‘Hysteria’: The Medical Orgasms of Victorian England

A buzzy new comedy stars the electric vibrator as a triumph for women’s liberation.

Maggie Gyllenhaal looking at posters advertising Massage Theater in Victorian England in Hysteria.

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as an early women’s rights advocate in Hysteria. (Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

While making the Victorian-era comedy Hysteria, director Tanya Wexler knew from the start that her tale of the invention of the electric vibrator would reveal an unusual twist in the history of women’s equal rights. What Tanya Wexler didn’t predict was how relevant the vibrator narrative would still be today.

Hysteria’s contemporary parallels helped make it one of the most buzzed about titles at the Toronto Film Festival—just as the presidential primaries entered full swing last fall.

“We’re like, wait a second. This woman in the 1890s is talking about ‘I hope I live to see the day when women have rights over their own bodies,’ ” Tanya Wexler tells TakePart, “and here we are again about birth control of all things.”

England in the late 1800s seems like a very unlikely setting for a dissection of the sexual revolution. But Hysteria takes its title from the medical term employed by the era’s male-dominated medical profession to designate a female nervous system disorder. The film finds fertile territory for implanting humor and a social progress narrative, both sprouting from a time when women were conditioned to avoid acting on their sexual desires even in private, let alone talk about them. In Victorian England, the “medicinal massage” was one of few society approved options available to women who wanted to relieve their sexual tension.

“Why are we uncomfortable about our bodies?” says Wexler. “We’re built this way.”

“These doctors didn’t think of it as a sexual thing at all because there was no penis involved,” says Wexler. The director uses the invention of the electric vibrator by Mortimer Granville as a leaping off point for what the filmmaker describes as “a feminist romantic comedy about a guy.”

True to the times (though not necessarily accurate to Granville’s actual life, outside of his creation of the vibrator in 1883) the film imagines the doctor (Hugh Dancy) as a frustrated young turk fed up with old-fashioned prescriptions such as leeches to treat a variety of maladies. Dismayed at being relegated to work at the déclassé office of a “paroxysm” specialist (Jonathan Pryce), Granville finds a kindred spirit in Pryce’s daughter (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a manager of a settlement house and an advocate for women’s rights. Her confidence and sense of purpose are a turn-on for the young Turk.

“I wasn’t interested in a kind of feminism as exclusion,” says Wexler. “That’s no better than patriarchy as oppression. I have a son—he’s not the enemy. He’s awesome. So feminism is about equal opportunity as much as anything else.”

For Wexler, that meant the film wouldn’t fall back on the battle of the sexes as a plot device, but would concentrate on the conflicts between generational divides, something she still sees in contemporary culture. 

“We are always dealing with some form of cultural denial,” says Wexler, who’s as proud of the film’s strong female protagonists as she is of depicting women of all ages enjoying an orgasm onscreen, though naturally that boldness has tapped into some age-old problems for the filmmaker.

“There’s a minefield of puns,” Wexler says of discussing the film. “But now I’ve embraced that, it’s been pretty fun to talk about. There’s all sorts of conversations to be had, and I think, Why are we uncomfortable about our bodies? We’re built this way.

The device at the center of Hysteria is still a conversational taboo in much of “polite” society to this day.

Will Hysteria be the start of a healthy exchange? Leave a thought in: Comments.

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