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'Hysteria': What the New Movie About the Fascinating History of the Vibrator Leaves Out

A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator tells the story of a fascinating moment in female sexuality. So why does it center on men?
 
 
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A romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator. Set in Victorian England. With references to feminism, socialism, class privilege, phone sex, prostitution, harm reduction, science, evidence-based medicine, and steampunk. What could be bad?

A fair amount, unfortunately.

Hysteria is quite enjoyable. I found it funny (generally), charming (usually), intelligent (mostly), and entertaining (often). But I wanted so much more than to just like it. I wanted to love it. I wanted to be shouting about it from the rooftops. I wanted to be stopping strangers on the street, grabbing them by the lapels, and pleading with them to run out and see it right this minute. It was a movie about the invention of the vibrator, for fuck's sake. I didn't want to leave the theater thinking, "Yeah, that was pretty good -- but it could have been so much better."

And far too much of what was wanting from the film had to do with its treatment of the central topic -- female orgasm.

The core of the movie -- the story of the invention of the vibrator -- is based on real history. It's a hilarious, poignant, wildly implausible history, one you might not believe if it weren't extremely well documented. The central facts: The vibrator was originally invented as a labor-saving device for doctors. Look it up. For centuries, doctors treated the supposed condition of female "hysteria" -- a catch-all diagnosis that covered symptoms from depression to asthma, muscle spasms to faintness, loss of appetite to "a tendency to cause trouble" -- by, among other methods, manually manipulating the patients' genitals to induce "hysterical paroxysm." If that sounds like what you think it sounds like, you're right. That's what it was. Doctors were fingering women to get them off.

They didn't see it that way, of course. There's no evidence that the doctors performing this procedure saw it as sexual, or that they took any pleasure from it. In fact, they generally saw it as a tedious chore. So when late-Victorian technology offered a mechanical substitute, doctors jumped at it. Large, table-sized "massagers" began to be regularly deployed in doctor's offices, allowing them to deliver faster and more reliable "paroxysms" to a larger number of women, relieving doctors of the physical chore, and increasing the number of patients they could see in a day. (Which, not coincidentally, increased their profit margins.) Eventually, of course, smaller electronic "massagers" began to be marketed directly to the public. Ads for the devices began appearing in venues from women's magazines to the Sears Roebuck catalog, and the professional medical device was rapidly supplanted by the home version of the game.

The movie "Hysteria" tells a greatly fictionalized, frequently anachronistic version of this history. Mortimer Granville (Hugh Dancy) is a struggling young doctor who's been kicked out of hospital after hospital for his radical new ideas about the germ theory of disease. He finally lands a position with Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce), a leading specialist in women's problems, whose appointment book is overflowing with patients seeking, er, relief. Mortimer's hand soon cramps up from his strenuous practice, but his good friend, the eccentric technological innovator Edmund St. John Smythe (Rupert Everett), unintentionally comes to his aid with his newly invented electric feather duster, which is soon stripped of its feathers and pressed into service. Meanwhile, Mortimer is introduced to both of Dr. Dalrymple's daughters -- the genteel and ladylike Emily (Felicity Jones), and the brash, independent feminist and social reformer, Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- and gets engaged to the former, while becoming increasingly enraptured by the latter.

 
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