Women Still Treated as Hysterical

Smith, Granville, and Everett in “Hysteria”

Film Friday [Spoiler alert]

I wonder if the filmmakers of Hysteria, an enjoyable romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator, would have realized that they were making a very timely movie. And by timely, I’m not talking about the vibrator itself, which has become not of an age but of all time. No, I’m talking about women asserting control over their own bodies.

Who could ever have foreseen that, in 2012, we’d suddenly be fighting battles that we long ago thought were over? Not only are certain states using every trick in the book to effectively ban abortion (most recently Mississippi), but there have been attempted personhood amendments (none successful so far, thank goodness) that would forbid certain forms of birth control as well. Then there is the Catholic Church opposing Obamacare’s attempt to provide free contraception through health plans. There are states requiring that women having abortions be forced to undergo vaginal ultrasounds, paid for by themselves, so that they can witness “the horror” of what they are doing. (The governor of Pennsylvania, however, reassures them that they can close their eyes.)

[I am reminded, incidentally, of the last two lines of Lucille Clifton’s “Wishes for Sons.” Frustrated that men don’t see what women have to go through, she writes,

let them think they have accepted
arrogance in the universe,
then bring them to gynecologists
not unlike themselves.]

Then there are the many attacks on Planned Parenthood (including from Mitt Romney), the defunding of rape and battered women centers in states like South Carolina and Texas, and the rejection by various Republican governors (this impacts men as well as women) to expand Medicaid in their states, even though the federal government would cover 100 % of the costs at first and 90% after that. It’s as though much of the GOP is determined to assert its authority over women in ways that take us back to the 19th century.

Hysteria presents us with  a Victorian version of our situation. It does so with a double plot that neatly applies to both the medical side and the institutional side.

On the one hand, there are Victorian medical authorities claiming to understand women better than women understand themselves. Most women, they assert, suffer from hysteria, which once was seen as a problem of a wandering womb (“hystera” is Greek for womb). Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy), a modern young physician who can’t get a job in local hospitals (they don’t like the fact that he washes his hands), ends up in a practice which specializes in hysterical ladies. Mortimer, who is a typically repressed Victorian man, finds himself called upon to help women manage their conditions by masturbating them under special clinical conditions and bringing them to orgasm. He invents the vibrator after his career is shortened by carpal tunnel.

By the end of the film, however, Mortimer has concluded that, if women are sexually frustrated, their husbands are a big part of the problem.

One of the funniest scenes—but one which also brings the ultrasound controvery to mind—is when he and two other men are experimenting with the vibrator. As electricity is in its infancy, they are wearing goggles and taking notes as women lie before them with their legs apart. One of their patients, a soprano, breaks into an operatic ode to joy. I do not expect this will occur with those who experience the vaginal ultrasounds.

The other story involves Charlotte Dalrymple (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who is working to set up a community education and medical center, against the wishes of her father (the doctor in charge of the hysteria clinic).  When she slugs a policeman who has come to shut her organization down, she is threatened with a mental asylum where she might undergo a forced hysterectomy as a cure for her “hysteria.”

In the film’s happy conclusion, Mortimer comes to understand the needs of women and, through all the money he makes from his new vibrator, is able to finance Maggie’s community center.

Now all we need is the same happy ending today—which is for GOP lawmakers to stand up to the far right, understand the concerns of women, and fund the institutions that will support them. They can take reassurance from the fact that Americans love Hollywood endings.

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  • Anonymous

    Unfortunately, sexual frustration is an easier problem to resolve than the “hysterical” desperation that brings women to an abortion clinic in the first place. The GOP lawmakers need to realize that defunding raped or battered women shelters only exacerbates the problem of abortion, because the real plight of women (abusive/intolerant/unsupportive households or relationships, struggles of mothers in academia and the workplace, etc.) has not been addressed.


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