Tanya Wexler's 'Hysteria' starring Maggie Gyllenhaal

Tanya Wexler’s ‘Hysteria’ starring Maggie Gyllenhaal

This is a silly, almost slapstick comedy about some very unfunny bits of women’s history.

Because of training in labour and delivery assistance over the years, I was somewhat familiar with the development of gynaecology as a specialty during the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Progress was made, but in general it was a grim business for the women subjected to it. Medical historians have outlined the procedures developed during that time, which—based on incomplete knowledge of female anatomy and institutionalised misogyny—were performed on patients and experimental subjects.

Women diagnosed with ‘hysteria’—often due to unacceptable or unfeminine behaviour or attitudes—might be prescribed involuntary surgical removal of the uterus and/or ovaries, excision of the clitoris (popular with some doctors well into the twentieth century), bloodletting, opiates, or as the film mentions, confinement in an asylum.

It is difficult to imagine a broad comedy based on this unpleasant situation. However, there was one other form of treatment developed during the Victorian era which has its distinctly comic side.

Doctors devised a form of manual adjustment for women subject to hysteria, which involved manipulation of the female genitals, continuing until the female patient experienced a ‘hysterical paroxysm’ – something any modern person, doctors included, would recognise as a garden-variety orgasm.

Since Victorian physicians maintained that women did not experience sexual pleasure, their alternate explanation allowed medical doctors to perform this ‘treatment’ for their patients, with the usual caution that they must not under any circumstances try to replicate the procedure at home, without the assistance of a trained professional. This form of therapy gave rise, once electricity had been harnessed, to the invention of the vibrator – also restricted at first to use by medical doctors.

That aspect really is comical, and the movie exploits the ridiculous side of things very effectively, promoting Hysteria as a hilarious film about the invention of the vibrator. It is clear enough that the writers and director were aware of the darker side of this story.

They discussed it in passing during interviews, and chose to include a partial version of the short film Passion and Power (a documentary on the subject), in the bonus items on Hysteria’s DVD. However, they do not delve deeply into the injustices that accompanied medical treatment of women at the time, allowing the movie to be a simple comedy for the most part.

The story, in a nutshell, involves a young doctor named Granville (Hugh Dancy), who is rather avant garde in his field, mostly because he accepts germ theory. He is taken on by a medical practice which specialises in hysteria, and eventually invents a proto-vibrator to make his manually taxing job easier. Granville becomes a respected and successful doctor. His only real opponent is his senior doctor’s daughter, a young woman with modern ideas, who gradually teaches him to reconsider his views on women—as patients and as people.

That doesn’t mean the darker side of women’s medical treatment is ignored altogether. Wrong information, inconsistencies, and unfair attitudes in nineteenth century gynaecology are displayed often—but for their absurdity.

Surgery and incarceration are mentioned only in passing – just enough to let viewers know that there was more to the story. Moreover, we have the character of Charlotte, an ardent feminist and reformer, to give us what amounts to a contemporary view of events as they transpire.

The film laughs at some of the less disturbing examples of both medical ignorance and institutionalised misogyny as a way of introducing the concept in a palatable way. The complete story, told accurately, is something few movie-goers would sit through.

Frivolous as it is, Hysteria is the ideal medium to introduce this part of history to the public. It’s also an enjoyable little popcorn movie, with good performances by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte, Hugh Dancy as Granville, and Jonathan Pryce as Granville’s oblivious employer, Dr. Dalrymple.

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