One of the most vivid memories I have of my college learning experience is a class I took on Women in American History. I remember reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, and if I didn't have feminist inclinations before I read those books, I sure did the moment my eyes hit the page.
Those books (and many other in that class) changed me. It was when I discovered that women were thought to be hysterical because they wanted to have lives outside the home and were told by doctors that they needed to sit quietly and rest and not think too much because that would be too taxing on their poor brains and their private parts. Their diagnosis of hysteria made some of the women actually lose their minds.
The new movie Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler takes a comedic twist on this very serious and feminist topic.
Based on a true story, the film tells the story of the invention of the vibrator. It takes place in the 1880's England when many upper middle class (white) women are being sent to the doctor because they are depressed. The answer the brilliant medical establishment came up with was that these women needed to have an orgasm and everything would be ok for them. Clearly the women needed to have an orgasm, but that was just the beginning of the revolution for women. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the daughter of the doctor (Jonathan Pryce) whose practice was created to satisfy rich women when their husbands couldn't. She's not on board with his diagnosis because isn't it surprising that this seems to be a problem only rich women suffer from.
This was really one of the most heartfelt, feminist and funny films I saw at the festival. Hugh Dancy plays an up and coming young doctor who becomes widely known for his satisfaction skills, and then busts his hand so he can't do it any longer. Rupert Everett plays his friend, a rich inventor, and together they come up with the first vibrator made from a feather duster. Needless to say after the vibrator becomes mobile nobody needed to go to the doctor anymore to have an orgasm.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an early social worker who has dedicated her life, much to her father's chagrin, to working with the poor educating them and doing her best to bridge the class differences. She is, of course, thought to be hysterical herself and is treated like a troublemaker.
While the film takes a very light approach to the topic, one can't help but remember the consequences women suffered when they stepped out of line. When Gyllenhaal's character Charlotte hits a police officer she is hauled off to court and threatened with a hysterectomy or the insane asylum. This is what was happened to women who demanded rights like the suffragists. They were said to be crazy and hysterical. This was no laughing matter for many women who just didn't toe the line and were made to undergo a devastating procedure just because they said things that society didn't agree with.
Here is an interview with director Tanya Wexler.