Politics of Hysterical Affect: Anger, Laughter, and Joy

by Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota)

Abstract: During the years of cinema’s emergence in the late 19th century, hundreds of news stories were published about women who allegedly died from laughing too hard. For example, a woman in Pittsburgh went “to enjoy a comedy and furnished a tragedy” when she laughed herself to death. In this paper, I draw on obituary columns, coroner’s reports, archival medical films, suffragette writings, and slapstick comedies to get to the bottom of the history of female death from laughter. More than a figure of speech, ‘hysterical laughter’ prior to cinema’s invention was seen as a pathological expression of women’s emotional vulnerability and epidemic madness. By historicizing the fluid tropes of gendered hysterical affect, with an emphasis on the dialectic between anger and joy, I argue that the greatest potentials for feminist historiographic critique lie in archiving the eruption of radically mixed emotions.

Maggie Hennefeld is Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies & Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota. She is author of the award-winning Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia UP, 2018) and Co-editor of two volumes, Unwatchable (Rutgers UP, 2019) and Abjection Incorporated (Duke UP, forthcoming in 2020).