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Hysterical Woman

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"I have heard that hysterical women say
They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow,
Of poets that are always gay."
William Butler Yeats, "Lapis Lazuli"

This trope characterizes women as less rational, disciplined, and emotionally stable than men, and thus more prone to mood swings, irrational overreactions, and mental illness.note  As a result, female characters may be coddled, their opinions undervalued, or portrayed as incapable of holding power.

Not to worry. Such hysteria is easily cured with a good slap on the face.

A blatant Double Standard, it was used and invoked quite freely in older works. These days it is rarely invoked, as most people are aware of the obvious Unfortunate Implications. Despite that it's still more common to portray female characters becoming emotionally overwrought when under stress or behaving more irrationally than men, even when it would be out-of-character. Male characters like this are likely to be unsympathetic or comedic. An insensitive male character may ask, "Are you on your period?" or something on those lines.

This trope is also why lead characters in horror movies tend to be female, although given the nature of the genre, many such characters are portrayed more sympathetically, being Properly Paranoid while the men who denigrate them for being emotional are portrayed as either Too Dumb to Live, obstructively condescending, or outright antagonistic. She's called the Final Girl for a reason, after all.

Can also be invoked by female characters as a defense mechanism against criticism, when they recognize they are being irrational or sense the mounting frustration of other characters. For example "Sorry, I must be PMSing, that was unnecessarily rude". This is generally a sign of insecurity and perhaps repressed trauma. This is the way you'll more often see the trope used in the modern day. While she doesn't really expect the other characters to believe in her excuse: it is still a socially acceptable one.

This trope can also be subverted by a female character who only pretends to be hysterical. If she's The Social Expert, she may use it to gain immediate sympathy and help from other people. If she has a Secret Identity or is Bruce Wayne Held Hostage, she may fake being hysterical to keep anyone from suspecting her other persona.

Compare The Ophelia which is about genuine insanity; Unstable Powered Woman where emotions and other female hysteria result in a powerful, but incompetent and unstable woman. Often prone to Inelegant Blubbering. May involve Get a Hold of Yourself, Woman! to correct. Compare Screaming Woman and All Periods Are PMS (for when the character's reaction is dismissed as hormones acting up). For situations when those hormones were thought to have supernatural implications, see Menstrual Menace. See also All Women Are Lustful, for when her "irrationality" was thought to make her morally weaker. Also see Hypochondria, for when her "irrationality" was thought to make her believe she's sick when she's not, or make up a sickness for attention. Contrast Women Are Wiser (where women are depicted as more rational and emotionally stable than men) and Emotionless Girl.

This trope is a type of Strawman Emotional.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Justified and deconstructed in Berserk, as it highlights another consequence of Casca's rape trauma after the eclipse. Casca was mentally traumatized to the point where she was reduced to an infantile, almost animalistic state of mind. Therefore, Casca really has no logical drive and relies on her instincts to protect herself, so when someone poses a threat to her, she reacts violently. After Guts almost rapes her but ends up biting her instead, Casca's natural reaction is to stay far away from him at any means necessary (even jumping off a ledge) and to growl whenever he comes into her vicinity. This has taken its emotional toll on Guts, who is truly ashamed at what he did to her but desperately yearns for her emotional and physical affection. Making the situation worse, [[spoiler:his nasty Enemy Within wants Guts to rape and kill her. However, some characters like Farnese don't understand the extent of Casca's condition or backstory and think that her current behavior toward Guts is idiotic, irrational, and selfish.
  • This trope is why there are no magical boys in the world of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The Magical Girl system is revealed to be an alien plot to harvest the boundless energy of highly emotional teenage girls in order to stave off the heat death of the universe. Not targeting boys for the same purpose would have little justification if they didn't assume girls were inherently more hysterical.

     Fan Works 

  • The Airplane duology:
  • Airport '77 where Lee Grant, hysterical following her husband's death, attempts to open the plane door while it's submerged in the ocean. However, she is stopped by the flight attendant who is also female, so it could be considered a one off. The Airport series, itself, actually had many female characters who remained in control and were instrumental in resolving the crises. There were also cases of panicking men, as well.
  • Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) in Alien. She's by far the most terrified and emotional member of the crew, and completely freezes up when the Alien confronts her. She serves a foil to the other female member of the crew, the no-nonsense Ripley. This is an interesting case, however, because the characters were written such that any of them could have been played by a man or a woman, until they were cast.
  • In Blue Jasmine, this is the essential character trope of the lead character who becomes more and more emotionally unstable until the end when she is reduced to a homeless tramp babbling to herself about her troubles.
  • The maid Minnie in Bride of Frankenstein is quick to scream and flail at surprising things.
  • In Clue, Mrs. Peacock freaks out when, after thinking she drank poison, she starts screaming. Mr. Green delivers a slap. Later, when Wadsworth is recreating the events, he uses Mr. Green instead.
    Mr. Green: Well, I had to stop her screaming!
  • In The Fugitive, as the US Marshals conduct a raid on a home looking for an escaped prisoner, his girlfriend begins shrieking and screaming. She stops briefly when he's shot, then starts up again almost immediately, leaving the unsympathetic, fed-up Gerard to point his gun at her and snap at her to "Shut up". She does.
  • High Plains Drifter. Callie Travers, the town prostitute, is understandably pissed off about being raped by the Stranger in broad daylight and tries to incite the cowardly townspeople to stand up to him. When her complaints are dismissed as hysteria, she sarcastically reminds the man who said this (implied to be a client) that, "I can remember some hysterics one night not too long ago!"
  • Jaws 2. After the shark attacks them, one of the female teenagers eventually goes hysterical, screaming like crazy and having a panic attack when their rafts get stuck at the bottom. Another one tries to shut her up by shaking her violently, but is told by his friends that this won't help. Not all the women are like this, but it stands out because by contrast the guys are all portrayed as practical and goal-oriented, and none of them breaks down to the same degree. Even the much younger Sean holds it together better than her, who by all accounts has far more right to be freaked out due to being a kid.
    • Sean was catatonic for a period of time until stern (vaguely threatening) words snap him back to reality. He simply freaked out in a different way.
  • Maria Yates in Johnny Reno. Her every line is delivered in a hysterical scream, and her first act is grab a gun off a bystander and attempt to shoot a prisoner in the custody of a U.S. Marshal. She has reasons for her extreme reactions, but she comes off as unhinged.
  • Played with in Knight and Day. June spends a lot of the first half of the movie panicking and screaming, which isn't presented as her being overly emotional, but a perfectly reasonable response of an ordinary woman getting thrust into a world of superspies and conspiracies. Once she manages to get a hold on the situation, she's much more level-headed and makes the change from mere Action Survivor to low-key Action Girl.
  • A justified example with Midsommar, as Dani has plenty of reasons for being prone to freak-outs and sobbing given that she is going through grief over the death of her family, and the cult is deliberately exploiting said grief to get her to join them.
  • In Pulp Fiction during the diner robbery, Honey Bunny is this when Jules points a gun at "Ringo".
  • Sandra from Waydowntown.

  • In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the mothers of the four brats each fall into panicky screaming as one by one their offspring meet various absurd fates in the factory, though both Violet and Mike's dads are similarly upset. (In the case of Veruca's parents, Mr. Salt is deliberately presented as ridiculously calm about her potential fate compared to his wife - likewise, Mr. Gloop refuses to jump into the chocolate river to save Augustus because he has his best suit on.) Two mothers are usually Demoted to Extra and/or Adapted Out in adaptations, and the remaining moms sometimes get more rounded personalities in the bargain (Mrs. Beauregarde becomes an icy Stage Mom in the 2005 film and averts this trope, and Mrs. Teavee's anxious Stepford Smiler nature in the 2013 musical stems partially from her having to deal with an Enfante Terrible son). Still, Mrs. Gloop always comes off as this when her son goes up the pipe, owing perhaps to their limited stage/screen time (they're the first tour group to be eliminated) superseding in-depth character development, and Mrs. Teavee is definitely this in the 1971 film.
  • Sue Bridehead in Jude the Obscure appears to be a walking bundle of neuroses who is nonetheless trying to live life as an enlightened, liberated woman. It doesn't end up working for her.
  • Lucky Jim: Margaret is very emotional and emotionally fragile, provoking feelings of obligation in Jim, who feels like he has to take care of her. At one point she actually goes into a fit of hysteria, and has to be slapped and given whiskey to snap out of it.
  • The wandering womb diagnosis gets direct mention as "a classic case of hysteria" by a doctor in one of the Marcus Didius Falco novels (set in 1st century Rome), along with Helena Justina's utter contempt for this particular brand of medical theory.
  • In Murder on the Orient Express, Mrs. Hubbard goes through this a few times. First is when the supposed murderer escapes into her room after murdering Mr. Ratchett, then when she discovers the murder weapon in her sponge bag. It's an act.
  • In The Pale King, Toni Ware pretends to be one in her final scene, Inelegant Blubbering and all.
  • In C.S. Lewis's book That Hideous Strength from The Space Trilogy, a woman begins to laugh uncontrollably in fear and nervousness in response to Horace Jewels' speech while he was under the influence of the Curse of Babel. She stops when Wither forces him to sit and clears his throat...only to begin again when Wither is under the same Curse of Babel, at which point she's joined by another woman!
  • 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; the narrator doesn't start out insane — at worst, suffering from postpartum depression, but she's slowly driven to madness after being more or less imprisoned in order for her to rest.

    Live Action TV 
  • Blanche, one of the maids on Another Period, recently spent time in an insane asylum and is still a Both her employers (the Bellacourt family) and her fellow servants take great pleasure in startling her into screaming fits.
  • Soolin gets to slap a particularly annoying one of these in Blake's 7.
    Tarrant: You enjoyed that, didn’t you?
    Soolin: There are two classic ways of dealing with a hysterical woman. You didn’t really expect me to kiss her, did you?
    • Leveraged because the hysterical woman was in fact a Decoy Damsel feigning her distress.
  • The trope is alive and well in Boardwalk Empire, at least when it pertains to extras. If somebody gets killed and there is people to see it or find the body, you can guarantee that there will be a woman screaming, while all the men remain silent or are, at least, far less noisy.
  • A lover of a victim in The Closer, was this in spades. The second that she saw the body, she started screaming hysterically. She kept on screaming causing the investigators to wear earplugs around her.
  • Janet Fielding's Tegan in Doctor Who Series 18 and 19. She eventually calmed down, but was still argumentative and prone to panicking. Even Fielding complained she was less a character and more a collection of tics and whinging — apparently the showrunner, John Nathan-Turner, was opposed to character development as it hurt the marketability of his creations.
    Doc Oho: Look at Tom Baker’s face as Janet Fielding shrieks at him in a parody of acting; he looks genuinely pained to be sharing a screen with the actress.
  • In Fawlty Towers: In "The Kipper and the Corpse", the elderly Miss Tibbs screams hysterically when she sees the dead Mr Leeman, and eventually faints.
  • Spoofed in Garth Marenghis Darkplace where Liz gets punched in the face for being 'hysterical', yet her acting is of the Dull Surprise kind.
  • House had a mass hysteria case where the normally competent Dr. Cuddy was struck hard by this trope. Like the ass he is, House told her that her gender made her more vulnerable to it than him.
  • In Kitchen Nightmares wives/girlfriends/sisters/female owners often times have a degree of this, often times pairing with Not My Fault. One of the most infamous times was with a female customer who literally cried when her burger arrived in sourdough bread rather than the regular bread used when the kitchen ran out of said style of bread.
  • Star Trek: The Original Series:
    • Dr. Janice Lester, a villain-of-the-week ,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."
    • 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.
    • The official fic "The Procrustean Petard" has this happening to Kirk when everyone has swapped genders. At one point Bones assumes he's going to end up crying, and surmises that women just can't be Captains.
  • Succession: Alluded to when Shiv protests the notion that she wouldn't make as a good of an interim CEO as her brothers in the eyes of the board.
    Shiv: Too teary-eyed? Mascara-streaked?
  • True Blood's female characters are prone to emitting high-pitched screams whenever they find a body or something like that. Not even screaming "Help!", just screaming. None of the male characters do this.

  • Mary Warren in The Crucible is a deconstruction. Because other characters know she is emotionally fragile, both men and stronger women bully her, knowing she won't stand up for herself.
  • Rapunzel in Into the Woods by the play's second act becomes this, mostly from how the Witch treated her (and possibly postpartum depression after baring twins while being banished out in the desert). When she's seen she's prone to hysterical fits of crying. When her Prince and Cinderella's Prince hear her wailing while out in the woods, Cinderella's Prince looks genuinely disturbed while Rapunzel's Prince doesn't even bat an eye. It's up for debate on when she's killed by the Giantess whether or not she ran under her by accident while in a hysterical fit, or if she deliberately threw herself under the Giantess' foot.

    Video Games 
  • Dead Space's female population was almost entirely these or Laughing Mad women. Justified by the fact that enemies hunted down, killed, mutilated, and revived you as one of them.
    • Soundly averted in Ellie's case, however.
  • Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Spirit of Justice: Ellen Wyatt from the DLC case has a pronounced tendency to break down sobbing whenever something goes wrong. Though to be fair, she's also been accused of murder on her wedding day and the true culprit has been gaslighting her, so she's probably earned the right to a Freak Out or several.
  • Quest for Glory III: Inverted. 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.
  • Street Fighter X Tekken has a subdued version for all of the girls in the game. In stage transitions a male on anchor looks more composed when his ally loses the round but the ladies all look visibly upset and appear to be scolding and reprimanding their allies.
  • Implied in Valkyria Chronicles. By the end of their respective character arcs, the three highest-ranked women in the game are too ruled by their emotions to make sound judgements, and they self-destruct or not according to whether their male love interests care enough about them to stop them. In each case, the woman in question had been otherwise calm, collected, and competent leading up to this point.
    • Alicia spends the second half of the game building up to an emotional meltdown, but main character Welkin (and the rest of Squad 7, really) brushes off her cries for help until she has a literal meltdown, at which point he calms her down with a hug and an engagement ring. Apparently she wasn't worth listening to before she tried to kill herself in the most bombastic and destructive way possible, and afterward, all she really needed was a husband and a baby.
    • Varrot's entire military career hinges on her ice-cold seething desire for revenge for her murdered lover. When she gets the chance, Largo talks her out of it, and they later marry and return to his farm.
    • Selvaria. She kills herself because Maximillian orders her to, and although she realizes he's only been using her as a weapon and so sabotages her Suicide Attack by sparing the heroes, she goes through with it because she loves him.
  • Subverted with Imca in Valkyria Chronicles III. She's irrational and hysterical whenever she sees a Valkyria Riela included, but it's more in the way of a bull seeing capote, and thus perceived as 'the masculine kind of being lacking in reasoning'.

  • Played for Laughs in Girl Genius. One of the Jägermonsters is ordered to accompany Agatha home, after she was expelled from the university, and she thinks that it will eat her as soon as no one can see them. She proceeds to scream hysterically for several panels, while the Jägermonster tries unsuccessfully to assure her it has no intention of eating her. She finally shuts up when it considers eating her just to get some quiet. (After Agatha Took a Level in Badass, she averts this trope.)
    • There's also the fact that her level in badass involves having the Jägermonsters as effectively her private army. You're going to become FAR less hysterical when you realise that they work for you because they actually WANT you to succeed.
  • "Hysterical Dame" is one of the characters in Problem Sleuth, and initially this fits perfectly, though everyone ends up fairly competent by the end. In her case, getting hysterical is the same as going berserk.

    Western Animation 
  • Deconstructed in Bojack Horseman: Joseph dismisses his wife's breakdown as her 'womanly emotions' getting the better of her and her becoming hysterical to the point of him having her lobotomized, but she's clearly in the throes of grief after losing her only son, and neither he nor a post-World War II society is equipped to-or particularly desire to-handle it, preferring to take the easy route to get her to a socially acceptable definition of 'better'.
  • Mocked in The Simpsons. Marge foils a burglar and Homer arrives far too late (being unable to maintain the same running speed as Marge). Marge says how exhilarating it was, to which Homer responds that it's always exhilarating to watch the police get their man and save "a hysterical woman."

“Hysteria! What can it be?”