Directed by Tanya Wxler
STARRING Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Felicity Jones, Rupert Everett, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones
I heard about the film Hysteria last year, and I lost my shit. I’d read about the practice of treating women diagnosed with “hysteria” — the Victorian catch-all term for everything from headaches to lethargy to aggression in women — with hands-on stimulation to the vulva until they reached “paroxysm” years before, and I’d been astounded that this singular piece of history was largely unknown, even to my most sexually-educated friends. Let me restate: in Victorian England, male doctors manipulated women’s vulvas with their hands until they came as a medical procedure to help relieve the symptoms of “hysteria,” AKA sexual frustration. It was so unthinkable to the male establishment that women might have anything like needs in their crotches that this incredibly intimate procedure was thought of as not sexual. It was a treatment only, heavy breathing, moaning, and sweating notwithstanding. Doctors were having, obviously, a hard time meeting demand — after all, a man has only so many hands and hours in a day — and so the vibrator was invented as a doctor’s tool, and eventually as a household aid for women everywhere. And a movie was being made about this piece of insane medical history! To educate the masses! And Maggie Gyllenhaal, one of the most outspoken and sex-positive A-listers out there, who speaks her mind and, shit, stars in movies like Secretary, was going to be in it?! This movie was going to blow minds all over the place. Brains and conceptions about female sexuality were going to be exploding in movie theaters across the country!
So, naturally, I went to see it, and now I’m reviewing it so I can write the movie ticket purchase off my taxes. And… Hm… The movie is a romantic comedy, and it kind of made my teeth hurt. Which is to say that it’s saccharine sweet, and is so busy being adorable and wink-wink-nudge-nudge-y about its scandalous subject matter that it ignores many of the big questions and problems inherent in said subject matter. To whit: were these women experiencing pleasure, as we now know it? Or is pleasure really subjective — i.e., if you’re not told that a clitoral orgasm is sexually pleasurable, then do you assume that that you’re experiencing is just a release of anxiety and not the same as what men experience when they bust a nut? Did men really think women weren’t orgasming, or was it only morally acceptable that they were touching these women’s nether regions if they pretended to think women didn’t come like that? And, perhaps most importantly, did women really leave their hats one while being jerked off by their doctors?
I was annoyed with the treatment of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Charlotte Dalrymple, too. Gyllenhaal, I think, is hugely underutilized as an intelligent and powerful leading female. This woman obviously believes in the causes of women’s lib and sex positivity, and her performances often show it. But in this movie, the strength of her performance is overshadowed in the midst of a somewhat silly plot and even sillier writing that seems more concerned with getting the audience involved in the rom-com cuteness than showing the reality of the situation in Victorian England — which was that women were treated like second-class citizens, just like all the poverty-stricken, uneducated charity cases that the character of Charlotte is hell-bent on helping. Her charity work is portrayed as almost a backdrop against the fact that she’s really who Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) should be with. That’s really the whole point of the movie, and I’m sure that’s why there’s so much parallelism between Dr. Granville giving bored and frustrated upper-class women hand jobs, and Charlotte laboring to provide hot meals, education, and medical treatment for the poor — we’re meant to understand that rich women and all sexes of poor people were treated as subhuman in those days, and that the vibrator helped liberate… some of them. (Read: the rich ones with clitorises.) But it seems so simplistic.
I guess that, given that the real tale of Victorian societal ills isn’t wrapped up neatly by the romantic ending of Hysteria, there’s a reason the filmmakers went with romantic comedy instead of, say, sweeping drama, as a genre choice. It’s easier to tie up the loose ends of Charlotte getting her £2,000 to start up a clinic with her soon-to-be-husband Granville while the women of London learn to rub one out at home, than it is to point out that economic disparity continued on a disgusting level in England well into the 20th century, and still exists all over the world. And since Granville and Charlotte’s ending is so cute, let’s focus on them. Sigh.
I really shouldn’t be so mean or hopelessly liberal. As a matter of fact, I don’t know why I’m complaining. After all, here’s a mainstream movie about women learning to claim sexual pleasure for themselves in Victorian England. It’s funny, and it’s fun, and it’s all about my favorite subject: women coming. Here’s an elbow jab in the ribcage of the antisex establishment. The movie gets away with its subversive support of female sexual pleasure because it’s a comedy, and it’s playing all over the country, albeit in indie theaters mostly, and it’s getting major headlines. This is actually a big step for the discussion of sex as pertains to women—because although there are more kinds of vibrators available these days than you can shake a Magic Wand at, there’s still a whole heaping shit-ton of misconceptions about female pleasure out there. The more people making movies and talking about it, the better. I mean, here’s a movie that lets itself chuckle at how hard men have tried, for so long, to make women feel good, and how they just weren’t sure how to do it (imperial and patriarchal and dastardly overtones aside) for so long. As Jon Stewart put it, the movie “takes place in a long-ago time when men made the decisions about women’s health without the necessary knowledge or the emotional ability” to do so. Hm. Sound… familiar? But there I go, getting serious again.
You know what? I think I’m just grumpy because I’ve never gotten to review a vintage vibrator.