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Saturday, May 09, 2015


Today hysteria means an exaggerated emotional response, but it's etymology is far more interesting. The word root is the same for uterus, and for thousands of years it was thought that almost any medical problem women faced was because something funky was going on with their uterus. The remedy for this was genital manipulation until orgasm. Ultimately, this led to the invention of the vibrator.

This is the subject of Tanya Wexler's film Hysteria, released in 2011. It is set in the 1880s, when doctors routinely treated women for everything from insomnia to restlessness. They were put on a table, feet in stirrups, their legs draped for modesty, while the doctor oiled his hand up and basically finger-banged them. This was, of course, for women of the upper classes, so they paid well for it.

In our story, Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) is tired of backwards thinking in medicine, and is fired from many a hospital where leeching is still done and germs are thought a fiction. He lands a job with Dr. Dalyrimple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a lucrative practice treating hysteria. He has two daughters: the demure and ladylike Felicity Jones, whom Dancy takes an instant shine to, and the firebrand feminist Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works with the poor at a settlement house, much to her father's horror.

Dancy, who has dashing good looks, is instantly popular with this patients, but he fingers so many he gets hands cramps and gets fired. But his inventor friend, Rupert Everett, has been working on an electric feather duster, and Dancy removes the feathers and sees the possibilities.

This is a good subject, but the tone of the film never resolves itself. It starts with a disclaimer, saying "Based on true events. Really," and from there on presents the story with a vulgar wink. Yet it tries to introduce the problems of the poor and, later, a woman is on trial and if she is found to have hysteria could be institutionalized and have a mandatory hysterectomy. Nothing funny about that.

Interesting, this subject was also treated in a Broadway play, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which I didn't get a chance to see. Hysteria gives us some info that the vibrator became an instant sensation, for sale in places like the Sears catalog, but always advertised as a massager, presumably for tired muscles, when everyone really knew what is for. Amazingly, hysteria did not get removed from the medical books until 1952,

1 comment:

  1. This review brings interesting knowledge to light! I didn't know any of this.