A 3D-printed clitoris went viral in 2016. For many, it was the first time they’d seen the anatomical structure fully rendered, serving as a reminder that non-male bodies are still largely misunderstood. In her new book, Hysterical: Why We Need to Talk About Women, Hormones, and Mental Health, Eleanor Morgan delves into the history and confusion surrounding women’s bodies.
Morgan casts a wide net, drawing on her own experiences, philosophy, medicine, pop culture, and feminist theory, among other sources. But with a topic so broad and arguments that feel largely rudimentary, the book never quite hits the mark. Instead, Hysterical reads like a disjointed collection of observations loosely tied together by their relationship to women’s bodies.
The book is organized into five untitled parts, within which are a numerous subheaded sections. One focuses on the physical facts of menstruation and the hormones released over the course of one’s cycle while another tackles mental health, but each part changes topics so rapidly that there’s no dominant theme to act as a guide. No one part, for example, could stand on its own and read as a coherent argument. Even subheaded sections seem to lack a strong narrative or sense of purpose, and many (such as a long section on #MeToo) aren’t clearly linked back to the larger aim of the book: to shine a light on the connections between women’s physical and mental health.
Hysterical’s problems aren’t all structural. Morgan’s blind spots are glaring; she’s quick to highlight period-tracking apps as a sign that those with periods are interested in learning more about their own bodies, but she doesn’t discuss privacy concerns, the monetization of health-related data, or the fact that people with periods have tracked their cycles long before the advent of apps. Morgan discusses stimulation-based treatments for hysteria throughout the ages, but flippantly seems to suggest that women enjoyed being made to orgasm by their doctors with no consideration of where consent played a role—or didn’t—in these treatments. In a book that spends a considerable amount of time discussing the ways medicine has harmed women, the oversight is particularly stark.
The most noticeable of Morgan’s missteps is the way the book is framed. Early in her book, Morgan rightly points out that many cis-women are ashamed of their genitalia or fear being judged for it. But she goes on, “We are ashamed of what makes us women.” This conflation of genitals and reproductive systems with gender is repeated throughout the book, and nowhere does she consider how trans or non-binary experiences differ from those of cis-women. It’s a disappointing exclusion—one that underscores the book’s lack of in-depth political engagement.
With an uneven tone and lack of focus, Hysterical doesn’t do justice to its subject matter. Too much is left unexplored, and the conclusions drawn are too rudimentary to feel revolutionary. While there is ample need for works that remove stigma and discuss health issues—physical and mental—as they relate to non-male bodies, Hysterical doesn’t succeed in doing either.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.