LONDON—Once upon a time, a long time ago—141 years ago, to be exact—women used to get off by lying on a large table and have their vulvae rubbed by a metal ball connected to a gear-and-axle arrangement that was powered by a steam engine in an adjacent room. The gadget was called "The Manipulator," and it was used by physicians—its inventor was Dr. George Taylor—to cure their female patients of "hysteria," a "women's disease" thought to be caused by disturbances in the uterus. The condition, whose symptoms included "madness" and feelings of suffocation, was caused, according to Hippocrates, by women's uteri that had become too light and dry from lack of sexual intercourse and, as a result, wandered upward, compressing the heart, lungs, and diaphragm, and the organ that was most affected was supposedly where the symptoms of the hysteria were thought to originate. Its cure, for unmarried women who had no sexual outlet, was "The Manipulator."
But as society became more industrialized and electric motors became increasingly adapted to personal use, Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville, in 1883, patented the first electromechanical vibrator, which about 20 years later, became available to the public through the Hamilton Beach appliance company. It was considered a vast improvement over the Tremoussoir, a wind-up vibe invented by Abbe St. Pierre in 1734—but perhaps not as good as the first battery-powered vibe which first hit stores in 1899.
If all that sounds at this point a bit like science fiction, that doesn't mean it can't still be the basis for a forthcoming romantic comedy starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose previous forays into kinky cinematic sex have included her role as Lee Holloway, the ultra-submissive secretary to attorney James Spader in Secretary, and her portrayal of a militant breast-feeding feminist in Away We Go.
In Hysteria, Gyllenhaal will play the daughter of a Granville-like doctor (Jonathan Pryce) who, with assistance from fellow physicians Hugh Dancy and Rupert Everett, accidentally invent that first electric vibrator and, we're guessing, spend at least part of the film giving women—which may include Gyllenhaal herself, since as the film progresses, she becomes Dancy's girlfriend—orgasms like they've never before experienced.
Giving credence to the possibility of more on-screen Gyllenhaal sex—she exhibited some excellent solo passion in Secretary—is Gyllenhaal herself, who recently told The Guardian (UK) newspaper, "I play a firecracker whose father is a doctor who is in the business of curing hysterical women. He cures them basically by getting them off and that actually happened. I end up having a sort of unexpected love affair with this guy who works for him, and who by mistake invents the vibrator."
The film, by Tanya Wexler in only her third directing role, will be shooting in London and Luxembourg in October, and is scheduled for a 2011 release.