Gender essentialism in “Laugh of the Medusa”

In “The Laugh of Medusa,” Helene Cixous argues that woman must “write her self” and that her progress, advancement, and representation can be achieved only “by her own movement” (875). In response to critics who point out structural and social barriers to women’s autonomy, she notes that while the “effects of the past are still with us” (i.e., remnants of patriarchal structures still exist in 1976 when this article was published), she refuses to “confuse the biological and the cultural” (874). In short, Cixous refuses to accept biological arguments we read about in Thomas Lacquer’s “Orgasm, Generation and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” among others, to justify historical restrictions upon women’s movements, most recently, via theories of separate spheres in the 19th and 20th centuries. Cixous then may be arguing that the root cause of women’s oppression—which had tended to be attributed to biology—were actually socialized, that is, they have been constructed and reproduced in various cultural environments, but are not “natural.” This becomes more clear later in the essay, in which she contends that “sexual opposition, which has always worked for man’s profit…is only a historical-cultural limit” (883). If we are to read this as a commentary on the nature v. nurture debates, then it seems that Cixous would argue that sex-based differences in power are due to nurture, not nature.

At other points in her piece, it seems that Cixous promotes a theory of gender essentialism,which has been described elsewhere as a view that women and men have “uniquely feminine and uniquely masculine essences which exist independent of cultural conditioning.” While there are some obvious biological differences between (cisgender) women and men, there are certain behavioral characteristics which Cixous claims that all women or all men share. Perhaps this is why she thinks it is acceptable to refer to women (a group) as Woman (an individual). Cixous writes that “in women there is always more or less of the mother that makes everything alright” and that “she is her own sister-daughter,” suggesting that nurturing is an innate feminine quality (881-882). Though she claims that it is “impossible to define a feminine practice of writing,” she argues that this “doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist,” thus, implying that is does, and going on to claim that distinctions between masculine and feminine writing are not recognized primarily due to “ignorance” (883). (Personally, I am skeptical of gender essentialist arguments because while they may vary culture to culture, nearly always, essentially masculine qualities are portrayed as superior to feminine ones, and because they ignore the great variety of gender expression and performance that feels comfortable for women, men, and people who don’t classify themselves in that binary.)

On the other hand,  Cixous also states that “men still have everything to say about their sexuality, and everything to write” and, correspondingly, that “almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity: about their sexuality, that is its infinite and mobile complexity” (885). This suggests that current understandings of gender and sexuality are flawed, and that there is much left to be explored, but that sexuality should be understood in gendered terms. Cixous argues that she lives in “a man’s world,” and that even the language she uses to write the essay has been composed in  “the language of men and their grammar” (887). While she may primarily be arguing that men should not presume to write for or about women, because they have historically done so, does her prescription here actually constrain further exploration of these terms by stating that men should study men and women should study women?

With these particular moments in mind, how are we to understand Cixous’s arguments? Are her arguments actually proposing a gender essentialism or is that a misinterpretation? Additionally, can gender essentialist arguments be considered empowering to women, or do they only benefit men because of what such views tend to prescribe as uniquely male qualities?

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2 thoughts on “Gender essentialism in “Laugh of the Medusa”

  1. I think your points about gender essentialism are really interesting and with the other points that we discussed in our class today, the arguments are even more complicated. The one question that I would begin with is, does Cixous define what it means to be woman/man?
    I guess the problem I had with her argument, as you pointed out, was the potential limits to encourage men to talk about men, and women to talk about women (although the argument is more complicated that this). What does it mean to be a man/woman and also to have that distinct gendered voice. How is it produced and what is it, essentially. I really don’t yet have a firm grasp of what a “woman’s voice” would be like and wonder if even Cixous has that firm grasp.

  2. I feel like maybe gender essentialist arguments could potentially empower women, but it is very easy for these arguments to fall apart and backfire, because they are very narrowly defined and absolute. I can’t help but think of what Butler would say in response to Cixous…

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