This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.
Written in French in 1975 and published in English in Signs journal the following summer, The Laugh of the Medusa (Le Rire de la Meduse) remains the most influential text by feminist theorist Hélène Cixous. A powerful call for women to engage with their own bodies and document the experiences that came with them, creating a new écriture feminine that would lead to social change, it combined poetic prose and post-modern philosophy with activism.
Born in Algeria in 1937, Cixous was the daughter of a Jewish French colonialist father and Austro-German mother, with German as her first language. She went to school in France and shortly after the uprising of May 1968, co-founded the Université de Paris VIII as a challenge to the traditional academic establishment. Its faculty included such thinkers as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, loosely grouped as ‘post-Structuralist’ due to their shared interests in textual analysis, alternatives to orthodox Marxism, and the assumptions, ideas and power relations inherent in language. Essays such as Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author proposed that works could have many meanings, not always intended by their writers, and after the failed revolutions in France, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere, more theorists examined the domination and suppression that came with ideologies and their supporting texts.
Like many before her, especially the French Surrealists, Cixous drew on Marx and Freud, being interested in political and libidinal challenges to traditional structures of power. A novelist and playwright as well as a critical theorist, she was also influenced by post-war literature by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute and others which experimented with plot, time and description of the material world, often exploring the interior consciousness of their narrators through detailed descriptions of physical objects. Aiming to combine the Surrealist belief in the power of writing, psychoanalysis and radicalism with post-Structuralist and nouveau roman alternatives to conventional political order and literary styles, The Laugh of the Medusa was a manifesto for women to free themselves from the patriarchal stranglehold over intellectual culture.
The Enlightenment discourse, with its claims to objectivity and rationality, had been questioned between the world wars but became untenable after them. Cixous encouraged women not to write in this style, instead engaging more personally with their readers, linking her rebellion against linear, climactic texts that reproduced phallocentric sexuality with her celebration of women’s more numerous erogenous zones. In this, and in advocating the discussion of menstruation, lactation, pregnancy and clitoral pleasure, she avoided the trap of casting conventions set by men as gender-neutral, and suggested a more exploratory alternative to that brand of 1970s feminism which struggled to talk about sex, but came close to suggesting that women reinforce ideas of themselves as intuitive, irrational, and overly concerned with emotional and personal issues. But for Cixous, as for many of her contemporaries, the personal was political, as female bodies and sexualities had been discussed far more by men – not least the Surrealists – than women.
Telling writers that they should not be held back by ‘the imbecilic capitalist machinery’ of the publishing industry, Cixous called for feminism, socialism and queer politics to work together. Rather than undermining the class struggle, militant women would ‘push it forward’ to prevent it ‘from operating as a form of repression’ or a ‘pretext for postponing … the staggering alteration in power relations’. This is a lesson still not learned by political parties which dismiss allegations of sexual misconduct against senior figures as derailments of their programmes, on the socialist left as much as elsewhere.
In its third paragraph, The Laugh of the Medusa displayed an awareness that it formed a starting position, not an endpoint, asserting that ‘since these reflections are taking shape in an area just on the point of being discovered, they necessarily bear the mark of our time’. Certainly, Cixous’ connection of the establishment of women’s writing with the exploration of a metaphorical ‘dark’ Africa feels Orientalist and appropriative, and her heightened focus on the body means that she could be accused of having an essentialist view of womanhood, with the essay only considering differences of race, nation, class, ability, sexual orientation or gender identity in passing, if at all.
But Cixous was aware of the problems of generalisation, asserting that there was no typical womanhood, and Barbara Biesecker has argued that Cixous’ use of the body is a rhetorical strategy, encouraging women to focus on how both content and form of their work might relate to their selves. She walks a difficult line, but Cixous is right to say that just because it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing does not mean it doesn’t exist. Her focus on the body is of its time – plenty of 1970s artists, male and female, made it central to their work, and perhaps a better approach is to write about the experiences that come with female presentation, building on those of Angela Carter in The Passion of New Eve (1977), a novel about a man forced to live as a woman, or Sandy Stone in The Empire Strikes Back: A Post-Transsexual Manifesto (1987), which encouraged trans authors to explore spaces between traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’.
Femaleness, femininity and womanhood, and their intersections, have been reconsidered and redefined by numerous writers since The Laugh of the Medusa first appeared, but although plenty of women since have acted on Cixous’ text, many still labour under the burden of representation, particularly if they come from minority backgrounds, and further writing that follows her principles would relieve this. Women’s experiences constantly change, and sexism and misogyny reassert themselves in new ways as a response, but the tactics that Cixous offers are endlessly adaptable, and as powerful a call to creative activity as they were forty years ago.