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.
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may
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