Hysteria the movie

Words: Nicci Talbot

I’m really looking forward to seeing Hysteria, a period drama about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England. Details may be exaggerated at the expense of historic or hysterical accuracy to bring it to life but the general feedback is positive. It looks brilliant fun and as one reviewer puts it: the subject is something men and women can both relate to even if we don’t talk about it in public. The costumes, set and acting are fabulous, and the crew appear to be having a ball, which is important, as sex on film can be a terribly serious business.

The criticisms about accuracy are based on the screenplay being inspired by Rachel P Maines’ 1998 book The Technology of Orgasm. Some researchers question the existence of the ‘Victorian vibrator’ and argue that the book is based on information from secondary texts. Historian Lesley A Hall points out on her website that vibrator use by doctors in Victorian England would have been limited rather than widespread as the film suggests, as most doctors would have been worried about being struck off the medical register for impropriety.

Apparently Maggie Gyllenhaal gave the cast and crew vibrators as a gift before she started getting inundated with them and now has enough to open her own sex boutique. At the Toronto premiere she said the topic of the female orgasm isn’t discussed enough. ‘It’s about vibrators and women’s orgasms, and I don’t think people really do talk about it very much, and I do think it does still make us flushed and uncomfortable.’

Female hysteria and the invention of the vibrator

There’s a fantastic section on women and psychiatry on the Science Museum website, and is worth a visit to see some of the early therapeutic vibrators. The ‘VeeDee’ (see image) was a German-made mechanical vibrator dated 1900-1915 that claimed to be able to cure colds, digestive complaints and flatulence. It looks more like a pizza cutter to me but I love the instructions on the box: ‘There’s almost nothing the German-made VeeDee cannot cure’. We may have come a long way with our stylish rechargables but I’d agree that vibrotherapy (second to a shag) is the best cure for PMS, period pains and general grumpiness.

‘Hysteria’ is an ancient Greek word for womb. The philosopher Plato thought the womb was peripatetic, capable of causing illness and disturbance of mind, body and spirit as it travelled up the body, strangling the victim. Symptoms of ‘hysteria’ included shortness of breath, stomach pains, muscle spasms, fainting spells, anxiety, irritability and otherwise ‘inappropriate’ or frisky behaviour.

In the 1800s women were viewed as subordinate to men and restricted to a life of motherhood and domestics. Women who resisted this role were declared insane and often committed to an asylum by a husband or father. Female psychiatry was becoming a specialist area of medicine in the early 1800s with the notion of the male doctor as God with therapeutic fingers. Women were believed to be fragile and prone to hysteria and nervous breakdown. The general cure for such ‘illness’ was to find a husband or be massaged into ‘paroxysm’ (orgasm) by a doctor.

By the late 1800s ‘hysteria’ had become a specialised disease and was hotly debated amongst the intelligentsia. French neurologist John Martin Charcot thought it was a disease of the nervous system and began to treat it with hypnosis. His contemporary Freud thought it was rooted in the unconscious and linked to emotional conflict, which manifested in the body as ‘conversion hysteria’ if it was not dealt with. He thought the best cure for this was talking to female patients in depth, which is how the notion of psychoanalysis began. By the early 1900s hysteria was linked to neurosis and psychoanalysis the suggested treatment, which feminist writers later critiqued as a treatment developed by men to keep women in their place.

Hysteria is a lighthearted romp that focuses on entertainment rather than challenging the deeper issues of repression of sexuality and a woman’s place in society. I’m looking forward to seeing Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play, which was nominated for three awards and paying a visit to the Good Vibrations Antique Vibrator Museum. It has an archive selection and supplied several of the vibrators used in Hysteria.

Image © Science Museum / SSPL


The Antique Vibrator Museum, 1620 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA

The Science Museum: Brought to Life – Therapeutic Vibrator, England 1920-1940.

In the Next Room – The Vibrator Play by Sarah Ruhl


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