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Film and Art

The new film that’s creating a buzz, ‘Hysteria’

21 May 2012

Maggie Gyllenhaal stars in the romantic comedy 'Hysteria', which tells the story of how the electric vibrator was invented © Sony Pictures Classics

Fans of bedroom toys will be interested to learn that a romantic comedy about the invention of the vibrator is coming to our screens. 

Set in Britain in the late 1800s, Hysteria, starring Oscar-nominated Maggie Gyllenhaal, is about the use of electrical ‘pelvic massagers’ or ‘manipulators’ as cures for women’s ‘hysterical conditions’.

At the time, ‘Hysteria’ was often diagnosed when women exhibited symptoms such as irritability, insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, fluid retention and erotic fantasy.

The practice of stimulation had been taking place in doctors' consulting rooms since at least 1653, with a midwife sometimes called in to carry out a pelvic massage.

Victorian doctors treated female patients by stimulating them until they had a "hysterical paroxysm" (what we know as an orgasm). Early machines were designed to help doctors who felt unable to complete the task manually.

For centuries, the diagnosis and treatment of the condition was a preoccupation of medical literature. Greek physician Galen of Pergamon and Renaissance alchemist Paracelsus had puzzled over it. Avicenna, the Muslim founder of early modern medicine, had advised women not to try to cure themselves - according to him, the stimulation treatment was, "a man's job, suitable only for husbands and doctors".

When vibrators were mass marketed in the early 1900s, they quickly became very popular with women. In 1909, the magazine Good Housekeeping ran a "tried and tested" section on vibrators. Portable vibrators were promoted as "delightful companions" in 1922.

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Hysteria also stars Hugh Dancy (above) © Sony Pictures Classics

Gyllenhaall’s co-stars in Hysteria are Hugh Dancy and Jonathan Pryce, playing doctors who specialise in the treatment of neurotic women. Together with a scientist played by Rupert Everett, they experiment with a new electrical device.

The film does not have any LGBT elements, however we hear that the openly lesbian director Tanya Wexler has instilled an interesting ‘queer’ vibe to the story. Can’t wait!

While the movie was released in US cinemas at the weekend, UK viewers will have to wait until September. Boo!

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