“What’s So Hysterical About The New Movie Hysteria?”

The movie poster for the 2011 movie Hysteria directed by Tanya Wexler and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal.

What I find so hysterical about the new movie Hysteria directed by  Tanya Wexler and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal is that it can get funding and distribution, when I still struggle to get the finance and distribution that I need to finish Sticky: a documentary on masturbation. Both films address the romantic, and somewhat comical, love affair most people have with loving themselves. Both films point out an ironic period in human history, a time when male doctors actually masturbated their female patients because women were too ignorant or afraid to do it themselves. To understand more, let’s take a look at…

Hysteria & the Invention of the Dildo

By the mid to late 19th century, “hysteria” came to refer to what is today generally considered to be sexual dysfunction. Typical treatment was massage of the patient’s genitalia by the physician and, later, by vibrators or water sprays to cause orgasm. The fear of masturbation likely prevented many women from taking matters into their own hands. This resulted in some serious profit for doctors who had to lend their hands, to help out. It was all so subversive, and hush, hush.

What’s really funny is that these doctors, and their prudish and horny patients, didn’t consider this supposed “treatment” a sexual act. The husbands were even paying for it! These Victorians were so closeted about sex that they chose to view what was essentially the mass fingering of women as a medical treatment. These physicians and their patients convinced themselves that it was all just good medicine. As the saying goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, well, more can be said for a good orgasm!

Enter the vibrator, literally. Getting women off was considered hard work. Doctors were developing carpal tunnel syndrome. So men did what they do best, and figured out a way to cheat. They invented a replacement for their hands, and their other members, that would create the good vibrations many women needed to rid them of their “hysteria.” So, did the invention of the vibrator change how we view masturbation today? Yes, and no…

What’s Hysterical About Masturbation Today?

Just this past week, I spoke to an acquisitions person, who will for now go nameless, about Sticky. After viewing a trailer and screener of the film, she admitted, with a nervous giggle, “I’m into some pretty kinky stuff, but I got to say, this, I’m not so into.” Naturally, I was shocked and confused. I’ve spent the last four years making this film and writing a soon-to-be published book (I hope) that I’ve grown quite accustomed to the subject matter, and the respective discussions about it with friends and family. I didn’t know what to say. I fumbled about trying to explain that it is precisely this attitude and shame that we are all made to feel that is why this documentary needs to be seen. I wanted to ask, “what are you into that’s so kinky, missionary position?” We’re talking masturbation people! She did admit that the time may be right for a documentary on masturbation. That’s when she made mention of the movie Hysteria.

This is why I am curious how things will go with this new film. Granted, Hysteria is a romantic comedy, while Sticky is  a documentary, so the success or value of it may not really be so connected to my film. Some distributors argue that the market for documentaries has declined. Still, people love to watch documentaries, and they cost so little to make compared to most narrative films. I’d like to know from director Tanya Wexler how hard she struggled to get her film made, and what has been the audience reaction thus far. I’d also like to know from actress Maggie Gyllenhaal what it was like telling her parents, family, and friends about the role, and maybe even get her take on how we view masturbation today.

In fact, I’m going to reach out to them both for interviews. Maybe…they’ll both be daring and progressive enough to entertain the idea, after-all, they did make Hysteria, a challenging film given the resistance to the subject matter even today. Or maybe, they’ll also find it too kinky to touch it, if you get my meaning. What’s most hysterical of all and sad, too, is how even in the twenty-first century, so many people have such a hard time talking about masturbation.

Written by Nicholas Tana


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