Every Monday, The CSPH takes a look at a book or film focusing on an aspect of sexuality. This week we are looking at the 2011 film Hysteria, directed by Tanya Wexler, and starring Hugh Dancy, Rupert Everett, and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The film is based on the story of how Joseph Mortimer Granville, a physician in London in the late 1800’s, devised the invention of the first vibrator for the treatment of “hysteria,” an antiquated medical and psychological diagnosis given primarily to women who exhibited “inappropriate” emotional expression and thought to be caused by “disturbances of the uterus.” While Wexler’s period piece had the potential for some smart, juicy comedy and political brawn, instead it falls flat delivering a few comical moments within the landscape of covertness and self-consciousness.
As the film begins, Granville starts working at a private practice treating women with hysteria by providing manual pelvic massages that result in an orgasm (formally called a “paroxysm”). When Granville’s work begins to suffer from a sore hand and too many patients, he and his wealthy friend (Everett) discover a way to administer massage to Granville’s patients by using an electric-powered, hand-held device they coin the “Portable Electric Massager.” The invention is an immediate success and is soon picked up by manufacturers to sell for at-home use, making Granville instantly famous and extremely wealthy. Embedded into this already-interesting-enough plot is, of course, a love story: Granville becomes engaged to the dignified and proper “Emily,” but his attention is soon shifted to Emily’s feminist, idealistic, out-spoken sister, “Charlotte” (Gyllenhaal).
While Wexler attempts to make a statement in favor of women’s liberation in the character of Charlotte, this portrayal instead presents a fairly formulaic, shallow portrayal of female idealism harking about injustice and laughing off criticism. While there are some enjoyable scenes, such as the one where Granville initially tries the “massager” on a hysteria patient who happens to be an opera singer, and as she reaches orgasm belts out a high vibrato, the critical subject of the film—female sexuality—is barely touched upon and taken for granted.
It is also surprising, at least to this viewer, that “Hysteria” is rated “R” for “sexually explicit material.” Really? I mean, yes, the film features various women experiencing physical pleasure, but they are in a doctor’s office. Being treated for a “disorder.” Covered in several layers of skirt. With no visual penetration or groping of any kind. The word “orgasm” is not even spoken in the film. If these few scenes were taken out of the movie, it could be mistaken for a PG-rated period piece on PBS. However, due to antiquated notions about female sexuality — especially female pleasure and masturbation — pervading the MPAA and it’s desire to protect young, impressionable children from learning about sexuality, this film received a far higher rating than this author believes it deserved.
Bottom line: if you actually want to learn about the history of the vibrator, visit The CSPH’s “Antique Vibrators” page for more accurate and detailed information. If you want to giggle at the mention of vibrators and “hysteria” in a semi-mainstream film, there are few worse choices than Hysteria, though from admittedly few options.