Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa” is a passionate call to action for women to write. In this essay, Cixous discusses why feminine writing has not been prevalent in the past, and why women should change this and unleash their potential through writing. Early on, Cixous compares women writing to masturbation because of the secrecy and forbidden nature of these acts and the way women engage in them just to curb the craving, and makes the first connection of feminine writing to the body and sex, which reappears throughout the paper. Cixous asserts that to women in society writing simultaneously feels too prestigious and too silly to engage in, and so few women write publicly. Cixous urges women not to let men, capitalism, or themselves get in the way of writing. Her argument is that the “truth” is produced by a phallocentric system, which gives men greater control over women because women are taught that women are dark and unknowable, and that they should fear this dark and feel shame or guilt for exerting any power, and therefore women work against themselves and each other, which contributes to the containment and repression of women and therefore feminine writing.
Since writing can bring about change, and women are held back from writing, the lack of feminine writing becomes cyclical. The number of female writers has always been small, and due to the phallocentric system women live in some women’s writing is the same as men’s writing, overlooking or stereotyping women and upholding the “truth” that men have established. Cixous encourages women to write because she says when a woman writes she takes control of history and reclaims her body, sexuality, pleasures, and strength. To illustrate the difficulty women face in speaking up, Cixous describes in detail the emotional and physical response to public speaking, and makes the connection that women’s speech is more connected to the individual personally than a man’s. All of this concern about feminine writing raises the obvious question: “What is feminine writing?” Cixous’ stance is that feminine writing cannot be defined except that by definition it surpasses phallocentric writing. She explains that some people consider all writing feminine, some consider it all masculine (and equivalent to masculine masturbation), and some consider it bisexual, which makes it effectively neuter. However, Cixous proposes that writing is in between. Definitions come from the boundaries, and this is where the feminine takes its form; masculine writing only trusts logic, but feminine writing embraces pathos, the unconscious, and the body. It is poetic and even transcendent. Throughout her writing, Cixous evokes emotion and uses poetic metaphors to associate women with nature, and therefore this essay itself provides an example of the pathos-centric feminine writing that could be possible if women listen to her manifesto. In discussing the difference between masculine writing and feminine writing, Cixous reminds readers of the theory that a man’s greatest fear is castration, because there is so much focus on the phallus, literally and figuratively. Where masculine sexuality is focused on the penis, feminine sexuality encompasses the whole body. Where the phallocentric system is narrow and limited only to the masculine and logos-oriented, the feminine is expansive and breaks out of the boundaries of masculine discourse. The feminine has been neglected because we are taught that women are dark and unexplorable, but though women contain powerful darkness and storms they also contain light and imagination. Medusa is not just alluring because of the fear she inspires; there is also beauty in her laughter.
In “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous argues for the growth and acceptance of feminine writing. Her use of emotion and poetic language makes this argument compelling because in addition to simply being a method of persuasion, these aspects also make the essay itself an example of the feminine writing Cixous champions.