Birth of the Vibrator: Tanya Wexler Explains ‘Hysteria’

Birth of the Vibrator: Tanya Wexler Explains 'Hysteria'

"Hysteria" director Tanya Wexler tells Sharon Waxman how she made a light comedy about the invention of the vibrator

Tanya Wexler, the director of “Hysteria,” takes on the history of the vibrator — yeah, that vibrator — in her new film, which opens on Friday. "Hysteria" stars Hugh Dancy and Maggie Gyllenhaal as, respectively, a doctor inventing the vibrator and a young feminist finding her way to self-expression.

Coming from a show-business family – the niece of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the half-sister of Daryl Hannah – Wexler has the fearlessness of a busker, along with four kids and a partner-wife. She wanted to tell a light comedy, she says in a chat with Sharon Waxman.

SW: What made you want to make a romantic comedy about the invention of vibrator in Victorian England? Aren’t you a serious filmmaker?

Also read: 'Hysteria' Review: Nothing Like a Feel-Good Victorian Vibrator Comedy

TW: I was at the point where I had a lot of small kids, and I was exhausted. My emotional energy was very limited. And I wanted to laugh. They told me the idea, and I laughed.

So my first goal was to make a pleasurable romantic comedy that delivered on that level first, about a topic that said something to me.

Also, it’s a thinking woman’s romantic comedy – it’s for a night out with girlfriends. I wasn’t interested in the Battle of the Sexes in that way. I made a feminist romantic comedy about a guy. Could have been 'Education of Mortimer Granville.' The joke is, the vibrator was invented for a guy, a labor-saving device for a guy.

SW: That is pretty funny. Hugh Dancy plays a doctor who is looking for a way past having to physically stimulate these women who are, in fact, sexually frustrated. Is that how it happened historically?

TW: The plot is lifted from screwball comedy. We used the facts to reverse-engineer and build a story. The facts are that a doctor called Mortimer Granville invented the first electric vibrator. He invented it for muscles. But within three months there were doctors treating women for hysteria by “manual massage to paroxysm” – immediately using his invention to take an hour-long treatment to 10 to 15 minutes. It was a profit center.

SW: Hysteria was a real disease, wasn’t it?

TW: Yes, from the 19th century to the 1940s. The conductor of the score of the movie said his grandmother’s death certificate said the cause of death was hysteria. It was a catch-all diagnosis; some of it was sexual frustration. Nymphomania, frigidity. There was a lot of hormonal imbalance that got diagnosed as that.

SW: And doctors manipulated women to orgasm as a treatment?

TW: If a penis wasn’t involved, it wasn’t sex. It was to bring the uterus back into line. It was a physical malady causing discord.

SW: Let’s talk about filming the orgasms.

TW: We showed four women at different ages having orgasms on screen. I thought, ‘You may never see that (in movies).’ You see sex, and body parts, but you don’t see that many people having fun. We got an R rating. No bad language, no body parts, just people pretending to have orgasms — and we get an R.

SW: There is a lot of latent politics in this film.

TW: It is about empowerment. It is a political film. But the root of it for me was I wanted to laugh and have fun. Maggie as Charlotte is a modern-day Katharine Hepburn character. If I could have been anyone back then, I would have loved to have been Charlotte.

SW: I presume you did a lot of research on the history of the vibrator?

TW: There’s an antique vibrator museum associated with the Good Vibrations store in San Francisco. I gave one to every single person on the cast and crew.

We constantly were having a conversation about the internal and external of it all. I don’t know the Venn diagram about the dildo and the vibrator, but the 1918 Sears catalogue had it as a home-aid every woman appreciates: The mixer, the curling iron and the vibrator. It was like the back massager. When it hit porn is when it went back underground.

SW: Are you worried this movie might pigeonhole you?

TW: No. Now I have movies I have to make. I have stuff I have to say. And I feel much more solid than I would have a decade ago. My strategy is to get it out, and let the audience that is supposed to find it, find it.

We had the hardest time convincing people that there was an audience for it. The people who write the checks (in movie making) are straight white dudes of a certain age. Ninety percent of the women who read the script "got" the movie. All the gay guys who read it "got" the movie. But the 27 people who writes checks didn’t get it: “Uh: What’s the audience?” Answer: “Uh – everybody else.” Sony Pictures Classics has been incredibly supportive.  Michael (Barker, SPC co-chairman) saw it in Toronto at 9 a.m. on Friday morning. They were peeing laughing.  

SW: You gave everyone on the crew a vibrator?

TW: I did. I gave everyone a bullet vibrator, "Welcome to the shoot." But also like: we’re not gonna pretend. We’re not gonna be in denial. The comedy in the movie is about being in denial. One of the guys was like: "I don’t want the competition." But one of the other guys on the crew said to him, "Don’t think of it as competition, think of it as a member of your team."