Why was a Laughing Woman Seen as Lethal, Not Least to Herself?

Maggie Hennefeld at Psyche: As I argue in my new book, Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema (2024), fun-loving women were being terrorised into believing that their unrestrained pleasure could destroy them. At the same time, they were enticed by a ballooning entertainment industry to laugh louder, more convulsively, and with greater corporeal abandon than ever before. ‘Laugh? Why, you’ll have to tie them to the seats so that they won’t roll all over the house in fits of convulsive laughter,’ declared The Moving Picture World in 1912. There were even rumours that local tailors had conspired with travelling vaudeville comedians after too many female spectators busted open their corset staves in spontaneous bursts of uncontrollable laughter. (Imagine trying to laugh while wearing a whalebone corset.)

The explosive popularity of cinema and other such amusements around the turn of the century liberated women. Variety shows, pleasure parks, phonograph parlours, roller rinks, dance halls, wax museums and electricity displays numbered among the many uproarious spaces where women could at last savour their participation in ‘mass culture and a new urban crowd’, as Vanessa Schwartz writes in Spectacular Realities (1999). Often compared to a crazy dream or collective hallucination, cinema epitomised the potentials of popular new spectacles to transform the material conditions of ordinary experience for disenfranchised and minoritised audiences.

By the beginning of the 20th century, women were becoming political players. They lobbied for the vote, took up space in public, walked off the job, protested for higher pay and better labour conditions, and migrated across the world to seek out new lives in melting-pot urban metropolises. Politically active women were irresistible subjects of representation for the new medium of cinema. In early feminist films such as The Dairymaid’s Revenge (1899), The Nursemaids’ Strike (1907) and The Suffragette’s Dream (1909), women break all the dishes in the kitchen, wave protest signs that say: ‘Down With The Bosses’, electrocute police officers, and weaponise freshly squeezed cow’s milk to humiliate their sexual assaulters. It is worth emphasising that most of these movies were slapstick comedies. In cinema (if not in real life), women got to have the last laugh in retaliation against their male tormentors and capitalist oppressors.

So it’s no wonder that the old guard started peddling morbid rumours of women’s pandemic mortality by hysterical laughter. As Margaret Atwood put it, men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them. Etiquette columnists even scolded ‘smart ladies’ not to show their teeth, convulse their diaphragms or make any noise at all while cachinnating. (This technique was known as ‘the new laugh’.) Meanwhile, vaudeville houses and nickelodeon storefronts lured in thrill-hungry patrons by blaring ‘laughing song’ phonograph records from outside the theatres. In the wise words of the notorious ‘Laughing Girl’ Sallie Strembler: ‘HAHAHAHA-HEHEHEHEH-HOHOHOHO!!!!’ Loosely paraphrased: Abandon restraint all ye who enjoy themselves here.

The backdrop to the widespread panic about these unleashed and uninhibited women was the 19th century’s raging obsession: female medical hysteria. The public was morbidly fascinated by the spectacle of women afflicted by mysterious physical ailments with seemingly no organic basis in the body. From the Greek word hystera (meaning ‘uterus’), by 1883 the diagnosis encompassed nearly 20 per cent of all cases at the Paris Salpêtrière Hospital – 20 times its 1 per cent rate in 1845, according to the feminist historian Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady (1987). The French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot photographed his most famous hysterics and hypnotised them on stage in front of 400 weekly spectators.

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