"Hysteria": What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Set in Victorian England. With references to feminism, socialism, class privilege, phone sex, prostitution, harm reduction, science, evidence-based medicine, and steampunk. What could be bad?

A fair amount, unfortunately.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed “Hysteria” quite a bit. I found it funny (generally), charming (usually), intelligent (mostly), and entertaining (often). But I wanted so much more than to just like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be shouting about it from the rooftops. I wanted to be stopping strangers on the street, grabbing them by the lapels, and pleading with them to run out and see it right this minute. It was a movie about the invention of the vibrator, for fuck’s sake. I didn’t want to leave the theater thinking, “Yeah, that was pretty good — but it could have been so much better.”

And far too much of what was wanting from the film had to do with its treatment of the central topic — female orgasm.

The core of the movie — the story of the invention of the vibrator — is based on real history. It’s a hilarious, poignant, wildly implausible history, one you might not believe if it weren’t extremely well documented. The central facts: The vibrator was originally invented as a labor-saving device for doctors. I am totally serious. Look it up. For centuries, doctors treated the supposed condition of “hysteria” in women — a catch-all diagnosis that covered symptoms from depression to asthma, muscle spasms to faintness, loss of appetite to “a tendency to cause trouble” — by, among other methods, manually manipulating the patients’ genitals to induce “hysterical paroxysm.” If that sounds like what you think it sounds like — you’re right. That’s what it was. Doctors were fingering women to get them off.

They didn’t see it that way, of course. There’s no evidence that the doctors performing this procedure saw it as sexual, or that they took any pleasure from it. In fact, they generally saw it as a tedious chore. So when late-Victorian technology offered a mechanical substitute, doctors jumped at it. Large, table-sized “massagers” began to be regularly deployed in doctor’s offices, allowing them to deliver faster and more reliable “paroxysms” to a larger number of women: relieving doctors of the physical chore, and increasing the number of patients they could see in a day. (Which, not coincidentally, increased their profit margins.) Eventually, of course, smaller electronic “massagers” began to be marketed directly to the public. Ads for the devices began appearing in venues from women’s magazines to the Sears Roebuck catalog, and the professional medical device was rapidly supplanted by the home version of the game.

The movie “Hysteria” tells a greatly fictionalized, frequently anachronistic version of this history. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a struggling young doctor who’s been kicked out of hospital after hospital for his radical new ideas about the germ theory of disease. He finally lands a position with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a leading specialist in women’s problems, whose appointment book is overflowing with patients seeking, er, relief. Mortimer’s hand soon cramps up from his strenuous practice — but his good friend, the eccentric technological innovator Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), unintentionally comes to his aid with his newly-invented electric feather duster, which is soon stripped of its feathers and pressed into service. Meanwhile, Mortimer is introduced to both of Dr. Dalrymple’s daughters — the genteel and ladylike Emily (Felicity Jones), and the brash, independent feminist and social reformer, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) — and gets engaged to the former, while becoming increasingly enraptured by the latter.

Like I said, there’s lots to like about “Hysteria.” It’s hard to argue too strenuously with a romantic comedy that weaves progressive politics with naughty Victorian fun. It’s harder to argue when the movie treats female sexual pleasure as a given, something that’s both undeniably real and undeniably good. And it’s harder still to argue when the movie has a heroine who 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. Especially when she’s played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. It’s a likeable movie, and not at all a waste of time.

So why was it disappointing?

Partly, it was disappointing for purely narrative, movie-making reasons. The elements of the story are fun and funny — but the story arc itself is predictable, almost to the point of tedium. Within about fifteen minutes, I predicted every outcome of every major plot point, and several minor plot points to boot. The minor, second-act crisis; the major, third-act crisis; the romantic conflict and the resolution thereof; the neat tying up of all loose ends in one big happy ending. About the only thing I didn’t predict is that the movie would culminate in a dumb, preachy, heavy-handed courtroom scene that stretched plausibility like gum that’s been chewed too long. This movie is Exhibit A for why the Screenwriter’s Bible is the worst thing to happen to film since product placement.

But I can deal with a predictable, paint-by-numbers narrative if I have to. I certainly have before, more often than I care to remember, and I’ve even enjoyed myself along the way. More seriously: I was greatly disturbed at how male-centered this movie was. Especially given the topic. This is a story about women’s bodies and women’s pleasure and women’s sexuality… and it is overwhelmingly driven by men. It is overwhelmingly — not exclusively, but primarily — a story in which men are the inventors and the instigators, and women are reacting to them.

The movie does pass the Bechdel test. Barely. 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. It should bloody well not have squeaked by with a barely adequate “D.” How hard would it have been to include some scenes of women talking with each other about their “treatments,” and spreading word of mouth about it? To show an actual relationship between sisters Charlotte and Emily? An actual relationship between settlement house colleagues Charlotte and Fannie (Ashley Jensen)? We get an extensively explored quirky friendship between Mortimer and Edmund; an extensively explored professional and paternal relationship between Mortimer and Dr. Dalrymple; loads of scenes with men creating and pondering and perfecting this wonderful new invention. In a movie about female orgasm, how the hell hard would it have been to put women at the center of the story?

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of “Hysteria” is its treatment of the central topic — female orgasm.

The film is loaded with scenes of women having orgasms. And every single scene is played for laughs.

Yes, I get that this is a comedy. And I have no problem finding the humor in sex. I’ve done it myself, here in this very review even. I wouldn’t have had a problem if they’d played the orgasms for laughs in a scene or two. But does every single freaking scene of female orgasm have to be treated as a joke? Other scenes in the film were allowed to be serious, were given either the gravity of disaster or the earnestness of joy. Why on earth couldn’t the central topic of this film — female orgasm — at least occasionally be depicted as just deep, rich, unbridled joy?

And yes, I get that the Victorian denial of the obvious, staring-them-in-the-face reality of female orgasm was pretty freaking hilarious. (When it wasn’t tragic, that is.) I was thrilled that the movie made unabashed mockery of this denial, and that it treated female sexual pleasure as both (a) an obvious reality and (b) an unqualified Good Thing. But it was frustrating to see this pleasure — not just the absurd denial of it, but the pleasure itself — consistently get framed as a joke. It’s almost as if the filmmakers were embarrassed by the subject. Or thought their audience would be embarrassed.

And it got old. Very, very fast.

The story of the invention of the vibrator is fascinating. By all means, you should find out more about it. I can unreservedly recommend Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm, an excellent and funny documentary film about this very subject. I can recommend even more enthusiastically The Technology of Orgasm: Hysteria, the Vibrator, and Women’s Sexual Satisfaction, the book on which this documentary was based. The Technology of Orgasm is clear-sighted, thoroughly-researched, eye-openingly informative, and totally freaking hilarious. And the history of how it was written is itself fascinating: historian Rachel Maines was researching needlework patterns in early 20th century women’s magazines, kept coming across ads for what were obviously electric vibrators… and began digging until she found the reality, not only of the technological creation, but of the bizarre medical history behind it. Thus almost single-handedly changing our understanding of the histories of medicine, women, and sex.

The history of the vibrator is fascinating. But “Hysteria” is not the way to discover it. Its muddled jumble of fact and fiction is more likely to confuse you than enlighten you. (Ingrid and I spent much of our post-film analysis trying to make sense of the chronology — and we already knew this history.) If you’re already familiar with this history, you may well find this movie an entertaining frill on your existing knowledge. If you’re not already familiar with this history, it might inspire you to learn more. It’s really not a bad film. It explores important and transgressive social and political questions… okay, strung onto a boilerplate story arc of depressing predictability, but you can’t have everything. It features strong, feminist female characters… who even get to talk to each other once in a while. It acknowledges and celebrates female sexual pleasure… even though it mostly makes fun of it. It’s funny (generally), charming (usually), intelligent (mostly), and entertaining (often).

It just isn’t what it could have been.

And given what a rich vein it was mining, that’s a damn shame.

Hysteria. Starring Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, .Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Sheridan Smith, and Rupert Everett. Produced by Sarah Curtis, Judy Cairo and Tracey Becker. Story and screenplay by Stephen Dyer and Jonah Lisa Dyer; original Story by Howard Gensler. Directed by Tanya Wexler. Sony Pictures Classics. Rated R.

"Hysteria": What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

5 thoughts on “"Hysteria": What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

  1. 1

    Given that it was set in Victorian England, I would have fully expected it to totally fail the Bechdel test even worse than most movies. The reason should be obvious.

    I’m pessimistic like that though.

  2. 3

    Personally, I found it annoying that it was basically two separate movies: One about a young doctor trying to change the world and make medicine more scientific. The other about a young man that has to choose between two women, the social ideal and the passionate renegade.

    These two plot arcs are essentially separate. Sure, they share characters, but they’re not really connected. It would be possible to do either story by itself with a minimum of rewriting.

    It came across to me like an attempt to do a standard romantic comedy chick flick with some sex added in to keep the interest of the boyfriends who’d get dragged in to watch it.
    It didn’t seem like a story that someone wanted to tell, but rather a product someone wanted to sell. Of course, that’s true of all movies to some degree, but here it was just a bit too blatant.

    It had its moments, but I still felt (no pun intended) unsatisfied.

  3. 4

    I’m really pleased to see Sebastian’s link. When something sounds really incredible (mass masturbating of female patients by Victorian doctors – by hand or machine – which was apparently not regarded as at all sexual) I need to see really strong evidence before accepting it. This stuff pushes at the edge of my credibility. I knew someone who wrote a book on ‘Funerary violinists’ – an incredibly well-researched (sources, engravings, quotations from other books) text on the tradition of violinists who played only at funerals. A week before publication he admitted it was a hoax but publication went ahead anyway. Would like to hear from anyone who is either sceptical about Rachel P Maines’ book, or who can supply corroborating evidence.

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