Sexually speaking, we live in primitive times. It’s useful to remember that; spares one being dazzled into mistaking the market’s sexualization of just about everything as a symbol of liberation, or even common knowledge. With that in mind, Hysteria, a pretty awful romantic comedy that recently opened in movie theaters, does have one small grace, or one and a half. It presumes that not all female orgasms are alike, and, for machine enthusiasts, it showcases some gorgeous antique vibrators through the closing credits.
The movie claims to be “based on true events—really,” a cheeky pause that sets viewers up for a story about the invention of the vibrator while also absolving this generic confection of any serious pretensions to historical truth.
The hero, Mortimer Granville, appears to be Joseph Mortimer Granville, who invented the hand-held electric vibrator in London in 1883. There was nothing particularly dashing about the real Dr. Granville, though. Unlike actor Hugh Dancy, he was not young and sheepish when he devised what he called a percuteur or percussor, “Granville’s hammer,” for the Weiss medical instruments company. He was not in the practice of manually massaging bourgeois women to a “hysterical paroxysm,” or climax; did not suffer chronic pain in his hand as a result; was not torn, in his personal affections, between two stereotypes of Victorian womanhood in the form of his boss’s daughters.
The real Dr. Granville was 50 and married and known primarily for his work on sleeplessness when he invented the vibrator. He did not use his hammer on women, but declared, “with a view to eliminate possible sources of error,” that “I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid, the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not want to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state or the characteristic phenomena of mimetic disease.”
Going by the old journalistic maxim “Never trust anything until it’s officially denied,” it sounds as if somebody was using Granville’s invention on women, or considering it, which brings us to those “true events.” Hysteria, like Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or the Vibrator Play), drew inspiration from The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines, which is taken for gospel in some quarters and contested in others. Maines records Granville’s objection, but she points out that common characteristics of the paroxysm—face flushed, breathing irregular, limbs “tossed in every direction” accompanied by “the most disagreeable and unnatural noises” and a “form of extasy,” according to an 1858 Dictionary of practical medicine—sound a lot like orgasm, and hypothesizes that various therapies and devices put forth as treatment for hysteria in Europe and the United States were essentially medicalized masturbation, de-eroticized and “socially camouflaged.” She sets the vibrator’s emergence in this context but insists that this, too, is a hypothesis.
There may be some camouflage in Maines’s explanation, but we needn’t puzzle over the nineteenth century here to know that therapeutic language has a knack for blurring pleasure and disease, that mechanisms of surveillance and restraint are masked by the talk-talk-talk of sex. Those are not relics of a benighted past; that past is in us, embedded in our euphemisms, trailing our embarrassments, disposing us to stories that make neat sense of things that might still seem sleazy or mysterious—masturbation, sex aids, the power of female sexuality.