Hysterical Histories

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Content Warning: Sexually Transmitted Disease, Mental Illness

Words: Nina Halper (she/her)

Artwork: Sophie Aicken (She/Her)

Hysterical. I was told from a young age that my hormones would make me unpredictable, emotional, and hysterical. Naively accepting those narratives throughout my adolescence, I feared the hysterical monster I would turn into when my period started, and laughed nervously when boys ridiculed emotional behaviour in school, asking girls if they were ‘on the blob’. Later down the line, I learnt the sexist etymology behind the word Hysteria; it comes from the Greek word Uterus, from the thought that hysteria was caused by a defect within the womb. Growing out of adolescence and into adulthood, I also learnt the beautiful and rhythmic patterns that the menstrual cycle encompasses, in all its predictability, converse to our male counterparts. So, with that knowledge in mind, I ask myself now, why are women told that our behaviour is hysterical?  Why are we warned that our hormones may drive us to insanity? Why are we always supposedly, to quote a famous Spanish director, on the verge of a nervous breakdown?*

Looking to the past, accusations of hysteria, or the defect of the womb, have been used as a means to scapegoat women for trivial issues amongst a community.  Perceptions of ‘hysterical behaviour’ manifested into a belief in witchcraft. Across the centuries, women were accused of witchery in times where land ownership and monetary systems were fragile. Amongst many things, women were blamed for failure of crops, the spreading of disease, or the death of a family member.

Witchcraft accusations are not solely confined to the famous Salem Witch Trials depicted in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, but spread rife across the world: Valais: France/Switzerland, 1428–1447; Trier: Germany, 1581–1593; Torsåker: Sweden, 1674–1675; even Scotland’s very own North Berwick, 1590-1592. Heartbreakingly, witchcraft accusations still exist today, in countries like Zambia and Papua New Guinea. Even more heart-breaking, is that many modern-day witchcraft accusations are linked to the spread of HIV, using the issue to shame women. Blaming witchcraft and hysterical behaviour, otherwise known as, according to Greek etymology of the word, an ‘inhumane’ symptom of womanhood, is, at its core, sexist.

Winning the medal for the most faithful and embarrassing belief in hysteria? The Victorians. They were all too quick to diagnose hysterical behaviour amongst women, sending them to asylums or prescribing them with medical therapies for the pelvic area and the womb. Reasons for their diagnoses ranged from epilepsy, paralysis, sexual infidelity, and physical illness.

In the modern day, hysteria and witchcraft are hunted in the media, as women are consistently scapegoated, shunned, and depicted as crazy. Perhaps a painstakingly obvious representation of this is Drake’s song That Bitch is Crazy where he sings ‘I’d like to know if there is a chemical imbalance in your makeup’ and ‘You’re the only one that’s causin’ me this drama’. His ‘psycho-ex-girlfriend’ rhetoric claims that the very nature of her DNA as a woman causes her to behave hysterically. Apparently, in his charmingly harmonious R&B and hip-hop utopia, it is exclusively a woman who is the ‘only one’ to cause him drama. Maybe Drake might like to retract those lyrics, considering the public feud he’s had over the years with his non-female co-celebrity, Kendrick Lamar.

There are some truly sexist and life damaging representations of the ‘hysterical’ woman in the modern-day age. In the ruthless process the media enacted, and still enacts in ‘othering’ Megan Markle, she has been accused as crazy and hysterical for her criticisms of the monarchy. Instead of reviewing the institution, the individual woman is blamed. Conversely, when inexcusable behaviour in the public eye (such as Katie Hopkins’ bigotry and classism) is blamed as hysterical, there is an injustice on two accounts: firstly, the issue at hand is overlooked, as the person’s behaviour is supported by an inexplicable and external influence, but secondly, it comments on, parallel to the lyrics in That Bitch is Crazy, the very nature of the female make-up. It boils down to the description of the ‘defect’ in the female body, claiming that there is something intrinsically wrong or incomprehensible about it.

At heart, the hysterical woman, be she a witch in the 16th century, a teenage girl ridiculed for her emotions, the Victorian woman, or an outspoken celebrity trying to speak her peace, is blamed by the patriarchal ideals for order in society. Though in the western world, modern-day witch-hunting is not a tangible or extreme practice, the language used to describe women’s behaviour can be drawn from the historical attitudes towards hysteria. So where does the real irrationality lie? Perceiving women’s behaviour as ‘out of the ordinary’ to try to explain polemic matters within a community or society seems, to put it lightly, a little bit… hysterical.

*Pedro Almodóvar’s film: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown 






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