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Hypnosis straddles the line between science and entertainment, encompassing both the therapeutic practice of hypnotherapy and performative stage acts. Since its introduction in Europe in the 19th century, its practitioners have included scientists, doctors, and those simply hungry for the spotlight; accordingly, hypnotists have varied widely in technique, experience, and intention. The one constant during these sessions, however, is the division of roles along lines of gender — particularly prior to the middle of the 20th century — which is clearly reflected in historic images.
Overpowered! The Science and Showbiz of Hypnosis, a new book by “The Singing Hypnotist” Christopher Green, explores the visual legacy of this gendered practice. Published by the British Library, it presents a richly illustrated history of hypnosis in the Western world through material — much of it sourced from the Library’s own archives — that includes photographs, posters, and performance pamphlets. Green chronicles hypnotism’s development up to the 21st century through the stories of influential hypnotists and illuminates (through sections as hilarious as they are informative) the gender and power dynamics prevalent throughout the practice’s history.
Men, overwhelmingly, have formed the theories that shaped society’s understanding of hypnotism, from Franz Anton Mesmer, the founding figure of mesmerism, to the surgeon James Braid, considered the father of modern hypnotism. But even as hypnotism grew increasingly popular and known hypnotists disseminated how-to guides, men dominated the place of power while women — mostly anonymous — remained their meek subjects.
As Green succinctly writes in his book’s first chapter, “if one image could sum this story up, it would be a high-status man, slightly winging it, leaning over a hysterical woman and using experimental, mysterious forces to calm her down.”
The trend is evident whether one examines the documents produced by medical professionals or the visual ephemera created by popular performers, from the pseudo-scientific to those concerned with only smoke-and-mirror shows. Green, for instance, mentions the haunting black-and-white images of hysterical women taken by the neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, which remain some of the most widely seen photographs related to hypnosis. Charcot chose patients under his charge at the Salpêtrière hospital and asylum as his subjects, and the resulting scenes include a demonstration of hypnosis on an unconscious woman in front of a group of men.
The entertainment industry adhered to this same power structure, as seen in the advertising posters and DIY manuals produced by hypnotic performers. From a 1891 handbook by the stage hypnotist Dr. Vint to a poster of the American showman Kennedy the Mesmerist (promoted as “King Laughmaker of the World”), the powerful hypnotists were mostly heavily mustachioed men. Green does mention some renowned female hypnotists, such as Annie De Montford — whose poster from 1881 boasts that her “mind governs the world” — and “The Little Hypnotic Sunbeam” Herbert L. Flint — whose title alone speaks to gender biases. Green notes, however, that these ladies were rare exceptions.
Elsewhere in Overpowered!, images depict women as mostly living props for hypnotists, present only to swoon or appear dazed. Green mentions an illustrated course in hypnosis that aspiring hypnotists could receive in the mail, written by Professor L.A. Harraden, apparently known as “the greatest hypnotist of the century.” Its cover features a vignette of a man passing his hands over a woman as well as a portrait of Harraden, held up by a beautiful woman in a trance-like state. Similarly, George du Maurier’s widely-read novel Trillby features illustrations of his eponymous protagonist under the spell of the evil hypnotist Svengali, being watched by hundreds. The popular fascination with hypnotism extended beyond fictionalized representations: Green shares depictions of somnambulist parties in Paris salons and even a bizarre “Hypnotized Tea Party” from 1896. Women in the former hold poses that resemble Charcot’s hysterial girls; those in the latter “are all cataleptic – ‘motionless as statues,’” Green writes.
Images show that men do occupy the hypnotist’s hot seat at times, but they are far outnumbered by the illustrations of fainting and transfixed women. According to Green, there are actually now more women then men in the US and UK who are qualified as hypnotherapists, but they are always described as female hypnotherapists — the same limiting categorization that many women, from artists to novelists and beyond, find cropping up in their career descriptions all too often.
“When their gender becomes exceptional, then something will have changed,” Green writes. “And as I keep hinting — the world of hypnosis is ripe for change.”