hysteria throughout the ages included bleeding with leeches, frequent horseback rides, riding a train or carriage through bumpy terrain, or spraying water at high pressure onto a woman’s genitals.
While it seems unbelievable now, for the vast majority of recorded Western history, doctors honestly didn’t see the clitoris as a sexual organ. The prescription of a vulva massage was seen as a strictly medical act – doctors did not believe that women were capable of experiencing sexual pleasure without vaginal penetration. They also didn’t believe in female orgasm – physicians found the work tedious, dull, and tiring, sometimes spending hours attempting to bring a patient to “hysterical paroxysm” – that’s an orgasm in modern medical parlance.
This history forms the backdrop against which our protagonist, Dr. Granville, operates. After an unsuccessful medical career attempting to introduce germ theory to London hospitals, he takes a job as an assistant physician at a hysteria clinic. And the patients love him. In fact, he becomes so overworked that he develops a repetitive stress injury and risks losing his job and his love interest. And thus, the electric vibrator is invented, saving the day. (Of course, these vibrators looked nothing like what you’re probably envisioning right now. Some of them were actually pretty terrifying.)
Though most of the movie is populated by sexually-frustrated women with no idea how to ask for what they want and need, the subject is not handled in an exploitative or titillating way. Most of the humor comes from the fact that the male doctors in the film are completely oblivious to the needs and feelings of the women they “treat.”
This part of the story more or less reflects the actual history of the vibrator. What makes “Hysteria” such an interesting film, however, is Wexler’s exploration of some of the more sinister implications of the hysteria diagnosis. Had it merely been a catch-all for depression and other vague symptoms, surely a “paroxysm” or two wouldn’t hurt. (Although I feel for the centuries of women who must surely have suffered through untreated UTIs, STIs and yeast infections.) Another prominent “symptom” of hysteria was “a tendency to cause trouble” and in these cases, the amusing “treatments” for this non-disease become incredibly disturbing, including the instruction that men should beat their hysterical wives or humiliate them publicly until they stopped expressing discontent. Some doctors even performed hysterectomy or clitoridectomy in “difficult” cases.
Charlotte’s character will come off as a courageous crusader for women’s rights, or a shrill and overbearing feminist caricature, depending on your political views. Even today, her fight for the right of poor women to access inexpensive medical care, food and housing is a polarizing subject. The difference is that today an outspoken feminist and social justice advocate may be attacked in the media – but in Victorian England, doing the same thing could land you in jail or a mental institution.
An armchair diagnosis of “hysteria” was just one way the political establishment attempted to disenfranchise suffragettes. If a politically-engaged woman was considered, by her very nature, hysterical, then it was easy to dismiss concerns about women’s rights as merely a symptom of mental illness. Indeed, that’s exactly what happened for many years.
Even now we see this disturbing dynamic in action. Feminists are often accused of being hysterical or overly-emotional, which is used to minimize and downplay women’s concerns. And, while doctors may no longer recognize hysteria as a clinical disorder, doctors still often misdiagnose serious health conditions in women as psychiatric disorders. Over 40% of women with a serious autoimmune condition have been told by doctors they were hypochondriacs before eventually getting a diagnosis. Even a woman experiencing a heart attack may be told she’s just having a panic attack at the emergency room.
Just as disturbing is the fact that attitudes toward women’s sexuality have evolved little in the popular consciousness since the Victorian era. People may concede that women have the ability to experience sexual pleasure, but women who admit to enjoying sex – or even just talk about the subject - are called sluts, routinely slammed in the media, and often told they deserve it when they experience sexual assault. The US military has even been accused of diagnosing rape victims within its ranks with psychological disorders in order to avoid prosecuting the offenders.
There’s something a little depressing about watching a film set over a century ago, and realizing just how little some things have changed. Still, “Hysteria” doesn’t leave the viewer with a feeling of hopelessness. Instead, it ends on a hopeful note.
As a romantic comedy, the premise is refreshing and the characters original. Unlike many movie heroines, Charlotte doesn’t give up her interest in politics and doesn’t settle down into a life of domesticity. The male love interest explicitly tells her he wants to work with her as a partner – an equal – to make the world a better place. Looking back in time, we know that Charlotte’s struggle for women’s suffrage was eventually successful. While so much else has remained the same, there has been significant progress in the struggle for women’s rights.
And, as the film notes, hysteria has quite rightly been recognized as a sham diagnosis since the 1950s. Women’s sexual pleasure is no longer (usually) considered a tedious chore. If a spurious disease that survived 7,000 years of medical history could be revealed as nothing more than misogyny, the film seems to suggest, anything is possible. The war on women may feel like it’s lasted forever – but maybe we just need a little more time to end archaic attitudes toward women’s health for good.
“Hysteria” is currently only showing in New York and LA, but don’t despair! It’s set to open across the US throughout the month of June. So if you’re interested in checking it out (and I highly recommend you do), visit the Sony Classics website for locations and showtimes.