Hysterical women’s stories from the 19th and 20th centuries have all too often been ignored. In fact, hysterical women’s experiences have been capitalized upon and sensationalized by the photographic and cinematic representations in which they are portrayed. “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 photographing the “hysterical” female patients of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the "father of hysteria" in the 1870s and extends to modern cinematic representations of historical and modern hysterical women.
Through an analysis of seven films made in the last two decades, informed by feminist and medical scholarship, this thesis reveals the universality of “being hysterical,” whether through diagnosis or exhibited behaviors and emotions exclusively associated with the “feminine”. 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. The 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 lived experience and reduces them to a commodity for sexual objectification and consumption. Of the seven films analyzed in this thesis, four spread consciousness about the phenomena of historical hysteria. Three of these films were based on the lives of historical women diagnosed as hysterical, yet by dramatizing their stories, the directors skew and misrepresent the “truth” of what really happened (even when “truth” is subjective). Whether depicting historical or modern understandings of hysteria, the films critique the oppression of female sexuality, all the while turning female sexuality into a spectacle that serves the heterosexual, male gaze.