Helene Cixous and the Sexualization of Writing

In “The Laugh of the Medusa”, Helene Cixous writes about the power of women writing and how they must do so to assert themselves. She makes comparisons between writing and masturbation, and she speaks of the desire to write in an almost sexualized manner: “This practice [of imagination]…in particular as concerns masturbation, is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms…I wished that that woman would write and proclaim this unique empire so that other women…might exclaim: I, too, overflow; my desire have invented new desires, my body knows unheard-of songs. Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst” (876). Cixous speaks of expression the way one would speak of erotic passion: she writes of overflowing desires, of outbursts, of feeling a shameful sickness for having these “funny” desires stirring inside of her.

Later, Cixous elaborates on this thought to say that writing itself is sexualized: “It will usually be said, thus disposing of a sexual difference,: either that all writing, to the extent that it materializes, is feminine; or, inversely—but it comes to the same thing—that the act of writing is equivalent to masculine masturbation (and so the woman who writes cuts herself out a paper penis); or that writing is bisexual, hence neuter, which again does away with differentiation” (883). But must writing be sexual at all? Calling it bisexual doesn’t “do away with differentiation,” as Cixous says, it just means it’s equally sexualized. Also, I’m curious as to why Cixous says that writing is equivalent to masculine masturbation, but the feminine equivalent is simply that writing is feminine. Perhaps I’m picking apart her words too closely, but I don’t understand why, is this is what she’s saying, it’s only considered masturbation in regards to men but not women. How is it that the woman who writes “cut herself out a paper penis”? This angers me because it should not be the case—writing, and any from of expression, should not be so (masculinely) sexualized that doing so is, in a sense, giving oneself a penis.

Perhaps this is why Cixous keeps urging women to write throughout her text, to take this art back from men: “Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it. I know why you haven’t written…because writing is at once too high, too great for you, it’s reserved for the great—that is, for “great men”; and it’s ‘silly’.” (876). Cixous has this same sense of urgency and passion running throughout the text, pointing out how women not only have the right to write as much as men do, but that they should (also, on a side note, I find it interesting that writing used to be a male art, yet now it’s very feminized). 

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4 thoughts on “Helene Cixous and the Sexualization of Writing

  1. I found this unexplained contradiction in Cixous a bit frustrating, too. She urges women to write, yet finds the way writing is structured to be too masculine and doesn’t seem to clearly provide an avenue through which women can truly affirm themselves through writing. She says that “feminine texts” women write will allow them to reclaim their bodies, but says the feminine text is undefinable. I was unsure, then, how a woman could possibly know for sure that she’s writing a feminine text and not just simply imitating “masculine writing.”

    As for the woman who “cuts herself out a paper penis,” perhaps Cixous is saying specifically that the ACT of writing as it currently is is masculinely sexualized (whereby she says men write because they feel the need to hold on to their name, legacy, etc.), and not that writing itself (as an action simply of putting words to paper) is inherently sexualized.

    As for writing as a male art, I’m not sure if it’s wholly feminized today. It seems to me, at least, that writing as a “hobby” is what’s feminized, and writing as a “profession” is still a domain dominated by men.

    • I think I would push against the idea of the writing profession as masculine. While the numbers many lean one way or another, I feel like writing is becoming more and more separated from the author. I don’t know if this is something that happens with current writing and then later becomes more defined as masculine or feminine in hindsight, or if there’s an actual shift to divorcing the writer from this works. This train of thought reminds me of Barthes’ Death of the Author and whether it’s applicable in this situation.

      However, I do agree that Cixous presents this goal for women but refuses to offer a plan for how to achieve that goal, and I think that this is a problem that we often encounter.

    • That’s a good point, the act of writing could be masculinely sexualized because of how it is used–for power. But I do think that is it feminized today, both as a hobby and a profession. Maybe it differs in what kind of professional writing: journalism, for instance, seems to be more heavily male, while creative writing, memoirs, poetry and the like seem to be heavily female, to the point that male authors have been accused of having an advantage in the industry.
      Perhaps during the time Cixous wrote this (70s) writing was still considered a male art because they were the ones who were better educated, who were in the working world, who were allowed to assert themselves and express themselves. I kept thinking about Simone De Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” and though she doesn’t have the same sense of urgency that I think Cixous does, she analyzes and critiques women’s place in society in order to mobilize them to claim their place in the work force and in society as independent, strong individuals. I think the two readings complement each other a lot, actually.

      • I agree with the last comment, but I think that Cixous’ argument about female experience with masturbation and how that should translate to text has more holes in it than her argument about writing as masculinised.

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