Reading cixous’ “the laugh of the medusa”
In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Helene Cixous calls for the need for women to write themselves. She uses “women” metaphorically and literally; metaphorically meaning women as a collective existence and consciousness, and literally as the female body. “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a difficult piece to read because it is essentially a period text – it was written in a time and in a context when women enjoyed very little freedom and right to express themselves. However, it is important to pose the question – what is the role of language in expressing what is essentially feminine? What does Cixous mean with women writing themselves?
Cixous questions the scarcity of women’s work in the body of literature, and explains this phenomenon with the equation of silence as feminine. To fully understand her rhetoric, we must first analyze what she means by language and her understanding of the world. Cixous draws from Lacanian and Freudian theories to explain the symbolic order of meaning – a world of concrete rites, rituals, regulations dominated by the masculine – and how this oppresses women and silences them. Since we live in a world of symbolic order of binary opposites, of man/woman, activity/passivity, speech/silence, and make corresponding alignments and value judgments of man-activity-speech vis-à-vis female-passivity-silence, this puts the woman in a position that effectively tells her how to behave and robs her of her voice to express herself. Her position in society is a receiver – as dictated by her sex. The phallus is seen as powerful, imbued with strength, singularity and clarity. In contrast, the vagina is seen as passive and weak, hidden, silenced. Hence, Cixous says that the language we use cannot fully explain the feminine because it is dominated by the masculine – it is phallogocentric. If the language we use to communicate is inherently “masculine”, can the woman then write as a woman, or eternally express herself as a man? Men write with their penises; what do women write with?
For Cixous, a woman must write with a female-centered sexuality. To do so, she must first figure out the center of her pleasure, she must embrace her body as a whole and look deep into herself and not be ashamed as society taught her to be. She should go back to her Mother Tongue, the language of the womb, that uses no spoken or written words designed my men, but with intuition, from whence all individuals started from. She should not be ashamed of her intuitiveness, the language of her body, her inherent qualities. She should acknowledge the things that give her pleasure, and assert her desires and thoughts as rightful and legitimate – that she is not just passive, not an object, but rather a human being with a mind and body as well, a mind and body that is different from a man but in no way inferior in any respect. The woman should own her body, and feel every crevice and crease, every fold and part of it, and be able to breathe its experience if she wants to be able to write about herself, and for other women. Cixous intricately links the awareness of the female body with the female consciousness, and with good reason. The female is defined by her gender – her body is the vessel by which she experiences the world. It is crucial in the way she learns about the world, it is therefore imperative that she knows about her body so she can build her weaponry – her body, senses, and mind – and be a good fighter. And fight the woman must, to break the hold of masculine dominance that perpetuates their marginalization.
At the heart of Cixous’ text is Medusa, the embodiment of the female body and feminine power. Medusa, in Greek mythology, turns anyone who looks at her into stone. The snakes in her head are interpreted as phalluses, signifying her power. Are men afraid of the female body because of the power that women hold within them? The woman’s sex organ is more than just the vagina – it has the vulva, the labia, and the clitoris. The woman can derive pleasure from more than just one; the woman, in this sense, is not as clear-cut as her male counterpart, instead she represents multiplicity. Her language transcends the singular meaning of words – she speaks in metaphors, her language is flowing and imaginative. Medusa symbolizes all that is feminine and all that a woman has in her – the image of subtle power out in the open, as signified by the snakes on her head, the many images of phallus. Yet, one could question, why Medusa? Why use the image of the snakes and the phallus to show a woman’s strength? Does it not undermine and ultimately defeat the purpose of women writing themselves by describing male-related signifiers?
The reader can interpret this image with Cixous using the language prevalent to get her point across. It will be difficult to make her message known if she created an ultimately different language. What should not get lost is the message that she seeks to impart – to make feminine consciousness present, and heard of. The multiplicity and uniqueness of female experience should be known. Medusa is a goddess whom we should look straight at, and see that we have nothing to be scared of, for she is not out there to turn us into stone but to freed language and consequently all the men and women bound in its wrappings.
What Cixous is calling for, is for the woman to use her voice to tell her experience, to write, to break away from the snare of silence. Medusa is laughing; there is nothing to be scared of.