Film of the Week: ‘Hysteria’: The Past Is Our Present

The year was 1880, and most women had no rights. Because of their experience of disrespect, their gender was overlooked by the medical profession, which made up a condition called “hysteria”—a “disease” of sexual dysfunction that was taken quite seriously.

It was the belief in this disease that led to the invention of the first vibrator, created as a medical tool to help women “realign their uterus” and tame their unmanageable emotional outbursts (which were generally nothing more than a normal expression of feelings).  This is the world the film Hysteria (2011) presents us with; it’s a glimpse of the past, however, its portrayal of the past reflects our present and how little things have changed.

The production quality of Hysteria is good enough. It’s filmed nicely, has great costumes, a story and plot with appropriate character arcs, and a decent cast. Maggie Gyllenhaal, who portrays Charlotte Dalrymple, outshines everyone else with her remarkable ability to truly live in someone else’s skin. She’s absolutely the best part of the picture.

My main “beef” with Hysteria, however, is the lack of focus on the treatment of the material, which is quite serious. The tone goes back and forth between a comedic romp and intense drama. In one moment we are supposed to laugh at the doctors’ ignorance and stupidity as they manipulate the genitalia of various women until they achieve orgasm and thus relieve their “hysteria.” In the next, we are thrust into the plight of women, the living conditions of the poor, and the unjust class system all through Gyllenhaal’s character.

More often than not, a good mix of humor and drama works and is quite essential to the telling of a story and holding the audience’s attention. However, in Hysteria it just comes off as tasteless and immature. Oh, how silly! An old woman having an orgasm! Gasp! It isn’t shocking, crude humor; it’s dumb and reminiscent of middle school health classes.

It’s this attitude that Hysteria holds: making a joke out of the the beginnings of women’s sexual freedom, which reflects our present and the continued exploitation of the female body socially, medically, and politically. I’m sure this is completely unintentional on the filmmakers part; their hearts were in the right place, no doubt about that. After all, when dealing with uncomfortable subject matter, humor is a great way to break the ice and to get people to listen. But the film would have been more successful if it focused less on montages of women getting fingered by doctors and more on why they were treated this way.

The status of women is still for the most part a joke, and sadly we continue to fight for control over our own bodies and thus for our independence. A lot of things have changed since 1880, that’s for sure. In most of the developed world women can vote, get an education, have a job, and own property, but we are far from equal. The battle for respect has yet to come to a close.

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