If you want to take a break from the summer blockbuster, and I really think you should, go see Hysteria. It’s light-hearted. It will give you a laugh. It might even give you a feeling of sisterhood, as if you are in on the joke of being female.
Hysteria is about the invention of the vibrator and it’s use as a treatment for the catch-all female ailment of the second half of the 19th century. Much of the comedy comes from dealing with female arousal and orgasm in Victorian era England. A particularly absurd scene features three men in goggles perched between the legs of a prostitute, preparing to test their new electric powered device on her vulva.
What may be more absurd is that male practitioners of the time judged the treatment and its effects to have nothing to do with pleasure or arousal. Instead they viewed the treatment successful if it resulted in “paroxysms” which ameliorated the many symptoms including depression, anxiety, sexual thoughts, irritability and a “tendency to cause trouble.” For persistent hysteria confinement to a sanitarium and forced hysterectomy were recommended. One needs little imagination to see how the catch all diagnosis and was used as a way to control troublesome women and allowed a persistence of doctors’ ignorance of the female body.
Maggie Gyllenhaal as Charlotte Dalrymple is a righteous breath of fresh air as a feminist, suffragette, and champion of the poor and disenfranchised. She provides the counterpoint to Hugh Dancy’s character, Dr. Mortimer Granville, who though a proponent of the controversial new germ theory, remains steadfastly traditional in his approach to women. It is the transformation of his beliefs about women that drives the plot of the movie.
The movie maintains a nice balance of having a sense of humor about the feminist issues of the day, while recognizing their devastating effects on women. On the whole Hysteria is that rare feminist comedy.