We begin our series on language with Hayley C. Cuccinello‘s reflections on the word “hysterical.”
It’s reserved for women in the same way the words “frigid,” “stuck-up,” and “crazy” are. We could use any of these words to describe a man, but we rarely do.
The modern-day definition of hysteria isn’t gender specific. You could call the show “Modern Family” hysterical if you want to suggest that it’s comedic. And last time I checked, men are totally capable of having “exaggerated of uncontrollable emotion or excitement.”
However, the origins of the word give it a gendered inclination. For centuries, “Female hysteria” was a medical disorder that applied only to women. Symptoms included insomnia, muscle spasm, sexual desire (did they really want to cure that?), anxiety, shortness of breath, loss of appetite for food or sex (wait, I thought wanting sex was the problem?), and a “tendency to cause trouble.”
Hysteria was believed by Plato to be caused by a “wandering womb” that would obstruct passages of a woman’s body and cause disease. What the hell does a wandering womb have to do with these troublesome minxes?
Well, their gendered bodies made them ill; this illness caused “exaggerated” emotion; and this excitement was “uncontrollable.” Apparently, the problem with hysteric women was that they couldn’t be controlled and they expressed their emotions. They “caused trouble.”
Though female hysteria as a medical disorder largely lost its popularity early in the twentieth century, hysteria is still colored by its gendered origins. Hysteria isn’t the first insult of choice—though I have heard plenty of women be told to “stop being so hysterical”—but society still fears women who are less than compliant.
What do PMS-ing women, Latina women, and feminists all have in common? According to popular images, these are all women who are angry without a cause. They are driven by hormones, cultural DNA, bitterness, anything. Anything that explains their anger and absolves outside forces from blame. And they are all often called hysterical.
No one believes in wandering wombs anymore. But we have found new theories to keep those trouble-causing women in line. This makes me angry, but not hysterical.