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Hysteria: A spurious account of the roots of the modern vibrator

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
A new film promises a comedy of Victorian sexuality, but delivers neither laughs nor insight, writes Mette Hermansen
Issue 2323
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria
Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy star in Tanya Wexler’s Hysteria

As I was going to watch a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in the Victorian era, I imagined Bridget Jones’ Diary in 1880. But it was even worse.

It’s set at a time where women experiencing everything from insomnia to lack of appetite were diagnosed with “female hysteria”. They were prescribed a manual pelvic massage to cause “hysterical paroxysm” (read orgasm).

The invention of the vibrator was a result of a doctor’s “work injury” from the amount of paroxysms he had to perform a day. The film depicts this young doctor and his relationship with the two daughters of a senior doctor who takes him on as an apprentice.

Other than from their clothes, it’s not at all clear that this film is set in the 19th century. Women appear confident in their sexuality, doing business on equal terms to their husbands and can easily divorce.

Charlotte, the rebellious daughter, ends up in court for punching a police officer in the face (the only highlight of the film). Defending her suffragette activity in a court speech after interupting her prosecutor, she receives a standing ovation.

The doctor denounces hysteria’s existence, describing her act a result of women’s hard life. But in reality the diagnosis “hysteria” wasn’t abandoned until 1952.

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s role as Charlotte, the rebellious sister, is the only good bit of acting. But she struggles with so many cheesy lines.

The worst thing is that the film doesn’t seem to have a purpose. It does nothing for comedy and it certainly does nothing for women’s liberation. It reduces what could have been a political contribution recognising women’s sexuality to an irrelevant film.

Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler is on general release

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