Hélène Cixous, in “The Laugh of the Medusa,” advocates new ways of thinking and writing about women and literature. The essay has become a staple of feminist criticism because of its incisive critique of patriarchal politics, its endorsement of a feminist philosophy that is grounded in poststructuralism and psychoanalytic theory, and its modeling or representation of the possibilities of écriture féminine (“feminine writing”)—what Cixous calls white ink. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is also a call to arms, urging women to reclaim their bodies and, by extension, their desires and identities through writing.
Concerned with traditional representations of women by men in literature and other scholarly texts, Cixous begins her analysis by invoking the classical figure of Medusa, but she does so by refiguring how Medusa has been represented through the ages. In this way, Cixous reclaims her. Traditionally, Medusa has been portrayed as a physical and moral monster; with snakes in place of hair, Medusa turns the men who look upon her to stone. However, Cixous’s Medusa laughs, which is both a joyful and a disruptive act that can lead to new directions for women’s (feminist) writing. From the first paragraph, women’s writing is positioned as both liberating and intervening.
Phallocentrism, a male-dominated, masculine-coded linguistic and philosophical system—or, to put it more simply, male bias—keeps women from accessing their own stories. Without this access, women lack knowledge of the multiple ways to be; women, thus, have no body and are thus nobody. It is imperative, Cixous argues, that a woman must, broadly speaking, “write her self” and “put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.” Essentially, Cixous calls upon women to assert themselves in writing and in the world by leaving their literary imprint, and she speaks in terms associated with revolution. Among Cixous’s aims are to “break up” and “destroy” and “to foresee the unforeseeable, to project.” Thus, her agenda in “The Laugh of the Medusa” is to call into question and break from the existing literary and social order and to embrace a new vision for women and literature through the form and content of her own essay.
Cixous has been criticized for what some see as essentialist tendencies in her work, meaning that she perceives women as biologically determined and universally similar. While Cixous does reference psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, she moves away from their absolutism. Instead, she emphasizes plurality and multiplicity. Cixous, in arguing that there is no “general” or “typical” woman, focuses her study on what women have in common: a history ofexclusion and a legacy of limited agency and visibility.
Cixous discusses the female body and women’s sexuality in connection with writing for several reasons: Women are driven away both from their own bodies and from their own sexualities, sexuality informs and...
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