“It’s really a film about female empowerment”, claims co-writer Jonah Lisa Dyer. How could it not be, with female sexual pleasure on the agenda?
In Victorian London, 75% of women were diagnosed as suffering from hysteria, a catch-all condition that included anxiety, melancholy, irritability and abdominal heaviness. The contemporary medical cure was a vulvic massage, leading to “paroxysms”. That’s right – a doctor fingering his patient to orgasm. Yet, there is no suggestion that he enjoyed the task; in fact, the vibrator was invented to relieve doctors of their arduous labour. A new film by director Tanya Wexler chronicles its development and exposes female hysteria as a fiction.
Unusually, the film places female sexual pleasure centre-stage, without any reference to men’s. Moreover, its protagonist, Charlotte Dalrymple (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal),“fights for women’s rights, advocates for science-based medicine, runs a settlement house for disadvantaged women and children, unapologetically calls herself a socialist, speaks her mind fearlessly, and knows sexual pleasure when she sees it.” A fairly strong candidate for a feminist heroine, then. However, as she is seen through the eyes of her father and future husband, so Hysteria deceptively privileges the male perspective.
When first we meet Charlotte’s sister, Emily Dalrymple, it is entirely from hero Mortimer Granville’s point-of-view. The dashing young doctor opens the door to her playing the piano, unaware that she is the object of his gaze and seated in a subordinate position. Dressed in white, she represents the ideal woman; identified as an “angel” by Granville and, by implication, the symbolic Victorian “angel in the house”. Despite her protestations to the contrary, in Graville’s eyes – and therefore the spectator’s – she remains the perfect match-maiden-heaven.
Sister Charlotte is pitched as a polar opposite: loud, forthright and impudent, but also passionate, charismatic and deeply compassionate. The suggestion is that while Emily represents the mythical ideal, Charlotte is the real deal. In a trial scene, Granville is forced to testify against her, describing Charlotte as “vexing”, “confounding” and emotionally complex. The Judge compares her to his wife, before arriving at the conclusion that all women are victims of such volatile character. It’s the modern-day equivalent of a bloke retorting: PMS.
Nor is it progressive to position two sisters as narratological rivals in a competition for Granville’s heart. Although initially engaged to Emily, the doctor eventually proposes to her sister. Granville realises that he misinterpreted or undervalued Charlotte’s charm and fury, but thereby the audience did, too. Rather than seeing Charlotte on her own terms, her character is understood through her doctor-father and doctor-suitor’s eyes. As Greta Christina argues, “In a movie about female orgasm, how the hell hard would it have been to put women at the center of the story?”
Christina continues: “This is a story about women’s bodies and women’s pleasure and women’s sexuality and it is overwhelmingly driven by men [...] men are the inventors and the instigators, and women are reacting to them.” The men solve everything: the remedy for hysteria; the invention of the vibrator; the financial future and development of the settlement that Charlotte runs; and thereby Charlotte’s happiness. In the end, despite her early feminist pronouncements against marriage, Charlotte cops out by accepting Granville’s proposal, which constitutes the film’s “happily-ever-after” resolution. And, yes, conveniently, it is snowing at the time.
The film’s fusion of conventional romance and pseudo-feminism fudges the progressive possibilities. A heterosexual love story, led by male desire and a male perspective will inevitably undermine any feminist message. Besides Hysteria’s structurally dodgy conflation of two plot-lines – the vibrator’s invention and an odd couple’s courtship – by succumbing to the “romantic comedy” brand, it stifles any subversion.
Wexler has dubbed the film: “the vibrator movie you can take your mum to”. It’s certainly a novel selling point. However, when asked: “What was your approach to making Hysteria a film that people could take seriously and talk openly about?”, Wexler replied: “I made it a comedy! There is nothing that breaks down barriers like the ability to laugh at ourselves as people. Laughing at ourselves or laughing at women coming? For a film that purports to celebrate women’s sexual arousal, it certainly enjoys mocking middle-aged, stereotypical women having a paroxysmal time at the doctor’s surgery. Hysteria literally climaxes with a fat lady singing to orgasm. Not only does the humour tire, but it feels patronising, if not unfair, that women’s orgasms “consistently get framed as a joke”. Wexler reflects: “I’m not sure I wanted the film to bring awareness to anything but how funny the human condition can be.” In which case, Hysteria was a wasted opportunity.
Enthusiastic reviewer Yolanda Shoshana is almost hysterical in her sisterly response to the film: “You will root, cheer and pat yourself on the back, cause, ladies… we’ve come a lo-o-o-o-ong way.” Have we? Charlotte excitedly proclaims: “By the time I’m gone, women will have the vote, equal education and rights over their own bodies!” If only her prediction had come true. As critic Marshall Fine observes, the film “feels dramatically relevant to current events – particularly the right wing’s attacks on women’s reproductive rights.” That’s before we get started on women’s rights in the developing world.
Historian Rachel P Maines explains that “women who do not reach orgasm by penetration alone are [considered] sick or defective.” Thus, western society has preferred to pathologise women as hysterical, rather than acknowledge the source of their sexual displeasure. The taboo topic of women’s sexuality and sexual satisfaction endures. EvenGyllenhaal sounded ashamed to mention it, laughing as she admitted: ‘”there is something inherently embarrassing about a vibrator [...] it’s still a secret kind of thing.”‘ Culturally and socially, women’s sexuality often remains hidden.
Interestingly, Producer Tracey Becker revealed that “a lot of financiers were afraid of [Hysteria]. The companies are run by men [...] and the men would be afraid of it.” Thus the film was 10 years in the making. Much has also been made of the female-friendly film-making process of Hysteria. Wexler sets the record straight: “The crew was noticeably more female, but by no means was it “mostly women.” It was about 30 percent women [...] People were always remarking at how many women were on the set, but it was not even half.”
Hysteria inadvertently demonstrates some of the problems in producing a feminist film for a mainstream market. Relying on a conventional love story and broad comedy, the film undermines itself and its audience. If you’ll pardon the single-entendre, it’s too much of a soft touch. Christina points out that it only barely passes the Bechdel test. “It does have a couple of scenes with two female characters, who talk to each other, about something other than men. But of all the movies in the universe, a movie about the invention of the vibrator should have passed the Bechdel test with flying colors [sic].”