The concept of Ecriture Feminine in Helene Cixous’s "The Laugh of the Medusa"

Essay 2012 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The need of a new feminine way of writing
2.1. The historical context of Cixous’s essay
2.2. Helene Cixous as a representative of the poststructuralist movement
2.3. The concepts of Phallocentrism and Logocentrism

3. Characteristics of Ecriture Feminine
3.1. The issue of the female body and sexuality
3.2. Characteristics of Ecriture Feminine

4. Criticism

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Take-Home - Exam answers

1. Introduction

In the year 1975 the French feminist author Helene Cixous published an essay called “The Laugh of the Medusa”. In it, she develops an entirely new theoretical concept with the aim of giving rise to feminist voice. The central ideas of Ecriture Feminine, literally “women’s writing”, are going to be presented in this paper. In the first part, a brief description of Cixous’s intellectual milieu is given in order to show the actual reason that led her to come up with a new notion of liberating women from patriarchy. In this context, an elaboration on poststructuralism, the philosophical current Cixous belonged to, follows. Closely related to that is the authors skepticism towards Sigmund Freud’s language philosophy. Specifically speaking, Freud’s statements on the penis envy theory. Primary attention is paid to the theory ofphallocentrism, which can be seen as one of the main reasons for Cixous’s writings. For a better understanding of this term, the concept of logocentrism is also explained, as well. Logocentrism can be seen as a pillar of the theory of phallocentrism and therefore it deserves to be mentioned at this point.

In the second part, we deal with the question of what is actually meant by “women’s writing”. Furthermore, we will analyze which role the female body and sexuality plays in this context. This excursion is highly interesting as it is crucial for the understanding of her concept. Since the female body is considered a key for women to resist masculinist thinking and, hence, the systematic repression of women.[1] Apart from that, we try to show whether features of Ecriture Feminine are evident in the “The Laugh of the Medusa”. Moreover, a different viewpoint on Cixous’s theory is shown in the chapter “Criticism” in which arguments for and against her theory are shown. In point five “Conclusion” the main aspects of this paper are summed up.

When writing this paper, the main source of information were essays on women’s writing and French feminist writing, dating from 1987[2] to 1986[3]. Besides, secondary literature on literary and cultural theory as well as feminist practice and poststructuralist theory were used. Recent research on Cixous’s work, however, could not be found. The only source dealing particularly with her writings dates from 1991.[4]

2. The need of a new feminine way of writing

2.1. The historical context of Cixous’s essay

Helene Cixous was part of the French feminist movement which had significantly grown since 1968 when the frustration and anger at the exclusion of women from the political institutions became apparent.[5] At that time, women have also been excluded from public discourse, in general. Feminists were convinced that language reflects this kind of exclusion and that their presence in literature would change existing power relations. Their aim was to be heard as women within a female discourse rather than women as subjects of male discourse.[6] In the consequence, the idea of a feminine-defined writing practice emerged.[7] [8] This way of writing should become a starting point for a female consciousness as well as a means of subverting the system of patriarchy in society. Cixous puts this goal quite nicely saying that “[_]women must bring to surface what masculine history has repressed in them.”[9] Cixous tried to change the field of literary production which is part of the cultural system. Since the cultural system is deeply political, her attempt to change it is clearly a political act.[10]

2.2. Helene Cixous as a representative of the poststructuralist movement

In the 1970s Cixous was considered to be one of the most influential representatives of the poststructuralist theory. We speak about a theory that “analyzes the patriarchal structures of society and the positions that we occupy within them”[11]. Orientating towards this theory, Cixous wanted the public to understand, why women tolerate social relations which eventually subordinate their interests to those of men.[12] Furthermore, she focused on the way in which texts construct meanings and its political implications, both by looking back on the past and by examining the present.[13] In doing so, she deals with language and representation as well as philosophical issues. Speaking about the latter, Cixous directs her criticsm at Sigmund Freud’s theory of penis envy:

The woman who still allows herself to be threatened by a big dick, who’s still impressed by the commotion of the phallic stance, who still leads a loyal master to the beat of the drum: that’s the woman of yesterday (p.20)

In her opinion, Freud lays the foundation for a precarious biological discrimination and prejudice against women. The reason for her criticism is Freud’s statement that women are generally envious of men due to the fact that they were not born with a penis. Freud added that women’s sexuality is, therefore, characterized by the longing for a penis, a process in which women are naturally doomed to be inferior to men. He goes even further by assuming that this inferiority may also be the reason for the small number of cultural achievements by women. This said, Freud, amongst other men, has created a system in which women are repressed due to a masculine style that is predominant in the realm of writing.

2.3. The concepts of phallocentrism and logocentrism

This notion is also known as phallocentrism, coined by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Speaking of which, Cixous argues that:

Nearly the entire history of writing is confounded with the history of reason, of which it is at once the effect, the support, and one of the privileged alibis. It has been one with the phallocentric tradition. It is, indeed, the same self- admiring, self-stimulating, self-congratulatory phallocentrism.[14] The term phallocentrism seeks to combine the notion of the phallus with the concept of logocentrism. Logocentrism emphasizes the privileged role of logos, i.e. speech, and claims that speech has been accorded in the Western tradition. Furthermore, logocentrism refers to the prioritization of the logical language, meaning the way men use to express themselves. Hence, it deems every kind of other language, including women’s language, to be marginal and insignificant.[15] Merging phallus with logocentrism to phallocentrism one gets an entirely new meaning. Phallocentrism is a form of logocentrism but strongly influenced by the male gender and the male concept of patriarchy. In response to this theory, Cixous urges women to become more dominant in the field of literature by using their sexuality:

When women, historically limited to being sexual objects for men have been prevented from expressing their sexuality in itself or for themselves. If they can do this and if they can speak about it in the new languages it calls for, they will establish a point of view from which phallogocentric concepts and controls can be seen through and taken apart.[16]

3. Characteristics of Ecriture Feminine

3.1. The issue of the female body and sexuality

As just quoted, Cixous believes that the expression of female sexuality in literature is essential in order to break the deadlock of masculinist writing. As regards female sexuality, she counters Freud’s theory of penis envy with the argument that women are not focused on just one object, namely the penis. In the consequence, the female libido is not restricted and is, therefore, more sophisticated than men’s sexuality. At this point we have to remind ourselves that Cixous leaves the ground of logical discourse and speaks in highly metaphorical terms and psychoanalytical terminology.[17] She does that because she views metaphor as a means to 18 release the feminine from the bonds ofphallogecentric language:[18]

Though masculine sexuality gravitates around the penis,[...] woman does not bring about the same regionalization which serves the couple head/genitals and which is inscribed only within boundaries. Her libido is cosmic[...] (p.17)

This statement suggests a “cosmic” superiority in women’s sexuality in comparison to “phallic single-mindedness”[19]. Besides, she argues that the subject of female sexuality has always been repressed by men and should, therefore, be a starting point for a new female discourse. Her appeal to find a language that can “speak the body”[20] means that women should start to contemplate their relationship to their body. They should orientate towards the multiple sexual impulses of their body to find a liberating way of writing.

3.2. Characteristics of Ecriture Feminine

As the female libido features a huge variety of impulses, women’s writing should look like an ecstatic torrent of words.[21] However, Cixous herself fails to specify how such writing should look like in the long run.


[1] Ann Rosalind Jones:”Writing the body: Toward an Understanding of “L’Ecriture Feminine”, Feminist Studies, Vol.7, no. 2 (Summer, 1981), p. 1.

[2] Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987)

[3] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction To Literary And Cultural Theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002)

[4] Morag Shiach, Helene Cixous: A Politics of writing(London: Routledge,1991)

[5] Cf. Shiach, p. 27

[6] Diane Griffin Crowder:”Amazons and mothers? Monique Wittig, Helene Cixous and theories of Women’s Writing”, Contemporary Literature, Vol.24, no. 2, L’Ecriture Feminine (Summer, 1981), p. 126.

[7] Carola Hilfrich, Helene Cixous: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cixous-helene

[8] Cf. Jones, p. 248.

[9] Robyn R. Warhol , Feminisms: An Anthology of literary theory and Criticism (Massachusetts: Rutgers University Press, 1997), p.374.

[10] Cf. Shiach, 27.

[11] Cf. Weedon, p.12.

[12] Cf. Weedon, p. 12.

[13] Cf. Weedon, p. 166.

[14] Cf. Warhol, p.350.

[15] Dermod Moran, Introduction to phenomenology, (London: Routledge,2002), p. 448.

[16] Cf. Jones, p. 248.

[17] Brigitte Heymann, Textform und weibliches Selbstverständnis: Die Romane von Helene Cixous und Chantal Chawaf, (Weinheim: Deutscher Studien Verlag, 1991), p. 45.

[18] Cf. Crowder, p. 142.

[19] Cf. Jones, p.251.

[20] Andrea Nye,”French Feminism and Philosophy of Language”, nous, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1986 a.P.A. Central Division Meetings (Mar., 1986), p. 47.

[21] Cf. Crowder, p. 135.


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Title: The concept of Ecriture Feminine in Helene Cixous’s "The Laugh of the Medusa"