Why The Laugh of the Medusa remains influential today
On the birthday of French feminist author Helene Cixous, here's a look at how her best-known essay still resonates today.
Helene Cixous' call is clear: “Woman must write her self.” Even if some of the post-structuralist and theoretical references in "The Laugh of the Medusa" can feel challenging for unversed readers, the essay by the French feminist author is filled with striking, empowering quotes.
It remains essential reading, especially for any young woman hoping to become an author: "Write, let no one hold you back, let nothing stop you: not man; not the imbecilic capitalist machinery, in which publishing houses are the crafty, obsequious relayers of imperatives handed down by an economy that works against us and off our backs; and not yourself."
A pioneer of feminist studies in Europe
Born on June 5, 1937, in French Algeria to Jewish parents, Cixous became known for her experimental writing style, covering many genres: theater, literary and feminist theory, art criticism, autobiography and poetic fiction.
In 1974, Cixous established Europe's first center for women's studies at the University of Paris VIII, a public and experimental university which she also co-founded as a direct response to the French student riots of May 1968.
The essayist, novelist and playwright has published over 70 works and is seen as a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Her most influential article remains "The Laugh of the Medusa," which was originally published in French under the title "Le Rire de la Meduse" in 1975, and was translated into English by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen in 1976.
On masturbation and writing
Even though the literary landscape has considerably evolved since the 1970s, with more women authors being published and gaining recognition in recent years, "The Laugh of the Medusa" is an important reminder that over millennia, our Western cultural heritage has been defined through the male perspective.
Cixous argues that woman's abasement has been defined by how we have been "colonized" by "phallogocentric" thinking. The author builds on ideas developed by fellow Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). He was the one who coined the term "phallogocentrism," which refers to the focus given to the masculine point of view through language.
While she rejects our culture's imposed patriarchal narratives, Cixous' essay is equally filled with juicy phallic references, such as: "The act of writing is equivalent to masculine masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis)."
For the feminist author, there is a direct connection between freeing woman's writing and the liberation of their personal sexuality, as both woman's writing and masturbation were too long associated with shame; they could only be done in secret, and accompanied by a feeling of guilt.
Revisiting the myth of the Medusa
The essay refers to the Greek myth of Medusa, a monster with venomous snakes for hair, whose gaze turned men to stone.
For Cixous, men's narrative portrayals of Medusa — a symbol of seduction and power — turned her into a symbol of the threat of castration. Medusa represented their 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 battle men take up against women. Medusa was one of three Gorgons [powerful, winged daemons], the daughters of Phorkys and Keto. She was the only mortal among them. Men 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 men? Because she saw the men. The latter did not have the time to see her," she added.
Medusa and freeing women's hair in Iran
"Men do not want to see women and they put veils over them so that they become invisible, like phantoms. It is terrible to what extent women have been veiled, even in daily life," Cixous said in the DW interview focusing on women's protests in Iran. "Yet women are not objects, not veiled dolls. They are radiant. They are beautiful. My Medusa has traveled around the world. Right now she is obviously in Iran."
The feminist author was initially hesitant to speak on behalf of women fighting for their rights in Iran:
"Of course, I ask myself whether I can legitimately comment 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 told me, why don't you do something? Speak! If you speak, the local people will hear. It is important for me to say, I heard you."
Meanwhile, Medusa has been widely adopted by feminists and the #MeToo movement as a symbol of rage and the protector of women's secrets.
Cixous has also revisited her own text in a 2010 republication of the French original with a new foreword, exploring the idea of Medusa as a queer body, which is another reason why the essay remains widely quoted to this day.
"You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her," writes Cixous. "And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing."
The DW interview with Helene Cixous was conducted by Lisa Louis in December 2022
Edited by: Brenda Haas