When lesbian filmmaker Tanya Wexler heard about the treatment for female hysteria (i.e. orgasms) she says, “It made me laugh. I knew it was a story I had to tell.” Her new film, Hysteria, which premiers today, is a romantic comedy wrapped around the amusing story of the first electro-mechanical vibrator, invented in 1880 by happenstance, at a time when Victorian prudishness coincided with the dawn of the electrical age.
Despite the fact that there are no out LGBT characters in the film, the sentiment of this charming, quirky film — perhaps thanks to both the lead characters and director Tanya Wexler’s acknowledged lesbian lens — makes it feel like it belongs in squarely the lesbian cinema cannon.
Hugh Dancy is Dr. Mortimer Granville, a well-meaning doctor who is too earnest and caring to stay employed for long in the rather staid world of medicine. In an early scene, he’s arguing with a senior physician over whether a woman needs her blackened and filthy bandages replaced (he’s arguing for it) and has to explain that “germs” could get in and infect her leg, leading to gangrene or death. The stodgy doc doesn’t believe in this newfangled thing called “germs” (which has thus far only been reported in obscure medical journals) and fires Dr. Granville on the spot. We get it, he’s a different sort of man, and a different sort of doctor.
What does this have to do with vibrators or Maggie Gyllenhal or lesbians? A lot, actually. After a series of deflating job interviews, Granville ends up a fancy clinic with a older physician renown for treating female hysteria, which was —as you may know from your gender studies classes — once a widely-diagnosed condition in the 19th century for women who suffered from everything from insomnia to eating disorders, shortness of breath, fainting, and general troublemaking. The treatment, as Dr. Granville learns, is a manual massage of the nether regions that leads the patient to “hysterical paroxysm.” (The latter was a fancy word for orgasm, though the doctors at the time believed women couldn’t orgasm and that these hysterical paroxysms were purely medical, not pleasurable.)
But Dr. Dalrymple, whose practice Granville ends up in, finds his waiting room always full of women seeking this treatment. Only his eldest daughter, Maggie Gyllenhall as Charlotte, believes that the women who see him aren’t really ill but merely bored housewives, stuck at home with babies and husbands who can’t pleasure (or listen) to them.
Not so for Charlotte. She's single and has a career her father finds unsuitable for a proper English lady: she works with the poor as a reformer and a sort of social worker running a center for the working poor and their kids where she serves food, teaches children in daycare, and helps people pay their bills and stay out of jail. (Read: lesbian.)
Much of the energy of the film is between Charlotte and Dr. Granville (who, I remind you, is a more sensitive modern man), and though it’s between a man and woman, their relationship makes this feel in many ways like a classically queer feminist film. It’s an outsider story, of one person who is boldly out, regardless of the costs, with a paramour who is struggling with whether or not to be true to oneself or to fit in and be who others want you to be. It’s a perfect metaphor of same-sex relationships, for coming out, for women’s liberation, for the fight we all have even today.
Charlotte has made her choice and even though she appears to fall for Granville, she never does so at the expense of her beliefs, her career, and her self. She’s a firebrand and a women’s rights advocate, and it’s clear that she doesn’t need to have someone else save her (or manually stimulate her — she can stimulate herself, damn it).