Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler

File this under sherewin sees another mainstream movie and interprets it as horror, but I finally saw Hysteria the other night, and it was just so bad. It’s a film about the invention of the vibrator, which was used to treat hysteria about a century and a half ago in England. At the time, the clitoris had not yet been “discovered” and medically it was “known” that women didn’t orgasm and could only experience pleasure from penis penetration. This is a film that had so, so much potential, but it completely failed.

image from wikipedia.com

image from wikipedia.com

Maggie Gyllenhaal is in equal parts irresistibly charming, light, airy, and funny, laughing easily—too easy—at every little thing, but also understandably angry at the rampant sexism all around her. The audience is supposed to wonder if she has hysteria, but the modern audience knows that she does not, and so the back and forth between moods just seems forced and works as a barrier to getting to understand any nuance in her character. (The accent’s pretty tough too.)

It should go without saying that this is supposed to be an erotic film. It doesn’t have to be a porno, but it should be at least a little bit erotic. There are political and historical aspects to the film that allow it to remain solidly in the mainstream, but it is also about vibrators, and orgasms, and female sexuality, and, while I’m sure they were trying not to go beyond an R rating (it really should’ve been PG-13), there was absolutely nothing erotic about this film.

Of the women who go in for the treatment of hysteria, two are spotlighted in the film closely. One is an older woman and her orgasms are portrayed with a physical kind of humor. Her sexuality is portrayed as absurd, ridiculous. The underlying message is that she’s just an old woman trying having a good time. Her sexuality, her hysteria, the conditions that brought her to the doctor’s office is not taken seriously. Though what’s at stake for this woman is institutionalization or worse if her hysteria cannot be effectively treated. People’s lives are at stake. The other woman is fat, so she too is portrayed humorously, singing opera as she orgasms. These two women are portrayed as safe, silly, unsexy women (though of course old and fat women can be dangerous! serious! sexy!). In that way, the filmmakers totally let us down.

Of course, if they had portrayed a more conventional looking bombshell having a more erotic looking orgasm, they might’ve lost their R rating, despite the fact that the women are heavily clothed (as was the style at the time), they are covered by a cloth covered box, which they stick their legs into, and no skin is shown whatsoever. The relationships portrayed in the film are not at all sexual either. They’re confused and dysfunctional. That this film got an R rating is a testament to the resistance toward what would happen if a woman was empowered enough to unapologetically express her sexuality.

I wanted this film to do so much. I wanted it to speak to the historical, the political, and the sexual. These themes are still so very relevant today as women are denied legal control over their bodies in various way. The film should have been a drama. Instead, it is a contrived romantic comedy, minus the romance and minus the comedy. In making it a romantic comedy, it seems they took the easy way out. Any stars this film might get come directly from the title and the concept, which are provocative and important. Sadly, the film itself in no way lived up to that potential.


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