When I was in grad school, I read a lot of interesting work on women’s sexuality, medicine and psychiatry. This included the now-defunct diagnosis of female hysteria, which was often treated with various types of stimulation of the genitals. Now, a film about hysteria and the invention of the vibrator is coming out.
Director Tanya Wexler says that her new movie Hysteria, which stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy, is a deliciously easy sell at dinner parties. “It’s a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator in Victorian England,” says Wexler of the prim-meets-pleasure juxtaposition. “And people always laugh.” Dancy plays an earnest young doctor charged with stimulating away women’s blues, or “hysteria” as it was then known. He meets his match in Gyllenhaal’s character, a feminist who calls bollocks on medicine’s catch-all diagnosis for her gender’s dissatisfaction.
“We keep calling it the thinking woman’s romantic comedy,” says Wexler, “but it’s supposed to be fun. A lot of people ask what’s the message in the movie? It’s supposed to be fun. It doesn’t take a doctor to do it.” Determined to bring light-heartedness to the set, Wexler gifted every arriving cast and crew member with a vibrator. “You could tell some of the crew guys were confused about what to do with it,” she says with a laugh. “I told them to give it to their wives.” Hysteria screens at next week’s Tribeca Film Festival and opens in select theaters on May 18.