Hélène Cixous’ demand is clearly formulated: “Women must write themselves”. This means that women should write from their perspective and encourage other women to write. While some of the post-structuralist and theoretical underpinnings in “Medusa’s Laughter” might pose a challenge for the inexperienced reader, the famous French feminist’s essay is full of powerful, encouraging quotes.
It remains groundbreaking reading to this day, especially for women who, like Hélène Cixous, want to become writers themselves: “Write, don’t let anyone hold you back, don’t let anything stop you: not by the people, not by the moronic capitalist machine , in which publishers are the wily, servile bearers of constraints imposed by an economy that works against us and on our backs, not by themselves”.
Cixous – Pioneer of the feminist school in Europe
Born on June 5, 1937 to Jewish parents in French Algeria, Cixous became known for her experimental writing style, which puts many genres in dialogue with each other: theater, literary and feminist theory, art criticism, autobiography and poetic fiction.
In 1974, Cixous founded the first European center for women’s studies at the experimental study center in Vincennes (today: University of Paris VIII in Saint-Denis). She had previously co-founded the study center – also as a direct reaction to the French student riots of May 1968.
The essayist, novelist and playwright has published over 70 works and is considered a promising candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her most influential article remains “Laughter of Medusa”, originally published in French in 1975 under the title “Le Rire de la Meduse” and translated into English by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen in 1976.
About masturbation and writing
Although the literary landscape has evolved significantly since the 1970s, and more female authors have been published and recognized in recent years, Medusa’s Laughter is a reminder of how much our Western thought has been defined by a male perspective for millennia.
For Cixous, the degradation of women has to do with the fact that the West has been “colonized” by its “phallocentric” thinking. The author draws on the research of the Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He was the one who coined the term “phallogocentrism,” which refers to the focusing of the male point of view through language. Although she rejects the patriarchal narratives imposed by our culture, many parallels can be found in Cixous’ essay. For example, it reads: “The act of writing is tantamount to male masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts out a paper penis).”
For the feminist author, there is a direct connection between the liberation of women’s writing and the liberation of their personal sexuality. This is because both woman’s writing and masturbation have for too long been associated with shame – they could only be practiced in secret and accompanied by guilt.
The Medusa Myth in Retrospect
The essay refers to the Greek myth of Medusa, a monster with poisonous snakes for hair whose gaze turned men to stone. For Cixous, Medusa – a symbol of seduction and power – became a symbol of impending castration through the narrative depiction of the men. Medusa represented her fear of female desire.
“My text was an update of Greek mythology. There is no better example to describe the position of women and the murderous struggle of men against women. Medusa was one of the three Gorgons (powerful, winged demons), the daughters of Phorkys and Keto. She was the only mortal among them. People were afraid of her. When they looked at her, they turned to stone,” Cixous told DW in December 2022, referring to her famous essay. “But why did she have such great power over the men? Because she saw the men. The latter did not have time to see her,” she added.
Medusa and the liberation of women’s hair in Iran
“The men don’t want to see the women and they veil them so that they become invisible, like ghosts. It’s terrible to what extent women are veiled, even in everyday life,” Cixous told DW on the occasion of the women’s protests in Iran. “Women are not objects, not veiled dolls. They are radiant. They are beautiful. My Medusa has traveled the world. At the moment, of course, she is in Iran.”
At first, the feminist author hesitated to stand up for the women fighting for their rights in Iran: “Of course I wonder if I can legitimately speak out on this. After all, I’m not in Iran and I’m not risking my life like the people there. ” But she was encouraged to do so by fellow feminists: “My Iranian friends said to me, why don’t you do something? Speak! If you speak, the local people will hear. It’s important for me to say: I have you heard.”
Meanwhile, the Medusa has been adopted by feminists and the #MeToo movement as a symbol of anger and a protector of women’s secrets.
Cixous has revisited her own text in a new edition of the 2010 French original with a new foreword, exploring the idea of Medusa as a queer body. This is another reason why the essay is still widely cited today.
“You only have to look directly at Medusa to see it,” writes Cixous. “And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she laughs.”
Lisa Louis conducted the DW interview with Hélène Cixous in December 2022. This article has been translated from English. Adaptation: Sabine Oelze