Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Words have meanings: hysteria

Blog of the week: Screaming in All Caps

  • Print

Words Have Meanings is a recurring feature that examines how certain terms and phrases are commonly used in incorrect, problematic and/or sexist ways.


A couple of weeks ago, Time ran an essay titled, It's Time to End 'Rape Culture' Hysteria (scare quotes not mine).

The article is a boob punch on an enormous scale.

Here's the closing paragraph (spoiler alert) so you can get the gist:

"Moral panic over rape culture helps no one," writes Caroline Kitchens, "least of all, survivors of sexual assault. College leaders, women's groups and the White House have a choice. They can side with the thought police of the feminist blogosphere who are declaring war on Robin Thicke, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, male statues and Barbie." (Hey, I've declared war on almost all those things! I AM THE THOUGHT POLICE.) "Or they can listen to the sane council of RAINN." (RAINN, of course, being America's Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, which disappointingly denounced the concept of rape culture.)

For my part, I believe rape culture is very, very real, and I've written about it a lot here. In fact, much to my despair, we have a whole section on this blog dedicated to rape culture.

While the article is a sweaty garbage party, I actually want to take a quick sec to unpack that headline. BECAUSE IT IS A DOOZY.

At the risk of sounding like a lazy valedictorian, the Oxford English Dictionary defines hysteria as "exaggerated or uncontrollable emotion or excitement."

Of course, working under that definition, all humans can become hysterical, but for a long time -- and we're talking thousands of years, here -- hysteria was believed to be the sole province of women. Derived from the Greek hystera (uterus), hysteria was a medical condition believed to be caused by a displaced uterus -- see the (absolutely f ing terrifying) wandering womb theory.

But just as vaginas don't have teeth -- oh you women, with your mysterious bodies! -- science has since proven that uteri don't run amok in our abdomens messing stuff up. And female hysteria is no longer accepted as a medical diagnosis.

And yet, the term "hysterical" is STILL routinely employed in sexist ways.

While its modern definition as written above reads as genderless, it's almost exclusively used to describe women in an effort to belittle them, to cut them mouthy bitches down to size. (As a woman, the number of times I've been told to "relax" or "chill" is rivaled only by the number of times I've been told to smile at bus stops.)

Veronica Mars star/noted sloth enthusiast Kristen Bell was recently told she "sounded hysterical" for wanting to protect her daughter from the paparazzi. The word choice was deliberate; her husband Dax was not, at any point, told he sounded hysterical.

See, men are rarely ever waved off as being hysterical -- no matter how red-faced, sweaty and unintelligible they become (I'm throwing some shade your way, Fox News pundits). No, they get to be described as passionate. Or fired up. Or angry. Or any other strong emotion women aren't afforded because our lady parts turn us into shrill harpies that can't possibly be taken seriously.

To that end, calling visceral outrage and frustration over a society that demonstrably condones sexual violence by accepting it as inevitable hysteria is not only incredibly dismissive, it's also troubling.

Considering that fewer than half of all rapes are reported -- and that survivors of sexual assault are already reticent about coming forward for fear they won't be believed -- can we, as a society, really afford to write off any more women as hysterical?

You need proof rape culture exists? Look no further than that headline.


SCREAMING IN ALL CAPS looks at popular culture through a feminist lens. We scream about things that piss us off. In all caps. You know, because women are shrill. Follow us at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 6, 2014 A12

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Full analyses: Manitoba Moose are back in Winnipeg

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A gosling stares near water at Omands Creek Park-See Bryksa 30 day goose challenge- Day 25– June 21, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
  • KEN GIGLIOTTI  WINNIPEG FREE PRESS / July 23 2009 - 090723 - Bart Kives story - Harry Lazarenko Annual River Bank Tour - receding water from summer rains and erosion  damage by flood  and ice  during spring flooding -  Red River , Lyndale Dr. damage to tree roots , river bank damage  , high water marks after 2009 Flood - POY

View More Gallery Photos


Will the new restaurant on the Esplanade Riel be successful?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google