“Hysterical,” is how CNN pundit Jason Miller described Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) on Tuesday night.
Miller was describing Harris’s now viral back-and-forth with Attorney General Jeff Sessions during his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Harris, who was interrupted by her colleagues, challenged Sessions’s questionable use of executive privilege, asking the AG to point to the exact Justice Department rule (or “principle” as he later called it) to avoid answering questions. Harris wasn’t the first Democrat to ask Sessions about his faulty memory or silence—Ron Wyden had earlier accused him of “stonewalling”—but she was the first woman to demand answers from an evasive Sessions. Harris was, as Kirsten Powers said, “asking tough questions,” but instead Miller saw and heard “a partisan screed.”
“From my perspective—I would say objective perspective—it didn’t seem like any effort to try to get to a real question,” Miller said. “I think she was hysterical,” he reiterated, adding that Wyden wasn’t helpful.
“He wasn’t hysterical but she was? ... I just wanted to clear that up,” Powers interjected, referencing the particularly gendered way which the term is employed. But even that proved to be, somehow, something worth contesting. “Hysteria is a neutral quality,” Jeffrey Lord shot back, without any apparent sense of self-awareness.
Lord was, of course, wrong; evidence against his claim that hysteria is a gender neutral description includes the entire arc of Western history, particularly the histories of neurology and psychology, literature, and the history of art. The etymology of the term is against him, too.
Hysteria, traced back to the Greek plural hysterika first used in the Hippocratic text Aphorisms (4th-5th century BCE), simply means “from the womb.” And yet Lord and Miller both insisted on their rational perspective, calling to arms objectivity and neutrality, the familiar armor of men who believe that their very nature, their very biology, grant them both while women—particularly women of color like Harris—are creatures of subjectivity, ill-equipped to grasp on to such enlightenment. That was the greatest irony in the exchange: While Lord rejected Powers’s criticism, he practically plagiarized an ancient narrative, one that positions women as so absorbed by their own irrationality that they lack the critical apparatus to interpret their own bodies and behavior.
The spectacle of the hysterical woman runs deep, as does its enjoyment, but its resurgence in contemporary politics seems part and parcel of an open acknowledgment of what should be antique concepts of gender and race. Before two CNN pundits dubbed Harris “hysterical,” Sheila Jackson Lee was described as “being in hysterics” by Georgia Republican Doug Collins during a speech on the House floor, and rumors about Hillary Clinton’s health during the campaign reeked of nineteenth-century narratives of hysteria.
It’s worth dwelling on the labeling of Harris as “hysterical,” not simply because these rhetorical flourishes still exist (and are financially rewarding) but because it’s a reminder of how quickly Donald Trump’s ascendancy has openly returned us to these cruel and dated depictions—how quickly it has reintroduced antique images of gender; how quickly, too, it has reasserted the objective and neutral authority of white men.
Hysteria has been many things but it is, above all, shapeless. Fluid in definition, it’s a diagnosis that historically can absorb a range of symptoms that resist a kind of physical rationality: from tics to twitching, muscular spasms to emotional distress, sexual deviancy to extreme penitence, energetic ramblings to comatose silence, and speaking out of turn to silence. Nearly any sign of departure from whatever culture defined as ideal womanhood in that moment could indicate hysteria. As one writer succinctly phrased it, hysteria “refers more easily to an image than an illness.” But images require interpretation and, within the history of hysteria, women (let alone a woman of color) did not by their very nature have either the simple ability to see rational truths. They were, after all, hysterical.
For the Greeks and Romans, the image of hysteria was that of an animalistic wandering womb, an animated organ that moved independently and with its own will. Plato described the womb as an animal desiring conception while the second-century writer Aretaeus described it as, “a living thing inside another living thing.” The cure was the lure the womb back to its natural location—Hippocratic doctors prescribed scent therapy while others advised women to get pregnant. One Greek physician wrote that in order to cure hysteria, “a sneeze is a good thing.” A simple sneeze could do the difficult work of returning the uterus to its rightful place. By the middle ages the animal morphed into demonic possession and by the seventeenth century, hysteria was no longer demonic but organic. But still, the symptoms remained the same and while, in the course of centuries, hysteria’s source might have changed, the agreement that it primarily afflicted women did not. “Women,” the English physician Thomas Sydenham wrote in the seventeenth century, “except for those who lead a hardy and robust life, are rarely quite free from [hysteria].”
By the late nineteenth century, Jean-Martin Charcot transformed hysteria into a neurological disorder, filling the Parisian asylum that he oversaw with thousands of women struck by the disorder. Indeed, across Europe—in London, Venice, Paris—and even in America, dingy asylums the size of small cities were populated by the afflicted. Charcot and other doctors nodded to the genderless of hysteria (Charcot was particularly keen to demonstrate that) and yet their asylums were filled almost entirely with women, a “great emporium of human misery,” Charcot once said of his own asylum. The books of case studies they published were also filled with women. It was Charcot’s student Sigmund Freud that would solidify the movement of hysteria from the womb to the mind, transforming a case study of his favorite hysterical woman into the foundations of psychoanalysis.
Long after Freud died, hysteria remained an established diagnosis until 1980, when it was finally removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (well until the 1990s there is a sizable amount of medical literature bemoaning its removal). Though the hysteria has been many things, has had many possible points of origin traveling up and down the body, has been both real and fictional, psychological and somatic, it has always been the province of women. Hysteria still lingers, its history still haunts as the language of medicine has been fully transformed into a metaphor. The willfulness, erraticism of speech or body, the lack of emotional control that could once define a clinical diagnosis is now a cultural disease of sorts that can still be meted out by men able to parrot the clinical language of neutrality and objectivity. Combine this with history’s hystericization of women of color, their depiction as angry and inherently uncontrollable, what Marcyliena Morgan and Dionne Bennett described as “representations that shape reality.”
These histories haunted Kamala Harris when she simply did her job on Tuesday. Her questioning of Sessions conjured up a myriad of images that exist in the intersection of histories of race, gender, medicine, and, inevitably, authority. History has worked to reaffirm Sessions’s position, worked to naturalize his authority, positing him as a rational man in possession of real and important truths. Harris has little to no recourse to that image, her claims of interpretation are hindered by her race and her gender. The contrast of images—of a white man with a bad memory and a woman of color demanding answers—was bound to be open for such banal descriptions as “hysterical.”
CNN’s Lord and Miller reaffirmed that history, drawing lazily from it even as the women in the room protested. Of course, nothing will happen. Indeed, what could even happen? These characterizations are so ingrained, so steeped in our cultural memory, that Lord and Miller will simply return to work, perpetually satisfied by their self-assuredness. CNN will also enjoy the results of the spectacle, happy to have pundits to reassert old stereotypes under the guise of debate.