Helene Cixous, born in 1937 is a French feminist. She along with Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva and various other feminists are part of what is called “French Feminism,” not by their fact of being born in France, but by them being sharing the ideas of feminism propagated by feminists in France in 1960s, who have been highly influenced by the works of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and many others.
They all were highly influenced by theories of post-structuralism and psychoanalysis. These French feminists like Cixous both used and critiqued the ideas of such theories to question and challenge the male hegemony.
The ideas of Derrida was used to critique the notion of binaries and the very nature of language, meaning and the way language plays a heavy role in the subordination of women, as majority of the concepts and ideas are prejudiced against women and are socially and culturally constructed by male hegemony to keep women under perpetual state of subordination.
All these French feminists put great emphasis on women’s physiology and how this can help and guide women’s writing in a way that it can set itself free from the constraints of patriarchal prejudices. Cixous seminal work was titled as The laugh of Medusa and Sorties both of which were published in 1975.
Cixous coins the concept of écriture feminine, translated as feminine writing in English. In this work The laugh of Medusa, Cixous uses psychoanalysis, inspired by the work of Lacan as mentioned above, to interpret the Greek mythology in a manner that challenges the patriarchal hegemony.
This work is written in the form of poetry and the intention of Cixous is to break the structural norms of logic and argumentation set by patriarchy and instead preferring a poetic medium, that is more imaginative and isn’t bound by the limits of prosaic logic, and hence in this we witness the rebel of Cixous against boundaries set on women by patriarchy.
Through this work, Cixous is urging women to write extensively, as this is the platform that can change the history, oppose the male hegemony that has suppressed them and kept them away from such art.
Cixous want women to write in a unique manner, using a pro-female language that celebrates womanhood, their body and sexuality which have been repressed over the centuries.
Cixous uses the Greek myth of monster Medusa, who has been depicted as a fierce, ugly woman, full of rage and has snakes instead of hairs on her head, to argue that this narrative of Medusa have been distorted by patriarchal man to depict woman who has desires as dangerous and ugly, contrary to the beautiful, loyal and virgin princess that is adored by them.
Cixous critiques this very notion where women are either portrayed as the monster like Medusa or as an “unexplored abyss” an idea proposed by Freud where he insinuates women as beings who are negative of what men stand for- they are shown as lacking beings (lacking penis), the mystery of their nature can’t be explored or understood.
This is what Cixous wants women to be, to be rebellious in nature that defies all boundaries and structure that patriarchy wants to restraint women in.
Cixous uses the metaphor of the laugh of Medusa as a tool to reject the very idea of truth, binaries that are deeply ingrained in western patriarchal thoughts as she says that “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing”
This laugh, as explained above, is the laugh of a rebellious woman against male tyranny in any form whatsoever. For Cixous the goal of this feminine writing, that she wants women to write with full vigour and freedom is to “smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the ‘truth’ and that too in way as manifested in the demythified version of Medusa with a laughter.
The primary focus of Cixous and writing is on the female body and their parts which as she writes, “Woman must write herself, and must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.” She further reiterates her point by saying to women, “Write your self. Your body must be heard.”