A Critique of Phallocentrism: Helene Cixous, “the Laugh of Medusa” (key concepts and quotes)


Introductory notes:

  • Helen Cixous: French feminist writer and philosopher
  • Her work is often considered as being deconstructive and of poststructuralist mode
  • Cixous wrote during the mid-70s, during the period of second wave feminism that was primarily concerned with the economic, social and economic limitations placed upon women
  • Her writing focuses upon the relationship between language and sexuality
  • Influences include: Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Sigmund Freud
  • Phallocentrism: the idea that woman exists separated from her body and desires. The phallus is the desired and the concept is dependent upon a ‘he has’ ‘she lacks’ binary.
  • Cixous’s article The Laugh of Medusa was translated from French to English in 1976. The highly metaphorical article proposes the idea of l’ecriture feminine, of women using her body as a means of communication and as a way to assert herself into “the text – as into the world and into history” (NATC 1942)

Key concepts: (note that when Cixous refers to ‘woman’ she is referring to the “universal woman subject” and her “struggle against conventional man”) (1943)

  1. Cixous seeks to destroy the prison of sexual impudence
  2. She urges women NOT to identify themselves in relation to men
  3. Before woman can write herself into a new type of text that liberates as oppose to merely oppressing further, she must discover where her own sexual pleasure is located. This will debunk mythology that suggests woman is defined by what she lacks (the phallus).
  4. She argues that the entire history of writing has been one of “phallocentric tradition” and that woman is yet to be given her turn
  5. Cixous asserts a solution. Her solution is the concept of l’ecriture feminine, this is female writing that communicates a new language, this language isn’t restricted by the ‘traditional’ binaries of woman and man, passive and active etc. This language is one whereby woman reconnects with the body that has been “confiscated” from her from the typical “masculine – economy” that has previously governed literature. This language is woman using her body as ink, or as Cixous suggests writing in “white ink” which is a metaphor she uses to further assert the importance of reunion, for just like female presentation of herself in writing, the maternal body is a place whereby lack and separation is overruled by connection and wholesomeness.

Key quotes:

“I wished that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire” (1943)

“Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it” (1943)

“Woman must write woman. And man, man.” (1944)Cixous notes that man still has everything to say about his sexuality, that he (in the universal sense) is encouraged to view l’ecriture feminine as opportunity for a redefinition of binary opposition that he can benefit from.

“Woman will return to the body that has been more than confiscated from her” (1946)

“the act of writing Is equivalent to masculine masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis)” (1950)

“they riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the abyss” (1951) – note that in Freudian terms female sexuality is seem as a “dark continent”, as a place of fearsome riddle, as a black hole whereby the penis may disappear. The reference to Medusa refers women as being coherent with the fear of castration.

“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” (1951) – Cixous suggests that beauty is no longer to be forbidden as Medusa’s was.

Men say that there are two unpresentable things: death and the feminine sex. That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death” (1951)

“women must write through their bodies, they must invent the impregnable language that will wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations, and codes” (1952)

“sweeping away syntax” (1952) – (activity of female writing referred to with a an allusion to the story of Theseus led out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth by Ariadne’s thread)

her language does not contain, it carries; it does not hold back, it makes possible.” (1955)

“When pregnant, the woman not only doubles her market value, but – takes on intrinsic value as a woman in her own eyes and, undeniably, acquires body, and sex” (1957) to Cixous motherhood is a major catalyst for writing -(back to Freud again)  to Cixous giving birth is proof that women know how to live without fear of detachment or ‘castration’.

“Besides, isn’t it obvious that the penis gets around in my texts, that I give it a place and appeal? Of course I do. I want all. I want all of me with all of him.” (1957)

“In one another we will never be lacking” (1959)

A final concept… woman has always existed as being within a male discourse, she must invent her own language in which to function.


Works Cited

Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of Medusa”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc. 2010. 1942-1959. Print.

Image cited from www.parfumdelivres.niceboard.com


2 thoughts on “A Critique of Phallocentrism: Helene Cixous, “the Laugh of Medusa” (key concepts and quotes)

  1. Wow! I really loved this! And your blog is such a treasure for me, being in the process of unbecoming and becoming all at once. May I be unwritten as who I was, and may I, tabula rosa, continue to have riches such as your blog with which to write woman.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s