“Hysteria” Shows The War on Women Is Nothing New

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.

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Nancy B.
Nancy B5 years ago

Response to Nadine - useful update. Freud's 'hysterical' patients reported having been sexually abused, and one of his earlier papers gave childhood sexual abuse as an etiological factor in 'hyterical' complaints. Viennese society reacted with such a backlash that Freud had to recant, and state that these accounts must be fantasies based on the patient's repressed sexual feelings towards the parent - the Oedipus complex - although in the case of woman, it would have to be an Electra complex. A sophisticated and very successful move to 'blame the victim'
In the modern world, we now have 'False Memory Syndrome', but has the well-known determination of perpetrators to deny their offenses ever resulted in a psychiatric category 'False Denial of Abusing'? Haven't seen it yet.
Children whose adult carers have sexualised the 'caring' relationship will naturally suppose that this is what happens - and will go on to 'sexualise' future caring relationship, becoming the 'seductive hysteric'. Blame the victim - again. That is why so frequently people who work with such patients do often succumb to a fantasy that their patient can be 'healed' by a sexual connection, while in fact the only 'healing' that can take place has got to be a compassionate but absolute refusal on the part of the therapist to allow this to happen. The patient's first experience of a non-sexualised caring relationship will allow the real healing to begin.

Nadine V.
Nadine Vaughan5 years ago

...now labeled "histrionics" by the DSM-4 but still includes hypersexuality/seductiveness and emotionality as symptoms; and is most often used to label women

Tony C.
Tony C5 years ago

A class in RESPECT AND RESPONSIBILITY should be taught from Grade one to graduation. Children should be taught that anything is permissible as long as it does not hurt themselves or anyone else. If children are taught at a very early age that every child has their own strengths and weaknesses and that they should use their strengths to help others not to tease or bully them.
It should not matter if a child comes from a FAMILY of a mother and father, 2 mothers or 2 fathers or a single mother or father as long as they are LOVED.
Sex Education should be taught on LGBT, Contraceptives, Masturbation, Pregnancy and all forms of sex. Girls and women endure things that men will never have to. Educate men and women on these. Let us face it whether we like it or not children are curious and are having sex earlier. Children should be taught the JOYS and the CONSEQUENCES of having sex ( Pregnancy, STD, AIDS and others.) I believe this is a solution. Stopping the damage before it starts so that Bullying, Sexual Assault, and many others will be greatly diminished if not eradicated. It is my belief that when children graduate with these principles where they are taught RESPECT for themselves and others and to take RESPONSIBILITY for their actions. If children grow up with these values, I believe business and government would benefit greatly. Within a few generations this world would be a much better place to live in.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L5 years ago

Males of the world should be very careful....things will be changing.

Brianna B.
Brianna B5 years ago

Thanks for the article

Pamela T.
Pamela Tracy5 years ago

A woman is thought badly of in this day and age if she does use any type of sexual pleasure that does not include a man doing it for her...i.e. clitoral stimulation...there are fanatics out there that will think and say the worst things about women if they do not run and find a man or a woman to help them with their lives as far as sex....in fact I was accused of vile things by fanatic women because I thought of my former husband and our sex....so they said I was thinking of my stepson, because he looked so much like his father..exactly like his father in fact, my former husband,,,,,so when i did meet my stepson at age 20, I was shocked and realized the idiots and liars were just saying that to deny me my own non kid life......there are a bunch of crazies out there......I dated men...I was no closeted gay...and because I did not want to give myself over and over and over to different men as many women today have more men in three months than i had dated all of my life.....it does not mean I am a prig......it means I was not willing to give myself...not even to some stalker who thought I apparently liked him.....MY MOTHER SAID I WAS FINIKY WHEN I WAS YOUNG BECAUSE I DID NOT WANT TO DATE ANYONE I WENT TO SCHOOL WITH......AND I DID DATE ONE PERSON FOR A VERY SHORT TIME....BUT I MET SOMEONE FROM A TOWN NEARBY...AND THAT LASTED NOT TOO LONG BECAUSE I WANTED TO JOIN THE US NAVY........THIS HYSTERIA HAS TO STOP....YOUNGER WOMEN NEED TO KNOW THEY DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE SEX TO BE POPULAR

Monica K.
Monica K5 years ago

It's still with us! Not very long ago I saw a book in a gynecologist's office with the title of "Hysterical Diseases in Women". While we have made huge strides in equality and medical care in the last 200 years, we are still lagging so far behind men that it's frightening. If a woman goes to an emergency room in pain, her pain is often completely discounted as "whining" and she is usually sent home with instructions to take an over-the-counter pain killer. I personally know 2 women who died after being sent home with a diagnosis of "gas pain" (a heart attack) and "menstrual cramps" (a twisted bowel). A man in pain, on the other hand, can expect to receive prescription pain killers, further testing, a referral to a specialist, and possible even admission to the hospital "just to be sure". This flies in the face of logic, since women are demonstrably far more stoic and accepting of pain than are men. Most drug dosages are based on the size, muscle mass and hormones of a man, then just adjusted for weight when given to a woman. Consequently, women experience more side effects and sometimes "unheard of" side effects and reactions. Then she is blamed for them, she's just imagining things or is "hysterical". Medicine still has a long way to go to achieve equality of the sexes and unfortunately, current politics are taking us backwards instead of forward.

Donna M.
Donna M5 years ago

waiting to see how good this will be

Suzanne L.
Suzanne L5 years ago

It's an interesting subject and I will look forward to seeing the movie.

Dana W.
Dana W5 years ago

Sounds like an interesting premise for a movie.