When female orgasm was “hysteria”

The movie is called ‘Hysteria’ and it is a Victorian romantic comedy revolving around the invention of the electro-mechanical vibrator, also known now as the dildo.

First patented in 1880 by an English physician and inventor named Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, the vibrator’s origin is in the Victorian abhorrence about a woman’s sexual needs and desires. Those were the times when women did not have orgasms but “physician-assisted paroxysms.” The idea that a woman had sexual desires as well desire to climax was repugnant in Victorian England and tensions caused by her lack of a fulfilled sexual life were bracketed under one blanket term called hysteria. The treatment for hysteria was physicians "pelvic-massaging” (read masturbating) their female patients to relieve those tensions. No matter what nomenclature was used it meant only one thing—masturbation.

As Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan Pryce) says of hysteria, “Half the women in London are affected. It is the plague of our time.” You can imagine the number of unfulfilled women in the England of the late 19th century by the simple fact that doctors treating “hysteria” developed serious fatigue in their hands and fingers due to their job. It was a form of repetitive stress injury. It was in this cultural and social milieu that the vibrator was invented by Dr. Granville.

Female orgasm then was not something that happened between a man and a woman but was a disorder of the uterus that had to be treated in a clinic. It was seen as a medical condition that required expert hands, male hands as it were.

So far I am saying all this on the basis of having watched the movie’s trailer some months ago as well some cursory reading.

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Directed by Tanya Wexler the movie seems promising to me, although as I said I have only the trailer to go by so far. It is a measure of how innuendo-prone such themes can be that even a simple statement such as “Hysteria is getting released this month” becomes more suggestive than it really is.

Given the subject matter it is fraught with sexually comic situations and dialogue. I heard this one from Pryce, “I believe the French have quite a bit of luck using their tongue” or at another point him complaining that there are not “enough hands to do the work” or the early version of the vibrator being referred to as “the feather duster.”

It is obvious that beyond everything else the movie is about liberating women from oppressive male-centric world where they could not even pleasure themselves without the fear of burning in hell. I do not know about you but as utility tools go I think the vibrator must rank as one of the great inventions in human history. We are told by historians that the vibrator was only the fifth domestic appliance to be electrified in 1902 after the sewing machine, fan, tea kettle and toaster. If that is not a measure of its importance, what is? In other words the inventor community at the dawn of the 20th century must have reasoned, “Let’s see what we need the most to lead a comfortable life? The sewing machine, check, the fan, check, tea kettle, check, the toaster, check. How about the vibrator?”

The movie’s media kit quotes Wexler as saying, “We knew that we’d have to find a unique tone. Because while it might be a 19th century story, it’s a subject that still makes us blush in 2011. The fun was in creating a kind of lush, Merchant Ivory reality on the surface, but with a hilarious, unbridled comedy running underneath it.”

The trailer certainly seems to suggest that Wexler has achieved it.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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