Hysteria (2011)

hysteria poster

When I first suggested that I would write about Hysteria for my blog, it was a joke. After all this is a comedy about the invention of the vibrator in the 1880s. Hardly appropriate material for a Doris Day fan (Doris is rumoured to have turned down the part of Mrs Robinson in the Graduate because she found it ‘distasteful’. Faking an orgasm for camera was not part of her repertoire). However, in retrospect this film is nothing but a simple rom-com and is a not-too-distant relation to On Moonlight Bay.On Moonlight Bay Poster

For the social policy student, there is plenty of historical context to consider. It attempts to draw a distinction between then and now, starting with the state of medicine. The central character and obvious romantic lead, Doctor Granville, is introduced to the audience washing his hands in a grimy hospital, trying to change a dressing whilst lecturing nurses about germ theory. For this impudence he is dismissed. His only employment option is with the private practice of Dr Dalrymple, treating “hysterical” middle-aged, wealthy women.

The Dalrymples provide further historical context and ideological richness. There are two daughters. Emily, is the sweet but dull daughter and is much taken with quoting Samuel Smiles. Smiles (1859) book, Self Help encapsulated one strand of social thought about the poor and argued against state intervention, casting it as interference and detrimental to their development. He writes:

Even the best institutions can give a man no active help. Perhaps the most they can do is, to leave him free to develop himself and improve his individual condition. But in all times men have been prone to believe that their happiness and well-being were to be secured by means of institutions rather than by their own conduct (Smiles, 1882, cited in Payne, 2005:142)

Links can be made between this approach to poverty, which separates out political and social context and individual behaviours to the social Darwinism of the time, a positivist interpretation of how to progress humanity.

On the other hand, we have Charlotte, a feminist, feisty and opinionated (a shrew waiting to be tamed, or Calamity Jane needing to be disarmed, you get the picture). She works in an East End Settlement. The settlement movement involved the educated, middle-classes living among the poor and is often portrayed in opposition to Smiles self-help doctrine, as humanist in its approach (Powell, 2001). Yet both schools of thought have impacted on current social work education and practice (Powell, 2001 and Manthorpe, 2002).

However, the social policy student needs not only historical context but analysis of and awareness of power and social relations. In this film, social relations are characterised by the notion of ‘rescue’.


Granville is rescued by wealthy guardians. Then again by his employment by Dalrymple. Dalrymple attempts to rescue his daughter Charlotte from a life serving the poor. Whilst Charlotte is busy rescuing the uneducated and the criminal. (Whilst the settlement movement may not have seen itself has having the function of ‘rescue’, within the film we see Charlotte’s hard work and the poor are barely represented at all.) Charlotte and her uterus however are rescued in court by Granville (and by her own words, which can only be taken seriously when uttered by a man) and then there is a proposal – the ultimate rescue.

The notion of rescue is important within social work and policy. Sometimes the role of the social worker is to rescue a child or ‘vulnerable’ adult from neglect, poverty, alcoholism, abuse, etc. and this is an important and necessary function. However, we should also question what comes after the effort of rescue and whether it really offers sanctuary. For example, Dalrymple attempts to rescue Charlotte by a declaration of mental instability and a diagnosis of ‘hysteria’. She would avoid prison and a criminal record, but still lose her liberty and her womb. Just as today, we rescue children from neglectful parenting knowing that some institutions of care are not always that good.

Rescue is an interesting phenomenon. To see someone drowning, the only appropriate moral response is to rescue. It is right. It is heroic. It could also be rewarded with gratitude and obligation. Therefore, rescue is an uneven relationship. But what if, following rescue, you find you do not care for the person you have saved, or they do not respond in the ways you expect and they are not grateful or obliging? What if you blame them for being in the water in the first place? What if you have been rescued, but discover the person saving you was the one who drilled the hole in your boat?

The film closes by stating that the diagnosis of hysteria was removed from medical text books in 1952. This removal may have rescued women from unnecessary, evasive procedures. But I don’t find myself grateful for this; that a diagnostic instrument that was simply a means of social and gender control no longer exists in that form. I consider myself still to be in danger of being drowned though other forms of social control and medicalisation that still struggles to grant victims of abuse and/or discrimination full personhood.

As Jemma Tosh (2014: 115) writes:

Instead of challenging abuse and those who exact it, psychiatry and psychology pathologises the victims and subject them to invasive therapies and pathologizing theories which result in discrimination and stigma.

The desire to rescue is not enough to secure social justice.

As for the film, there is a marvellous spirited performance by Maggie Gyllenhall, but it is not enough to rescue it.


Manthorpe, J. (2002) “Settlements and social work education: absorption and accommodation” Social Work Education Vol 21 No. 4

Payne, M. (2005) The Origins of Social Work: Continuity and Change Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Powell, F. (2001) The Politics of Social Work London: Sage

Tosh, J. (2014) Perverse Psychology: The Pathologization of Sexual Violence and Transgenderism Hove: Routledge

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