Having researched and delivered conference papers on the topic, the medical historian in me danced a little jig when I heard Sony Pictures Classics was releasing a movie called “Hysteria.” I did, however, enter the theater with some reservations. Motion picture portrayals are notorious for being historically inaccurate, and if films are true to history, those not in the field tend to find it a little, well, boring. (That is unless Werner Herzog is narrating it with his dry but inadvertently humorous observations.) Thankfully, the $7.50 spent on a matinee wasn’t a waste at all. Just about anyone- unless you are akin to the Victorian “social purist” Anthony Comstock- can walk away from this movie feeling quite satisfied.
The film opens in London during the 1880s, with a young and progressive Doctor Mortimer Granville visiting a hospital and trying to implement more modern practices. At the time, physicians lacked professional prestige. For much of the nineteenth century, almost any quack could practice medicine, and hospitals were considered a place the poor went to die. Seriously, before hand washing caught on, patients had a rather high chance of dying from surgery and medical treatment. Doctors relied on humoral pathology, which stated sickness resulted from phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, or blood being out of balance. To cure a disease, doctors used what we now recognize as a less than effective regimen of things like leeches, bloodletting, enemas, and worthless tonics. (Killing a patient by bleeding him/her to death or mercury poisoning was known to happen.) Mortimer Granville’s character represented the modern physician’s attempt to change the field with Robert Koch’s germ theory and Joseph Lister’s antiseptic procedures for surgery. Mortimer, like many of those contemporary medical men, met with much resistance- disease caused by unseen germs? Never!- and he was quickly fired from one job after another. (At the point in the movie when Mortimer is trying to explain the germ theory to a patient, I resisted the urge to lean over to my husband and explain to him how heavily debated the germ theory was during the last quarter of the 1800s. But resist I did, and I comforted myself with the fact I could talk all about it in this blog post. Lucky you, eh?)
Mortimer happens upon a position as an assistant for an established Dr. Robert Dalrymple. What’s Robert Dalyrmple’s specialty? Women and hysteria. Robert’s character attempts to acquaint Mortimer (and the viewing audience) with the disease of hysteria. From anxiety to masturbation, almost anything could be classified as symptom of hysteria. The ideal Victorian gender norms, after all, strictly circumscribed what a man and woman should and should not do. The status of “true womanhood,” however, was confined, especially in the United States, to white, middle to upper class, heterosexual women. The goals were for women to be submissive, chaste, religious, and restrained. Any deviation was not embraced. The catchall diagnosis of hysteria served to categorize those “wayward” women (and some men) as sick and separate from the rest of society.
So what’s the cause? Here, the film is a little incomplete for its historical basis. Robert contends that hysteria resulted from what the ancient Greeks called the “wandering womb.” Essentially, they believed the disease was from a moving uterus, which is why the ancients used sweet and fetid smells and rubbed them on the vagina to coax the uterus back into place. But, by the late 1800s, the medical community’s view on the cause of hysteria was indeed more complex and heavily debated. Some thought hysteria was the result of neurological lesions. Others argued the uterus did not move but was simply congested with fluid. Still others said it was connected to, among many other things, puberty, reading impure books, being shunned in love, changes in the menstrual cycle, and living in warm climates. But, what most would agree upon was that a woman’s mental and reproductive health were inseparable. After all, gynecology- the medical specialization in female reproductive organs- was considered the study of the whole woman until after the middle of the twentieth century. This neuro-uterine hybrid disease model dominated medical thought on the causation of hysteria during the turn of the twentieth century.
So how did they treat it? Some doctors performed ovioratomies (surgical removal of one or both ovaries), hysterectomies (surgical removal of the uterus), hypnosis, the rest cure, and/or clitoridectomies (generally, just the surgical removal of the hood of the clitoris but could, and for current practices of female genital mutilation, does include other more radical procedures, such as removing the clitoris and outer labia or the clitoris and inner and outer labia). But, Robert used something else for “lesser” forms of hysteria. The day after hiring his assistant, Robert gave the young Mortimer a lesson in treating hysteria- vulva massage. With this method, doctors manually stimulated a woman’s clitoris with the physicians’ fingers until she had a hysterical paroxysm (an orgasm). On one hand, many in the Victorian Era believed “true womanhood” meant a woman had no sexual feeling, but on the other, doctors treated hysteria by inducing an orgasm. The medical community cleared the confusion over this apparent paradox by stating it was purely a medical intervention. Real women were supposedly not sexual, and the orgasm they experienced was purely “a physiological response.” Since the doctor’s hands remained outside the vagina, the therapy was not thought to be erotic or a violation of the female patient, which would have threatened a husband’s sexual ownership of his wife or a single woman’s “purity.” Women’s value was, unfortunately at the time, heavily reliant on the status of their hymen.
Mortimer begins his job and enjoys becoming a successful assistant to Robert. But, Mortimer quickly realizes what doctors of the time knew- orgasm by manual manipulation of the clitoris can take a bit of time and become tiresome for the doctor. Mortimer develops problems with his wrists from treating so many hysterical women. To fix the issue, he, with the help of his wealthy and eccentric friend Edward St. John Smythe (played by the wonderful Rupert Everett), develops the vibrator. The vibrator did in minutes what previously took doctors upwards of an hour. Efficient? Yes. Effective? Well, by doctors’ and patients’ standards- that’s a double yes.
Not long on the job, Mortimer becomes acquainted with Robert’s two daughters. Emily is the ideal of a Victorian lady- obedient, well-tempered, submissive, dutiful, and quiet, while Charlotte is not. Described as “volatile” and “passionate,” Charlotte neglected her middle class position and worked among the laboring and the poor as manager of a settlement house. Charlotte, moreover, embraced the woman’s movement at the turn of the twentieth century. She pushed in women’s right to vote, women’s right to hold a career, women’s right to an education, women’s right to sexual satisfaction, and women’s reproductive rights. A feminist for a daughter?!? This could not be tolerated, so she was labeled by many, including her father, as a hysteric. Initially, Mortimer wants to fulfill Victorian expectations and is attracted to Emily. But will Charlotte’s outspoken ways and demand for equality between the sexes turn his head? You’ll have to see the movie to find out!
Although I have focused on the historical background of the film, it is a romantic comedy, and I enjoyed that part too (well, except for when someone in the theater decided to answer her phone DURING the proposal scene…..). I do wonder about it’s rating as an “R” film. The movie is not crude. It shows no nudity, and there was no obscene language. It’s not like HBO’s The Tudors or anything! There are a few scenes with a woman fully clothed and making sounds of an orgasm, but I’ve seen plenty of tv shows do the same (ahem, Elaine in Seinfeld, Daphne in Frasier and the list goes on and on). Despite being about women’s reproductive organs and orgasm, there is no mention of the medically accurate terms “clitoris” or “vagina.” The most “vulgar” term mentioned is “uterus” (gasp!). I suppose Michigan’s current legislators must have hand in censoring it. Considering all the PG-13 films with sex, violence, and drugs galore, the R rating for Hysteria is quite mystifying.
Overall, this movie is delightful and quite interesting. This film has a refreshing portrayal of women. The courtroom scene- when hysteria is debunked as a racket and women’s sexual satisfaction is argued as healthy- is empowering. If you like history, go see it. If you enjoy rom coms, go see it. If you are a women’s rights advocate, go see it. Heck, even if you have a rather conservative view of sex or female sexuality, go see it; you might find you enjoy it.
* Barker-Benfield, G J. The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
* Horowitz, Helen L. Rereading Sex: Battles Over Sexual Knowledge and Suppression in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Knopf, 2002.
* Maines, Rachel. The Technology of Orgasm: “Hysteria,” the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction. Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.