Hélène Cixous’s essay, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” is a significant contribution to feminist thought. It is also one of my favorite essays. Here I talk about what she is saying and how it relates to sex communication.
Hi, I’m Kenneth, and this is the Unspeakable Vice Podcast, where we talk about talking about sex. Sex is a dirty word, a taboo, something that just isn’t talked about. We’re about to dig into why.
Did you notice something different? There’s music! I’m super excited about it, and I want to thank local Michigan artist Joey Pecoraro for the gracious use of his music in this podcast.
The Laugh of the Medusa
Today I’m going to revisit an essay I read as part of a university course on feminism last year. This essay fascinated me, and it was one of my favorite reading assignments. Hélène Cixous authored this essay, titled “The Laugh of the Medusa.” At its core, the essay is about feminist expression, or maybe it would be better if I say feminine expression.
There is a lot to unpack here, and tons of people have talked and thought about this essay. As you might expect, my interest is in what Cixous has to say about gender and sex, but the reason I love this essay so much has more to do with how she says it, not what she says.
“Woman must write her self,” Hélène Cixous implores (875). This is not just a call for women to participate in English class or to publish books. It is a statement of necessity for women to push against patriarchal tradition and presumption by expressing the feminine condition in their own words, in their own terms. Cixous passionately posits that women’s voices and experiences have been suppressed and oppressed by men (sometimes directly, and sometimes through tradition), and that there is an urgency for women to speak out, loud and proud, to share the femininity that they have kept secret since childhood.
One thing that is interesting to me is that Cixous makes no attempt at all to separate gender from sexuality. What I mean is that her definition of femininity is very much tangled up with sexual desire and the female body. This is a different approach than most people use today, where these different terms—gender, sex, and sexual desire—are used to refer to different experiences and separate structures.
Sex or Gender?
You might remember from our previous episode, as I was talking about words, labels, and so on, that many people see masculinity as being independent of gender. A commenter said, “Any gender can be masculine.” So, masculinity does not require maleness, it does not require a penis, it does not require a particular gender expression. As I understand the commenter, masculinity is a way of being, it is a set of behaviors and an approach to the world.
And of course, the concept of masculinity is complicated. It can mean different things to different people and in different contexts. To say a woman is masculine may mean something different than to say a man is masculine. And of course we can say the same thing about femininity. But in her essay Cixous does not attempt to explicitly define femininity, or to distinguish it from being a woman or girl, or from having a clitoris. Or from feeling a certain kind of sexual arousal.
A Funny Desire
Many young girls, Cixous explains, were shamed into keeping their passions secret. “Who, feeling a funny desire stirring inside her (to sing, to write, to dare to speak, in short, to bring out something new), hasn’t thought she was sick” (876)? She is explicit about the erotic nature of this funny desire, and the desire for expression is suppressed just like sexual desire is.
Men are made quite uncomfortable by these passions of women and girls, and so men—who she calls the “sex cops” (877)—try to make them give up these passions. Consequently, women and girls learn to find private outlets for their passions: they “wrote, irresistibly, as when we would masturbate in secret, not to go further, but to attenuate the tension a bit, just enough to take the edge off. And then as soon as we come, we go and make ourselves feel guilty—so as to be forgiven; or to forget, to to bury it until the next time” (877).
While making this argument, Cixous conflates the experience of femininity with the female body. If writing is synonymous with sexual expression, the female body is synonymous with feminine expression. Cixous does not explain this melding of ideas, but her rhetoric is intentional, implying that the feminine experience is a physical, corporeal thing.
Now, I don’t think that Cixous is saying that you have to be female to be feminine. She is routinely called a post-structural feminist. Post-structuralism often points to the complexities of social constructs. I expect that Cixous would agree with me when I say that concepts like femininity are complicated, and the boundaries between femininity and masculinity are blurry. In fact, later on in the essay, she looks for rare examples of feminine expression—women who write themselves—and one of her examples is actually a person who is identified as male.
By the end of the essay, Cixous makes an extended attempt to write her self: to explain what is missing in the understanding of the feminine experience, what must be expressed for the “immense resources of the unconscious [to] spring forth” (880). She suggests that “it is necessary and sufficient that the best of herself be given to woman by another woman” not only to connect with the other but to connect with herself (881). This relationship can be understood as mother to daughter or sister to sister. She predicts that this love between women is strong enough to be revolutionary across society: “Her libido will produce far more radical effects of political and social change than some might like to think” (882).
So, again, look at how she conflates womanhood, femininity, to sexual desire. The relationships she’s talking about, sisters, or a mother and a daughter, are not sexual in the common sense. She’s not talking about a lesbian relationship. Then again, she’s not not talking about lesbianism. But, in her words, relationships between women are inherently sexual. It is “her libido” that makes these relationships significant.
She ultimately settles into an argument that current mainstream writing is “phallocentric” and what she speaks of as woman’s writing will disrupt the concept that femininity is defined by its “lack.” The masculine is driven largely by his fear of castration (of loss of manhood, of becoming less, of seeing the feminine in himself). Women are made to feel guilty and ashamed for the same reason that men are made to be afraid: they don’t have a penis. But the liberated woman has no such fear.
She refers to these men who are afraid as “trembling Perseuses” (885). At first I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but I was curious. After all, this is the whole metaphor that gave her essay its title too. So I tried to familiarize myself with the stories of Perseus and Medusa to see how this all fits together.
I watched the movie, the 2010 film with Logan Lerman. I played the Medusa scenes multiple times to understand what was going on, with Cixous’s ideas in mind. I also read some other essays on the subjects. So let me try to break down what Cixous is referring to here.
Perseus, in the end, was the one who was able to kill Medusa. No one else before him had the wit or the guts to figure out how. Right? Simply looking her in the eye would turn a man to stone. So, of course people were afraid of her. But that’s not to say that Perseus was all courage and testicles. He was a kid, by most standards. He had his moments of cockiness, certainly, but he was also uncertain of himself at times. Of course, in the film, he was only learning his powers as he was experiencing all these adventures.
Anyway, Perseus ultimately stumbled on a way to defeat this most frightening of women, but it wasn’t with a swinging sword and bravado. It was with a mirror (or a cell phone, in the film), some sneakery, and shielded eyes.
So, Perseus was trembling. Why? Because he was afraid of this woman. In the metaphor Cixous hints at, Medusa represents women in general. And trembling Perseus, in ways the most fortitudinous of men, yet trembles. Why is it that men are so afraid of women? Fearful that even a glance at their beauty will strike them with paralysis? Women have such a sneaky power of their own, that erotic charm, that … je ne sais quoi. From the phallocentric view, this force is unexplainable. It eludes the concrete understanding of the masculine perspective. Thus, it is incredibly frightening. Particularly since if a man were to lose any bit of power or control, his very manhood would be threatened.
Understanding why Perseus trembles is part of it, but then we can also ask why is Medusa laughing? To my mind, Cixous sees her (and by extension all knowing women) as possessing a secret that men wished she did not know. Medusa understands that she has an incredible power over men. She understand’s that male superiority is a myth, and their fragile social control is one decisive gaze away from crumbling.
Man and His Titles
To quote again, “Unlike man, who holds so dearly to his title and his titles, … woman couldn’t care less about the fear of decapitation (or castration)” (888). Because woman is not defined by the phallus, she can be understood as a decentralized amalgamation. “If she is a whole, it’s a whole composed of parts that are wholes, not simple partial objects but a moving, limitlessly changing ensemble, a cosmos tirelessly traversed by Eros, an immense astral space not organized around any one sun that’s any more of a star than the others” (889). She has so much to give.
Despite focusing her complaint on the sparsity of writing about women, Cixous contends in a footnote that “men still have everything to say about their sexuality, and everything to write” (877). Although her plea is for women to write about women, her argument can be understood more broadly, that all of us ought to be more honest and open about our various sexualities. Additionally, lest one imagine that she is claiming that women better understand the sexual condition than men, such generalizations are just that: in fact, her few examples of good feminine writing include, prominently and notably, a man: Jean Genêt.
“By writing her self, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her” (880). This body of woman, this experience, this identity, is marked by desire, love, and generosity. It is unconcerned with profit, status, prominence. “Everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking” (893).
Cixous says that women need to express themselves, to make their voices heard, to take back some of the power over their own bodies from the phallocentric, patriarchal culture that has for so long and so successfully worked to control them.
That control is sometimes exerted directly against the female body, but these days it is more often exerted in more indirect ways. It seeks to control sexual desire, Eros, and even love. These characteristics become deviant, shameful, signs of weakness. They are suppressed in order to uplift the masculine characteristics of control, profit, and status. And women bear the brunt of the loss. And men are drawn away from these characteristics, identified as feminine, out of fear that they will lose their manhood. That they will be found lacking.
What kind of feminist am I? Feminism, in some ways, can be defined as simply as the promotion of feminine values. But if I am a feminist, I am the kind of feminist that sees those values not as exclusively feminine, but as essentially human. I believe that our phallocentric culture identifies certain values as feminine, thus diminishing their value. And in turn, women are diminished in value in the same way, through devaluing the things that actually make them valuable.
So my political goal, if I have one, is not to bolster the value of women exclusively, although that would certainly be an effect. Rather, I think we all need to better recognize the value of those characteristics that have traditionally been marginalized as feminine. I think we all need to work at understanding that love is not a weakness. Desire is not shameful. Profit, power, and status are not particularly useful goals or metrics of success. These are feminist ideals, at times, but to me they are human ideals. We clearly need to do better in our culture of valuing women, but I think we can do better by valuing all people in the same ways.
So, thanks for listening.
Once again, thanks to Joey Pecoraro for the delightful music. As I credit him I think of the traditional ways that consideration is given and that value is imparted when it comes to so-called intellectual property. Of course I’m speaking about money. Joey isn’t asking for any money for the use of his music, which is great because I don’t have any. I am not creating this podcast to make money. In fact, it costs me money personally to produce it, along with my time and energy. And that’s fine. It’s a small price to pay for hopefully the value of getting some useful information out into the world. But money does help. Joey is supporting an organization called The Trevor Project, and so in gratitude for his work, I want to encourage you to support the Trevor Project as well.
The Trevor Project exists to provide resources to LGBTQ young people who may have nowhere else to turn. If you like this podcast, or even if you don’t, please consider making a donation to The Trevor Project. Thank you!