Pop Culture

Explaining the Joke: Lady Excuses, Leslie Knope, and Female Hysteria

This edition of Explaining the Joke features Leslie Knope, female hysteria, and the kind of history you probably didn’t learn about in your high school history class.

Spoiler: Leslie is taking the heat for shooting Ron so that Tom won’t get in trouble for not having a hunting license. The park ranger implies that the accident happened because she is a woman, and Leslie just runs with it so he will stop investigating further into the accident.

This is one of my favorite scenes from Parks and Recreation for a couple reasons. First of all, I love that this was all improvised. As a former improviser, I do have a soft spot for improv and a huge amount of respect for people who can do it well. What I like most about this scene is what it represents in a feminist sense.

I imagine this is what my travelling uterus would look like.

Amy/Leslie is not making fun of women in this scene, which should be clear if you are at all familiar with Amy Poehler’s real life personality or have watched any episodes of Parks and Rec. Instead, Amy/Leslie is shedding some light on the baseless societal assumption that women are somehow crazier or less rational than men and that femininity is some kind of handicap. This isn’t a new idea. The notion that having a uterus is equivalent to having a one way ticket to Crazy Town was actually backed up by many prominent scientists and theorists as far back as ancient Greece.

Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” and the person for whom the Hippocratic Oath is named, originated the term “hysteria” in his medical texts. Before the time of x-rays and modern medicine, it was commonly believed that the womb was an organ that could move throughout the body. This phenomenon of the traveling womb was labeled hysteria, derived from the Greek word for uterus, hystera. Hysteria, or movement of the womb throughout the entire body, was believed to be highly uncomfortable and to cause diseases.

It's the cure for what ails you.

In the 19th century, after it was established that the uterus was not nomadic, the medical community redefined hysteria…very loosely. A “restless” uterus was no longer the problem; the mere presence of the uterus itself in the female body was widely accepted as the origin for many women’s health problems, both real and imagined.  A Victorian physician published a 75-page list of every possible symptom of female hysteria (which ended up being a list of every possible symptom for everything ever, including insomnia, headaches, irritability, stomach pain, restlessness, fluid retention, and joint pain) and still said the list was “incomplete.” Any combination of symptoms could result in a hysteria diagnosis, especially if the woman was not particularly demure. It was common for families to send “difficult” women (read: loud, opinionated, or disobedient women) to hysteria clinics for treatment – a brilliant scheme since hysteria was not fatal but supposedly required continuous treatment for an indeterminate amount of time. Many prominent doctors, including Freud, worked in hysteria clinics prescribing the cure for hysteria to countless women whose uteri were ailing them. The cure? Pelvic massage to the point of hysterical paroxysm, or in layman’s terms, clitoral stimulation until orgasm. Because apparently nothing gets a woman to shut up and obey you like a good orgasm. Vibrators or “pelvic massagers” were developed so that physicians and midwives would not have to spend all day pelvic massaging ladies. Obviously, these proved to be more efficient and effective in getting women to achieve hysterical paroxysm.

Hysteria has since been dismissed by the medical community, and yet the idea behind it remains in modern society. The Huffington Post had a great article recently written by Yashar Ali, a man who apologizes to women on behalf of all men for something he calls “gaslighting.” He references an old film from the 1950s where a guy tries to convince his wife that she is going crazy by messing with the gas lamps in their house to make them flicker and pretending like he doesn’t see anything wrong when she repeatedly comments on the flickering. Through “gaslighting” her, he eventually convinces his wife that she is the one malfunctioning, not the lamps. This gaslighting trick is a derailing technique that gets used against women a lot.

Have you ever been asked “Are you on your period?” as opposed to “What’s wrong?” or “What happened?” when you’re visibly upset? Yeah. We get that a lot. Monthly menstrual cycles have become an old stand-by excuse for many displays of emotion- namely sadness and anger- and are routinely used against women as proof of irrational behavior. “Gaslighting” invalidates women’s emotions by stereotyping us all as sensitive, irritable, easy to upset or offend, and just plain crazy by nature of our biological design. By inextricably linking our feelings to our uteruses, this type of gaslighting prompts a kind of nonchalance from other people whenever women express anything but a Stepford-esque level of calm contentment. Beyond that, estrogen-based gaslighting also serves to deny women agency by fostering complacence with our own discontent. If we keep believing that we are, by womanly nature, destined for a life of over-sensitivity and irrationality, we lose ownership of our feelings and agency in our mental health. We cut ourselves off from the possibility of happiness and comfort by not taking ourselves seriously. These ideas that are engrained in so many of us dictate that our emotions and concerns cannot possibly be valid because we are constantly in a state of some kind of hormonal imbalance that makes us totally irrational.

In true Knope fashion, Leslie acknowledges the overwhelming amount of stereotypes that characterize women as hopelessly incompetent and emotionally unstable and uses them to her advantage. Her excuses are funny, not because they are true, but because they are absolutely over-the-top ridiculous. This clip serves to turn the mirror onto our society’s perception of women and finds a way to make it hilarious instead of infuriating. Actually, female stereotyping and gaslighting are still pretty infuriating. But, who knows? Maybe I’m just PMSing.

By laurensmash

Writer, feminist, pop culture addict, and unabashed nerd living in Southern California. I'm enthusiastic about the Internet, and I enjoy smashing things.

6 replies on “Explaining the Joke: Lady Excuses, Leslie Knope, and Female Hysteria”

So, I’ve got gender stereotypes on the brain after reading this, and I clicked through to the Wikipedia entry about hysteria and the pelvic massage craze in the 1900’s. I got to this line:

The technique was difficult for a physician to master and could take hours to achieve ‘hysterical paroxysm.’

and I burst out laughing. I want to make jokes about men being bad in bed, but that would be hypocritical.

This makes me think of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a must read on this topic, in which she explores the way she was treated during her bout with postpartum depression.

Also, I can’t help but to recognize the irony in the above “cure” for hysteria. Wasn’t Freud an advocate of the clitoral orgasm as “immature,” while only “real women” could achieve the more distinguished vaginal orgasm?

I love how it took more than 2000 years of practicing medicine to realize that the uterus wasn’t nomadic. Perhaps this has something to do with the suppression of midwifery and insistence that women could not be doctors until the 1800s.

Very interesting look at biological determinism!

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