A Hysterical Cure For Hysteria

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Women didn’t have very much to look forward to during Victorian life: they couldn’t own property or vote in elections, nor were they allowed go to university and were consequently relegated to domestic tasks, though they weren’t formally permitted to keep their earnings until 1870. Ideally, they were to expected be of pure, chaste and of refined moral character, even in the face of glaring double-standards. For example, a woman that had sexual contact with a man other than her husband was considered to be ruined or fallen, whereas it was socially acceptable for men to have multiple sexual partners. When the pressures of this repressed and decidedly unfair society got to be too much for women, they simply visited their local doctor for a “pelvic massage” to cure their bad case of hysteria. This interesting chapter in the history of female sexuality is explored in Tanya Wexler’s new film “Hysteria”, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett.

In the 1850s and 60s, physicians believed that as many as half of all women suffered from hysteria, a blanket condition to explain a wide variety of symptoms including nervousness, insomnia, fainting, irritability, shortness of breath, loss of sexual desire or appetite, or just a general tendency to cause trouble. While a severe case of hysteria could land you in a sanatorium, it was generally treated with manual stimulation of the genitals by a doctor until the woman experience a “hysterical paroxysm”, contemporarily referred to as an orgasm, and their symptoms magically waned. Funny how masturbation can cure what ails you, although the doctors of the era certainly wouldn’t call it that.

Early in the film, when young Doctor Mortimer Granville (Dancy) first witnesses the procedure being performed by the venerable specialist in women’s medicine, Doctor Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), Granger inquires as to whether the women are experiencing sexual pleasure, to which Dallyrimple replies that since there’s no penetration involved, she is not experiencing any pleasure. Dalyrimple’s office is soon bursting at the seams with eager women seeking “treatment” from the attractive, young Dr. Granville, who in turn develops a bad case of carpal tunnel, leading him to create one of the first electromechanical vibrators. At the turn of the 20th century, the vibrator became the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified, after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster, a decade before women used electric irons or vacuums in their homes.

Ads of the era boasted that “vibration promotes life and vigor, strength and beauty… vibrate your body and make it well”. When the devices began appearing in pornographic films of the 1920s, they were dropped from companies like Sears and Women’s Home Companion, fading away from the mainstream until the sexual liberation of the 1960’s and 70’s.

Apart from this film being a hilarious case study of the faces and sounds middle-aged Victorian women made when they orgasm, it’s also a social commentary on the class and gender roles of the era, exemplified in the binary opposite personalities of Dr. Dalyrimple’s daughters, Emily and Charlotte. Emily, played by Felicity Jones, values etiquette above all else and behaves in a chaste and ladylike manner, whereas Charlotte, played by Gyllenhaal, is hot headed and not afraid to speak her mind, rides around town on a bicycle and puts helping the less fortunate above everything else, much to the chagrin of her father and sister. Initially, Dr. Granville is quite taken with the proper beauty Emily, though in true rom-com fashion, he inevitably falls for Charlotte, and comes to her defense against charges of hysteria in the film’s climactic scene.

Needless to say, “female hysteria” is no longer recognized by modern medical authorities as a legitimate condition, and vibrator use is as common as ever amongst contemporary women. In a 2010 study by the Kinsey Institute, 52.5% of adult women between the ages of 18-60 said they have used a vibrator at least once in their lives, and they have Dr. Mortimer Granville at least partially to thank for that.

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