Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts


Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies

First Advisor

Andrea Foroughi


hysteria, visual representation, representation, narrative, women, film, hysterical, mental health, gender, psychiatry & psychology


Hysterical women’s stories from the 19th and 20th centuries have all too often been ignored and furthermore, invalidated through the capitalization and spectacularization of hysterical women’s experiences. “Acting Hysterical: Analyzing the Construction, Diagnosis and Portrayal of Historical and Modern ‘Hysterical’ Women” aims to acknowledge hysterical women’s narratives by studying the visual documentation of hysterical women. Visual documentation of hysteria began with the photographing of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot’s “hysterical” female patients and extends to modern cinematic representations from the last two decades of historical and modern hysterical women.

Medical Muses, a book based in years of research by Asti Hustvedt served as the muse for this project. The historical account narrates the lives of three specific women (Blanche, Augustine, and Genevieve) who were treated in the 19th century for hysteria by Dr. Charcot, the “father of hysteria,” at the Hôpital universitaire Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, France. After reading the book, a hunger for an answer to the following questions lingered: do modern representations of hysteria validate or invalidate hysterical women’s experiences? Moreover, how does modern day society portray hysterical women, if at all?

To begin, Chapter 2: Defining Identity, Truth and Authenticity in Personal Narrative outlines the evidence of this thesis’ hypothesis that the narratives of hysterical women have, in fact, been invalidated. The evidence lies in the examination of Dr. Charcot’s aforementioned photographs of his hysterical patients and also in the presentations where he displayed his hysterics for physicians’ and audiences’ viewing pleasure in 19th century Paris. “Acting Hysterical” investigates cinematic portrayals from the last 20 years of hysterical women in historical contexts and in modern contexts. Moreover, it considers how the perceptions of the films validate and/or invalidate their experiences by engaging with written and video evaluations made by the general population and by feminist and medical scholarship about the films . The primary piece of feminist scholarship used in film interpretation is Laura Mulvey’s piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Finally, this chapter discusses the subjectivity of “truth” and how this should be taken into account when looking at the primary and secondary sources used in this thesis.

The next chapter, Modern Cinematic Accounts of Historical Hysteria, discusses modern representations of historical hysteria in film, specifically in Hysteria (2011), A Dangerous Method (2011), and Augustine (2012). Also in this chapter is an analysis of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and its corresponding 2011 short film. The Yellow Wallpaper is the only film/story included in this thesis that is based on a woman’s own expression of living “hysteria,” making it a vital component to the holistic analysis of representation. Then, the correlation between hysteria and these four films is drawn by narrating the relevant history of sexually repressive social norms and Victorianism. Concluding this chapter is the systematic application of this thesis’ conjecture that all cases of historical and modern hysteria stem from repression and/or trauma.

The fourth chapter, Hysteria in Modernity, is dedicated to defining modern hysteria as well as modern mass hysteria, followed by the study of the portrayals of the modern hysterical women in Black Swan (2010), The Falling (2015), and The Virgin Suicides (1999). These topic are first introduced by defining and characterizing 21st century hysteria. Then, the chapter cites Black Swan (2010) as the primary and most significant example of modern-day hysteria in film. Then, after defining modern mass hysteria, the chapter ends with the dissection of The Falling (2015) and The Virgin Suicides (1999), the two most notable examples of modern mass hysteria in cinema.

This thesis communicates the universality of “being hysterical” by emphasizing the similarity between female experiences of hysteria in entirely different centuries and geographical locations. Not only are their experiences universal, but so is the exploitation of their narratives. The nature of being hysterical, in every sense of the word, serves as entertainment for the public. Just as sex sells, so do hysterical women. This concept of portraying hysteria and hysterical women in film is riddled with contradictions: the portrayals of their stories validate their experiences (to an extent), but the over-sexualization of their characterizations invalidates their experience and reduces them to a commodity for sexual objectification and consumption. The seven identified films in this thesis spread consciousness on the historical phenomena of hysteria, yet dramatize the stories and by doing so, skewing the “truth” of what really happened (even when “truth” is subjective). The films critique the oppression of female sexuality, yet turn female sexuality into a spectacle that serves the heterosexual, male gaze.