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RomCom Fail: Film ‘Hysteria’ is Anything but Hysterical

Hysteria is a romantic comedy directed by Tanya Wexler, about a young Victorian doctor, who becomes unusually adept at treating women for hysteria, and the invention of the vibrator–and of course he falls in love with a feisty doctor's daughter.

Mortimer (Hugh Dancy) is a progressive doctor who keeps getting fired for treating patients with then-cutting-edge science like washing bandages, and abandoning unhelpful ones like leeching for bloodletting. Along the way, the rolling-tumbleweed-of-a-practitioner finds employment as an assistant to a doctor (Jonathan Pryce) who treats women for hysteria. Accidentally, Mortimer stumbles upon the answer to the problem all the hysterical women wanted a cure for: the vibrator.

Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is the daughter of the doctor Mortimer is apprenticed to. She's a whippersnapper and doesn't believe that hysteria is real–it is simply a diagnosis for women who are unhappy with their lives. Mortimer comes to realize she is right, and the two live happily ever after. With laughs along the way, Hysteria largely whitewashes the true history of the diagnosis and the ways in which "hysterical" women were historically treated.

The word "hysteria" comes from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. The earliest known reference to hysteria is in Egyptian medical papyri from 1900 B.C. It describes strange behavioral disturbances in women resulting from the movement of the uterus, which at the time was believed to be able to move around a woman's body. When the uterus moved too far and put pressure on the diaphragm, women reacted with bizarre physical and mental symptoms. The first known treatment for hysteria was the placement of aromatic substances near the vulva to entice the uterus to come back down to its normal position, combined with the ingesting of foul-tasting substances to scare the uterus away from the upper part of the body.

Plato believed that hysteria was caused by the womb's distress over not having children.

Women who behaved abnormally–or maybe even women who had no interest in traditional values like marriage or children–were suspected to be hysterical. Thus, society–and male doctors–could pathologize any woman's behavior that did not follow what was expected by her parents or her husband.

In 1873, the first electric vibrator was used in an asylum in France as a treatment for hysteria. Women diagnosed with hysteria would receive "pelvic massage" that resulted in "hysterical paroxysm"–orgasm. Doctors had grown tired of manually masturbating women (and many took a very long time to achieve hysterical paroxysm in their patients) and wanted an easier solution. The vibrator was invented.

Since most Victorian women were denied information about human sexuality and their bodies, it makes sense that few women diagnosed with hysteria understood what arousal, masturbation, or orgasm was. Although what happened between women diagnosed with hysteria and their doctors would now be understood as sexual, perhaps even sexual assault because the women did not necessarily consent to what was happening, women at the time may not have understood it as such.

Many physicians believed that somewhere between a quarter and three quarters of all women suffered from hysteria. The Salpêtrière asylum in France housed many women who had been diagnosed as hysterical. By 1690, three thousand women lived there under terrible conditions.

Meanwhile, women were diagnosed with hysteria until the mid twentieth century.

Because hysteria is not an actual illness or disease, it was very hard to treat, and any number of symptoms or behaviors could be attributed to it. Real illnesses like epilepsy were frequently misdiagnosed as hysteria. As Charlotte points out in the film, hysteria as a diagnosis becomes a catch-all for women who are unhappy with their lives, unhappy with their position as only mothers and home-makers, and unhappy with being unsatisfied sexually. The Salpêtrière asylum is proof that women who were poor, widowed, criminals, epileptic, mentally ill, or unhappy with their lives, could be diagnosed as hysterical and locked away with no chance of real treatment or a cure for anything.

Hysteria director Wexler calls the film "a feminist fable and a romantic comedy with a man at the center, but it’s all about progressives." Certainly Charlotte is a proto-feminist character–she refuses to live the life her father wants for her, she works instead of seeking marriage, and she is progressive in her political views. But that doesn't make the movie progressive, or feminist-friendly.

The closest Hysteria comes to being anywhere near the truth of the horrific pathologizing of women, "medical treatment," and misogyny, that went hand in hand with declaring hysteria as a medical condition, is when Charlotte is tried in criminal court for punching a police officer. If convicted, and the judge believes she is hysterical, she will be sentenced to be imprisoned in an asylum and forced to have a hysterectomy.

This glimpse of what actually happened to female criminals, or women who did not behave in ways that society approved of, is chilling in the midst of the romantic comedy banter of the film, but how many filmgoers are aware that this kind of punishment and attitudes towards women were the norm for the time? While the invention of the vibrator did eventually lead to sexual freedom for many women in the twentieth century, the circumstances that led to its inception and the ways in which it was initially used–to treat "unhappy" women who didn't conform to social norms–are problematic and troubling. This history should be interrogated and thoughtfully considered, rather than repainted as a silly and charming romantic comedy.

Dahlia Grossman-Heinze is a reporter-blogger for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @salvadordahlia.

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