Girls on Film: ‘Hysteria’ and the Power of Female Perspectives

Girls on Film: ‘Hysteria’ and the Power of Female Perspectives

May 17, 2012

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

Hysteria still

When Hysteria hit TIFF last year (review here), I was apprehensive. Though it focused on women’s issues, starred Maggie Gyllenhaal, and featured a female filmmaker (Tanya Wexler), the film seemed wrong – irk-inducing wrong. It was framed as light, goofy, rom-com fare. At every turn press materials revealed goggled men peering closely at a woman’s vagina, and old, priggish women writhing as orgasms descended. The film seemed to be feeding into the hysteria myth rather than debunking it.

It didn’t help that it wasn’t the first hysteria-based period piece hitting the festival. Hysteria arrived on the heels of David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, where Jung and Freud talked about the intricacies of the mind through the healing of the hysterical Sabina Spielrein. In the film, Keira Knightley’s Spielrein is rushed to a sanitarium as she screams and thrashes, each movement a careful reproduction of Charcot’s early photographs of so-called “hysteria.”  Knightley’s mannerisms of catch-all symptoms (which Jung was able to ease) suggested the affliction was valid, real, and treatable.

As young rom-com fiends filed around me during that TIFF screening, talking about clothes and boyfriends, it was obvious that this film was appealing to the very specific demographic that loves formulaic rom-coms. At first, much of the film seemed to deliver. Gyllenhaal’s outspoken and opinionated Charlotte explodes on the screen, and the audience laughs as her exasperated father labels her hysterical. Hugh Dancy masturbates women until his hand curls and cramps. As each rich Victorian woman howled in the throes of orgasm on the screen, the surrounding girls giggled.

Hysteria foreign posterQuite fittingly however, for a film about vibrators and orgasms, Hysteria’s climax changes the tables. Comedic pretense takes a back seat to common sense, which inspired gasps in the girls around me. The giggles faded away, and rushed whispers rose as they tried to make sense of what was happening on the screen. The climax offered the realization that hysteria wasn’t so simple. For each rich woman who went to the doctors for their weekly release, many more faced terrible fates.

Revisiting the film this month, it seemed silly that I didn’t notice all the little clever nods that increased towards the film’s ending, but that’s the power of expectation. We’re often so focused on our fears that we won’t notice subtlety until it bites us in the ass. For me, it meant watching the film a second time to really enjoy it, but for those young women, it was an immediate moment of entertaining education. While they were served exactly what they wanted (romance and laughs), they were also given that light bulb moment of enlightenment.

It worked because it wasn’t about the politics of agenda; it was merely a genuine, female point of view. Tanya Wexler wasn’t striving to be political when she agreed to direct a film about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England. Though she calls Hysteria a “feminist fable,” she “just wanted a movie I wanted to go see. I wasn’t trying to do a women’s studies class.” Wexler talks about her film simply, always boiling the feature into two talking points: it’s a romantic comedy, about the invention of the vibrator. There’s no agenda, other than fun. The intelligence comes in as a matter of perspective.

It’s fitting, because that’s primarily what Hysteria is about. Yes, it’s a romantic and comedic take on the creation of the vibrator; however, it’s fueled by ideas of perspective, and how rigid habit gets in the way of progress. Mortimer is a doctor easily exasperated by colleagues who don’t believe germs are real, yet he easily accepts hysteria to be a valid medical condition. He (like doctors of his generation) fails to see that a woman writhing, flushing, and panting from vaginal contact is a woman having a sexual response. He’s a curious man, but also a creature of habit. Charlotte, meanwhile, fully recognizes the reality – that this is a sexual release for women rather than a real treatment, and that the men are trying to silence “disagreeable personalities.” The film plays on the habits and enlightenment of its characters, which ultimately offers the same for the audience.

Hysteria still

Hysteria succeeds because its smarts are not a political agenda; Wexler didn’t make this film to teach her audience – her viewpoint simply informed her filmmaking (just as Gyllenhaal’s informed her performance). A simple change in viewpoint (because, let’s face it, female points of view in cinema are still a relatively rare thing) elevates a comedically simplistic tale into something to appreciate. There’s nothing all that intricate in Hysteria. It is what it was meant to be – a fun, easy-to-digest retro rom-com about a truly preposterous (and mostly true) point in history. It’s female perspective – that gives Hysteria a little something extra. This is not the film that would’ve been made in a man’s hands. And that’s not to say that either or are superior. They are just different.

I keep thinking about a family story about a relative, told to me by two family members. The man created this picture of an irrational woman, easily incensed, who flew into a rage and unintentionally led him to a heroic act. There was no sexist condemnation; he told the story with love and reminiscing humor. I loved the story, and considered the hot-headed woman to be a quirky hero. When I told female relative the story, however, she gave me the female perspective that painted the exact same words in an entirely different way. Yes, the person of note was hot-headed, but she was also the product of her era – shackled to the pressures she faced as a woman, the sexism, and the double-standard.

It’s an awful lot like the current state of film. Sure, women today sometimes mimic the stereotypes we see on screen, just as some women bought into stupid notions back in the Victorian era. There are tons of hot-headed, highly emotional women we see and enjoy on a regular basis. It is, however, habitual familiarity – until that light bulb moment comes and we’re served another perspective. An entirely different world begins to open up that is familiar, strange, and so very welcome.


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