MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

In Victorian England, good vibrations trump ‘Hysteria’ every time

Tanya Wexler’s Victorian-era comedy, “Hysteria,” describes the development of the world’s first electromechanical vibrator in a manner so light-hearted it could have been used to warm up the audience before the Republican presidential debates. It’s rated R, for “references to female sexual stimulation,” but there’s nothing in the movie that a 13-year-old couldn’t see or hear on a network sitcom, with or without parental guidance.

“It’s the vibrator movie you can bring your mother to,” the director quips.

It would be interesting, though, to learn how “Hysteria” might be greeted in Alabama, where residents are prohibited from buying sex toys without a note from their doctor. How quaint.

One hundred years ago, any woman seeking “hysterical paroxysms” could purchase a vibrator through an ad in Woman’s Home Companion or the Sear, Roebuck catalog. God forbid, an undocumented worker might to attempt to purchase a pocket rocket, Rabbit or vibrating egg in the “Heart of Dixie” state. The unfortunate foreign-born felon could be sentenced to a lifetime in prison, watching videos of the half-time shows from the last 50 years of Alabama-Auburn football.

All kidding aside, the prohibition on vibrators in Alabama — and, until recently, other several states – harkens to the 1920s, when a sharp-eyed publisher noticed that the same therapeutic gizmos being advertised in their periodicals were being used in stag films to accomplish paroxysms of a less clinical nature. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s, when laws against pornography began to be relaxed, that sex toys could legally be purveyed and purchased in more enlightened territories. Today, of course, they’re the centerpiece product at parties organized by some of the same women who once hawked Tupperware and Mary Kay cosmetics the same way.

In fact, the medical benefits of digital and mechanical stimulation have been recognized nearly as long as there have been doctors. Hippocrates is credited with originating the term, hysteria, and dildos were used as sex toys in Pompeii. The first electric vibrator was patented by Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, around whom “Hysteria” revolves, in the early 1880s. It took another 70 years for “female hysteria,” as a recognized psychiatric term, to be tossed in the dustbin of meaningless medical euphemisms along with “caught the vapors,” “wandering uterus” and “pelvic massage.”

In Wexler’s film, Granville’s rich, eccentric and entrepreneurial roommate introduces Granville to an electric feather duster he’s just invented. Powered by a rumbling generator in their living room, the vibrations soothe the muscles in the doctor’s hands, which ache after days spent manually stimulating women with ailments related to hysteria. No dummy, Granville immediately senses both the therapeutic and commercial potential value in such an instrument,

The number of Victorian-era women reporting symptoms associated with hysteria had reached levels described as epidemic. By eliminating the middle finger, as it were, doctors who specialized in such complaints could double or triple their work load, without risking 19th Century equivalent of carpel-tunnel syndrome. Once the problem of the 40-pound battery was overcome, consumers took matters into their own hands.

“The big joke,” Wexler is quick to point out, “is that the vibrator was invented by a man – not a woman – and employed by male doctors as a way to save time and relieve their own pain. The quicker the orgasm … the more patients to bill.”

T’was ever thus.

In case you’re wondering, the sexual healing that takes place in “Hysteria” is performed by a doctor required to rely solely on his sense of touch. A completely dressed patient’s legs and pelvic region are protected from view by a tent-like contraption, through whose curtains the therapist extends his arms. Some doctors preferred to have the patient standing up, so he could reach under her long skirt and petticoats and hit the target without the sacrifice of any modesty.

Wexler chuckled at the notion that some very gifted Victorian-era therapists could bring their patients to ecstasy, even without enjoying a clear view of the target, while too many of today’s men couldn’t find a clitoris with a GPS system.

Granville probably would have been flattered by the casting of the boyishly handsome Hugh Dancy, who was so good as a fatalistic cancer patient during the second season of “The Big C.” The Oxford graduate was allowed the luxury of not having to grow a beard or affect the receded hairline seen in photographs of the doctor. Wexler was impressed by his “smart, crackerjack wit” and seeing him on Broadway in the starring role as Captain Dennis Stanhope in “Journey’s End.”  He began his movie career with a key role in “Blackhawk Down” and has since appeared in such films as “Ella Enchanted,” King Arthur,” “Basic Instinct 2,” “The Jane Austen Book Club,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

If his portrayal of Granville is grounded in reality, almost everything else is “Hysteria” is fiction. Here, he gets into the business of digital manipulation only after being disappointed that he wasn’t allowed to serve the greater good in his first appointment. Moreover, his progressive ideas about sanitation and the spread of germs clashed with the beliefs of his stuffy superiors, who prefer leeches and amputation to preventative medicine and changing bandages.

Unemployed and disenchanted with the medical profession, Granville finally applies for work at the office of Dr. Robert Dalrymple (Jonathan  Pryce), a “specialist in women’s issues.” While there, he’s challenged by the doctor to relieve the hysteria of a particularly difficult patient, which he does. Desperate for another pair of hands, Dalrymple offers him a job in his booming practice on the spot.

Granville’s pride hadn’t allowed him to pocket a gift of 10,000 pounds from his aristocratic roommate (Rupert Everett), who, besides inventing the electric feather duster, installed the first telephones in Buckingham Palace. He does, however, accept his invitation to be the first to test his electric feather duster. The rest, as they say, is history.

Soon enough, Granville develops feelings for both of the doctor’s daughters, Emily (Felicity Jones) is “the epitome of English virtue and womanliness,” while Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhall) is an outspoken social reformer and early champion of women’s rights. He falls in love with Emily, but upsets her father by maintaining contact with the rebellious Charlotte. Among other things, he admires her devotion to the poor women and children who frequent the settlement house she can barely afford to maintain.

After treating a woman’s broken leg in his office, Dalrymple demands he confine his attentions to the nether-regions of the anatomy. By now, though, Charlotte and Granville have recognized in each other mutual attitudes about social issues and the inevitability of post-Victorian reforms. When, in a neat twist, they find themselves in the same courtroom defending their principles against prehistoric traditions, another sort of bond is assured.

Charlotte’s fiery personality freed Wexler and writers Stephen and Jonah Lisa Dyer to make the all-roads-lead-to-same-place connection between Granville’s invention and the incipient stirrings of the feminist/suffragette movement.

“I’m not a scholar, but I know that women don’t have to abandon their sexuality to embrace their strengths,” says Wexler, who may live in New York but can’t disguise the Chicago roots in her voice. “I’m not saying the invention of the vibrator somehow inspired the feminist movement, just that women don’t need a doctor to have fun. Vibrators won’t replace the replace the real thing, but they can put us in charge of our own happiness, at least.”

Not surprisingly, “Hysteria” wasn’t an easy sell to investors. It wasn’t until the 1998 “Rabbit episode” of “Sex and the City” that vibrators were added to the sitcom vernacular, so “we had to educate them as to the difference between vibrators and dildos.” The star power on display no doubt had some effect on the folks who control the purse strings, as well.

Wexler, 41 and a mother of four, was born into a prominent Chicago family, whose members include actors Page, Daryl and Don Hannah and Rita Taggart; filmmaker Haskell Wexler; and professional Laker fan, Lou Adler (through his wife, Page). She has previously directed two features – “A Ball in the House” (a.k.a., “Relative Evil”) and “Finding North” – and was a member of the ensemble cast of “Life Happens.” She earned a BA in psychology at Yale and an MFA in film direction at the Columbia University School of Arts.

Being the youngest sibling in a house full of aspiring actors, filmmakers and patrons of the arts, Wexler recalls, required of her that she always was the one who “always had makeup applied to her and was put on stage. It was all wackiness all the time.

“Growing up, I just assumed everyone appreciated the arts as much as we did.”

Yet to be seen is if she’ll be persona non grata in Alabama for transporting movies about vibrators across state lines, without a note from her doctor.

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