A Review Turned Rant Turned Review: Hysteria (the film) & The History of the Vibrator

Did you know that in the year 2012 the vibrator, the world’s most popular sex toy, is still illegal in the states of Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Virginia, Massachusetts, Alabama, Indiana and Mississippi?  I just learned this while doing some background research on the film Hysteria and am totally blown away.

Earlier this week I saw Hysteria  (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jonathan Pryce, Hugh Dancy, Felicity Jones and Rupert Everett) which tells a story about the 1883 invention of the vibrator by English doctor, Joseph Mortimer Granville.  It’s a story and not the story because the events around Granville’s life on screen were entirely fictionalized.  The crafted story is quite evident in the neat way that the film carries a perfect arc and ends nice and tidy in that fairy tale kind of way.  Hysteria is a cleverly comedic version of a period piece that exposes a window into a tumultuous time in British history where everything was beginning to change from science and medicine to ideas around social status and women’s rights.

Hysteria, a general condition that was ascribed to women from the time of Hippocrates through the 1950′s, has carried with it a vast range of symptoms from madness, epilepsy, rebelliousness and depression to both fiendishly libidinous and sexual disinterest.  At the time of Dr. Granville one of the therapies was manual massage of the clitoris given by male physicians.  The vibrator was invented, and used for many decades, as a treatment for hysteria and began to replace manual massage.

In spite of the almost too perfect and–in moments–far fetched plot, the film was overall sweet and entertaining with some fabulous performances.  As a sex educator, and knowing all that I do about women’s sexual history, I feel like I had a slightly different reaction to this light and humorous film.   I couldn’t help but notice my own sadness and anger at times when the rest of the audience was laughing.  Hysteria after all was a disorder invented to keep women in their place.  Women who were considered hysterical were also institutionalized, given hysterectomies and later clitordecotomies (in the United States too people).

Don’t get me wrong, I celebrate the invention of the vibrator, I’ve had many a glorious romp  with my trusty toy and think they can be a great gift for many women.   I also have a hard time understanding why 100 or so years later there is still great shame around masturbation and owning sex toys.  Why are there no regulations on sex toy manufacturing to prevent them from being made with cancer causing materials?  How is it fucking possible that they are considered illegal for sexual use any where?

The limiting dichotomy of female sexuality as either whore or frigid is also still way to present in our current culture and perhaps that’s why it’s so funny.  Perhaps we laugh out of discomfort of this revealing self reflection.

I am so grateful for independent film and that movies like this are made to stoke the conversation and remind us both of how far we’ve come and how little we’ve changed at the same time.  Go see Hysteria on the big screen soon as there’s no guarantee how long these films last in the theater.

Check out the trailer and some interesting historical facts here:  http://www.sonyclassics.com/hysteria/

Leave a Reply