Created By: LeighSabioDecember 29, 2009
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Hysterical Woman

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A form of Double Standard with many Unfortunate Implications, mostly used in older works. Fortunately largely a Forgotten Trope these days, and very hard to find played straight in modern works.

This trope holds that women are less emotionally stable than men, and thus more prone to mental illness. This, in turn, is often used as a justification for portraying women as less competent than men, and less able to handle work or intellectual life, for fear it will set them "over the edge." It may lead to female characters being babied, or their opinions not being valued.

This trope has its roots in the ancient Greek belief that dysfunction of the uterus could cause insanity in women. This belief was widespread up until the 17th century. In the 19th century, "hysteria" was often used as a catch-all diagnosis for mental patients who happened to be female. Hysteria is no longer used as a diagnosis by psychologists today.

Compare Screaming Woman and Strawman Emotional. Contrast Closer To Earth and Emotionless Girl.

This trope is about women being considered less stable, and therefore less competent and reliable than men. It is not "Any woman who shows emotion," nor is it "Any instance of The Chick, Distressed Damsel, or Faux Action Girl." Don't use this for Complaining about female characters you don't like.

Examples:

  • Dr. Janice Lester, a villain-of-the-week from Star Trek TOS was one of these. She quickly went insane when put in command of a ship, and broke down sobbing into her male assistant's arms at the end of the episode. She was also, at one point explicitly described as "red-faced with hysteria."
  • The narrator of The Yellow Wallpaper was diagnosed with hysteria. The whole point of the work was that isolating and babying women who became mentally ill was not the way to treat them.
  • Inverted in the third Quest For Glory game. Tarna, land of the liontaur people, though a monarchy with a king, has a council of lawmakers made up entirely of women because men are seen as too emotional to make government decisions.
  • An episode of House had a mass hysteria case where the normally quite competent Dr. Cuddy was ... struck rather hard by this trope. It was pretty explicitly touted as a "See, even the capable, professional woman gets more hysterical than anyone else."
  • Another Star Trek The Original Series example, from "Wolf in the Fold".
Kirk: All right, Mister Spock, what do we have? A creature without form, that feeds on horror and fear, that must assume a physical shape to kill.
Spock: And I suspect preys on women because women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.
Community Feedback Replies: 5
  • December 27, 2009
    SKJAM
    And "mass hysteria" when invoked as an rationale for discarding testimony by multiple witnesses, is essentially saying "you're all acting like a bunch of women, and therefore your evidence is worthless."
  • December 27, 2009
    Unknown Troper
    Inverted in the third Quest For Glory game. Tarna, land of the liontaur people, though a monarchy with a king, has a council of lawmakers made up entirely of women because men are seen as too emotional to make government decisions.
  • December 28, 2009
    macroscopic
    The Distaff Counterparts of the heroes from Problem Sleuth tend to do this.

    Which reminds me, Hysterical Dame might be a marginally better name, as it sounds more dated. It is an MS Paint Adventures reference but it doesn't sound like an in-joke.
  • December 28, 2009
    LeighSabio
    Live Action TV
    Kirk: All right, Mister Spock, what do we have? A creature without form, that feeds on horror and fear, that must assume a physical shape to kill.
    Spock: And I suspect preys on women because women are more easily and more deeply terrified, generating more sheer horror than the male of the species.
  • December 28, 2009
    tangopig
    • Arguably, Mina Murray in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen graphic novel (vol. 1, anyway). On the one hand, she seems utterly competent; on the other hand, hit her and she goes to pieces. On the one foot, she actually is a competent in-charge sort, and acknowledged as such; on the other foot, she is quietly retired to the country with an escort because she's had a very trying day, which would probably not have been done for the series's men.

    • An episode of House had a mass hysteria case where the normally quite competent Dr. Cutty was ... struck rather hard by this trope. It was pretty explicitly touted as a "See, even the capable, professional woman gets more hysterical than anyone else."

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