Ableist Word Profile: Hysterical

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Today’s word: hysterical. There are a lot of different contemporary definitions of the word (Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Encarta), but the theme among all of them is emotions that are extreme and unmanageable. A movie described as hysterically funny is likely funnier than most and may cause you to laugh uncontrollably and snort soda out your nose. Someone at a funeral who is crying loudly and who cannot seem to stop crying would likely be described as crying hysterically. But while your mental picture of the movie-goer laughing hysterically could have been either a man or a woman, the person hysterical with grief or worry is much more likely to be a woman than a man. That’s no accident – the history of this term is very gendered.

The word itself is derived from the Latin word hystericus, meaning “of the womb,” and from the Greek word hysterikos, meaning “of the womb, suffering in the womb,” from the Greek word hystera, meaning “womb.” And they understood the uterus to be the direct cause of hysteria. As Hannah S. Decker writes, “Various ancient Greek philosophers and physicians, including Plato, had argued that the uterus is an independent entity within a woman’s body… these thinkers concluded that the uterus had an ardent desire to create children. If the womb remained empty for long after the owner’s puberty, it became unhappy and angry and began to travel through the body. In its wanderings it pressed against various bodily organs, creating “hysterical” — that is, uterus-related — symptoms.”

So when someone on a blog tells me to chill out because it sounds like I’m hysterical about an issue,  the etymological meaning is that my failure to put a baby in my uterus (which has independent will and agency inside my body) has caused it to become angry, loose itself from its mooring, and start floating around inside of my body until it bangs into my brain and starts making me unreasonably upset.

There’s also a strong historical tradition of labeling women as “hysterical” in order to silence, marginalize, or even kill them. During the Roman Catholic inquisitions, thousands of European women were tortured and burnt as witches because they were thought to show signs of hysteria. But it was during the Nineteenth Century that things really got going. Some doctors considered the force of the uterus so powerful that it might overcome the brain and cause a woman to have pathological sexual feelings, “requiring” the physicians to “medically manipulate” the genitals in order to release the woman from control of her uterus. Yes, you read that right, the doctors were obligated to fondle their patients sexually for their own medical good. Conveniently, both mental or emotional distress and any physical symptom could be an indication of a woman’s hysteria, so doctors could diagnose literally any woman as hysterical.

Once hysterical women were no longer burned at the stake, the most common treatment was to send them to bed or to an asylum to prevent any activity or thought that would inflame their hysteria. This was an extremely effective way to marginalize or silence women, as any protest that she was not hysterical would be seen as conclusive proof that the diagnosis of hysteria had been correct. This meant, practically, that any woman categorized as hysterical was forever silenced and lost all credibility.

That’s a whole big mess of etymology and history, so let’s unpack that a bit. When I am told I am hysterical, there is both 1) the implication that I am excessively or unreasonably emotional AND 2) the implication that my condition is unique to my femaleness. It’s also 3) implied that hysterical statements (or even statements from hysterical people) should be discounted and hysterical people need to change in order to participate in the discussion, or should be removed from it entirely. Now let’s look at each one of those individually.

The first is a criticism of and dismissal of my personal emotions based on the observer’s judgment on whether they conform to what “normal” or “reasonable” emotions would be for that situation. The idea of “extremeness” is built into every definition of the word, implying that there is an assumed agreed-upon “normal” range for emotions. In the past, that likely meant “emotions acceptable to white men with money.” Currently, though, the idea is strikingly parallel to current definitions of mental disabilities and mental health diagnoses in the DSM-IV, which require that a specific set of symptoms “must cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other areas of functioning” in order for a person to meet diagnostic criteria. This means that thee idea of emotions that are outside the “normal” range of experience to the degree that they affect a person’s function is the very definition of mental illness. So the accusation of “hysteria,” with the implication that the hysterical person has abnormally extreme emotions, is very clearly an accusation of mental illness. And remember part 3 — the conclusion that a hysterical person (or a person with a mental disability, by equivalency) should be discounted in discussions because of their hysteria/disability. THAT IS ABLEIST.

But that’s not all. The other implication of the term is that this over-emotional condition is a uniquely female condition and is caused directly by female reproductive organs being sad about not having a baby. While that’s not literally how it’s meant today, it still feels like a slightly nicer way of saying “you’re just upset because it’s that time of the month,” another way to marginalize and dismiss females based explicitly on their femaleness. It’s a way to say “that sounds like something a woman would say when she’s being super woman-y and influenced by being a woman.” And again, this is assumed to be a reason to discount the information or perspective offered and to exclude that person from the conversation. THAT IS SEXIST.

And here’s where the intersectionality comes in. Hysterical is a handy dandy insta-dismissal that slams two marginalized groups at the same time – and it only works because to be related to either group is considered to make you lesser. It also means that this word, with its invocation of both ableism and sexism, is particularly sharp when aimed at women with disabilities. That’s why arguments like “It’s sexist because it makes all women sound like crazies! Who’d want to be a crazy!” are extremely problematic – not only does the word rely on both sexism and ableism, it relies on the interaction between those two axes of oppression to be a super strong word.

If we thought of people with mental disabilities as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are talking like a person with a mental disability because you are a woman” would be a compliment. The message would be “you are presenting a perspective or idea that deserves respectful consideration.”

If we thought of women as full equals, with valid feelings, thoughts, and perspectives that deserved respect, then the message “you are responding with extreme emotion because you are a woman” would imply that the emotion was valid and important and deserved respectful consideration. It would likely mean that whatever idea or perspective presented with that emotion would be given more credit and consideration, not less.

It only works as an insult, as a way to dismiss and marginalize, because both groups are considered lesser. And this is a great example of why intersectionality is so important – the kyriarchy uses other marginalized groups to attack us. As we support each other and all grow stronger, the kyriarchy will be less able to use these groups against us.

Note: I use the word hysterical in some contexts (‘I was hoping Zombieland would be as hysterical as Shaun of the Dead but it totally wasn’t.’) — I think these concerns are primarily relevant when using the word to characterize an individual’s argument, ideas, emotions, or perspective. I’d be interested in learning if others find it problematic in those contexts.

18 Comments

  1. Are we going to have a profile on the word retard or its derivatives soon?

    While I’m on that subject, perhaps the issue of ableism among those with disabilities might come up, as in people with one sort of disability using derogatory language about those with another? I recently saw a blog badge which said “RAP: Retards Attempting Poetry”, and that was on the MySpace of a guy with muscular dystrophy married to a quadriplegic woman! I guess neither of these conditions is anything like as socially stigmatised as mental impairment or, indeed, some other physical disabilities such as CP, but this guy either thought he had a right to use it as a disabled person himself, or thought as much as an able-bodied person about using it as an insult.

    Also, what about the ethics of using ableist terms in marketing, such as naming a wheelchair Spazz? I’m not sure if the people behind that product have any disability or not, but it’s a lightweight manual chair and it crossed my mind that many of those who’d use it would be paraplegics or low-level quads rather than anyone with cerebral palsy, and maybe someone knows otherwise, but I’ve never heard of words relating to spinal cord injuries being used as playground insults because there’s nothing to mock about people with SCIs – they don’t walk or talk funny but just look like anyone else, only sitting down.

  2. Yup, “retarded/retard/etc” are in the queue of Ableist Language Profiles to be done, we’re just a bit backed up at the moment.

  3. I don’t see a “trackback” option here, so just letting you know that I’ve just linked this very smart analysis at re:Cycling.
    .-= Elizabeth Kissling´s last blog ..Of the womb: That’s hysterical =-.

  4. Interesting. As far as I know, the “positive” connotations, as in “hysterically funny” don’t exist in German, or are extremely uncommon.

    In German, it always describes a loss of emotional control, which is seen as typically a womans problem. And we have the same history of “hystria” as a medical diagnosis of women who are emotianal to a “socially acceptable” degree. Very ableist and sexist.

  5. Thanks for this post. I find I usually have to explain to people why that word is offensive, and now I can just link them here!

    I also find myself using and hearing ‘hysterical’ in the gender-neutral humor sense without a qualm. And I seem to be the most attuned to the denigratory, hateful use of ‘hysterical’ of anyone I know.

    I’ll probably be linking back soon, because I recently watched an old episode of Star Trek that exemplifies the use of ‘hysterical’ to wrap femaleness and mental illness up in a ball together and throw them on the rhetorical trash-heap.
    .-= Felicity´s last blog ..Random thought: zombies =-.

  6. Have I mentioned how much I’m enjoying this series? Oh, wait. Yes I have 🙂

    If “duh” isn’t already slated for an Ableist Word Profile, it would be a good candidate.

    Also–completely tangential, but:

    “’I was hoping Zombieland would be as hysterical as Shaun of the Dead but it totally wasn’t.’”

    Ah, dang it all. I was hoping that, too. (Woody Harrelson vs. zombies…should be a recipe for hilarity right there).

    Ah, darnit!.
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  7. I was once told (by a very proper, very old, very ‘masculine’) psychologist that I am histrionic. With father issues. He then went on to explain, since my poor little brain obviously couldn’t know, that histrionic is the new word for hysterical. I asked him what part of my brain he though my womb had become attached to. He then said I had anger issues. I started to cry and left.
    .-= geek anachronism´s last blog ..day 123 =-.

  8. What a nasty experience, geek anachronism. I’m sorry that happened to you.

  9. I appreciate this series on Ableist Words. I am glad that others are propagating thoughtful and inclusive use of language. I can’t wait for the entry on “retarded.”

    Tera, can you elaborate on why “duh” is ableist? I have never thought of it as ableist, so clearly I’m missing something!
    .-= ModernWizard´s last blog ..7.1: “Inheritance” =-.

  10. This post has been added to a link roundup. Thank you!

  11. Well, I do know that it’s a commonly cited excuse to slap someone’s face. I remember when I was at school and got slapped in the face repeatedly by the thug of a deputy head because I was supposedly ‘hysterical’, i.e. because I was angry with him. And no, I don’t have a womb.

  12. Hi, ModernWizard,

    can you elaborate on why “duh” is ableist?

    Sure can 🙂 As the American Heritage Dictionary says, duh is “imitative of an utterance attributed to slow-witted people.”
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..New blog of awesomeness =-.

  13. tera – that’s a great suggestion. we’re working through a backlog of ableist words right now (turns out there’s a lot!) and we’ll definitely add ‘duh’ to the list!

  14. Thanks to all of you for starting this blog. I’ve been really enjoying it the past few days, and look forward to reading more, both of the ableist word profiles and other posts. I particularly appreciate this excellent dissection of “hysterical,” given how often I–an autistic woman with various mental issues–have been called that and treated as such. It really is such an insidious way to discount someone’s feelings and ideas.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..Blog Rec: Feminism & Disability =-.

  15. I think the only thing missing from this analysis (which is great, by the way) is acknowledgment that “womanhood” and “having a uterus” are largely overlapping but not exactly the same states of being. That is, it’s cissexist, appearing to ignore the men with uteruses and the women without.

    I’m not sure how much or whether it would change the analysis, but I wanted to point that out.
    .-= Arwyn´s last blog ..Why I say I’m OK =-.

  16. great point, Arwyn – thanks for raising it.

  17. Holly Grigg-Spall

    I recently wrote a post on the connected topic of the historical association between femininity and sickness:

    http://sweeteningthepill.blogspot.com/2009/10/selling-sexiness.html

    Thanks for your blog!

    Holly

  18. Firstly, I love this series, it is amazing and helpful.
    Secondly, thank you for this entry, this is a “criticism” that has been levelled at me repeatedly throughout my life, pretty much any time I get upset/angry.
    Just because I get upset doesn’t mean I’m “hysterical” and just because I’m female doesn’t mean my emotions are not valid.
    I was sexually harassed on the bus the other day by a bully who wanted to take up more than her fair share of the seat. When I confronted her and told her what she did was not ok, and was actually sexual assault she called me “psycho” (another ableist term), and when I got upset he, and others on the bus called me hysterical and proceeded to laugh at me.
    This still boggles my mind and is yet another example of how the majority will let people suffer rather than a) get involved, or b) challenge their own thinking as to what “normal” or “acceptable” is.
    Apparently it is acceptable for someone to sexually harass a stranger on a bus, but not for that person to get upset.
    I also wonder if it would have been different if my harasser was not a female?

    So thank you.