Raquelle K. Bostow is currently a PhD Candidate in the Department of French & Italian at Vanderbilt University. She is completing her dissertation, “Dangerous and Endangered: Female Bodies in Contemporary French Studies,” which examines narratives that unravel in France and the Middle East in order to consider how sexual opposition demonstrates an association of the (biological) female and feminine (gender) with a theoretical or physical death, and, more importantly, how such “myths” are being rewritten. She is also Managing Editor of the website Wonders and Marvels, and lover of yoga, meditation and all things food-related.
On peut leur apprendre, dès qu’elles commencent à parler, en même temps que leur nom, que leur région est noire, parce que tu es Afrique, tu es noire. Ton continent est noir. Le noir est dangereux. Dans le noir tu ne vois rien, tu as peur. Ne bouge pas car tu risques de tomber. Surtout ne va pas dans la forêt. Et l’horreur du noir, nous l’avons intériorisée.
Hélène Cixous, “Le Rire de la Méduse ” 41 (1975)
As soon as they begin to speak, at the same time as they’re taught their name, they can be taught that their territory is black: because you are Africa, you are black. Your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can’t see anything in the dark, you’re afraid. Don’t move, you might fall. Most of all, don’t go into the forest. And so we have internalized this horror of the dark.
“The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, 877-878 (1976)
Dangerous, dark, obscure, unknown. Hélène Cixous did not mince words when she published “Le Rire de la Méduse” (“The Laugh of the Medusa) in 1975, where she claimed that these were the descriptors inscribed on the female body and psyche. Not only was Cixous revolutionary in her efforts to talk about a “dangerous” subject matter, the female body, women’s writing, and the need for love of the “Other,” but her call for such discussion was situated in a politically-tense time and a daring venue. “Le Rire de la Méduse” appeared as part of the aftermath of the events of May 1968, when factory workers and students spurred monumental revolts in France to fight against capitalism and oppressive institutions. These political events, which in part demanded the recognition of sexual inequality and the freedom of sexual expression, helped to spur the differentialist feminism movement in 1970s. Within this essay, Cixous exposes the patriarchal idea of women as mysterious, dangerous, and inferior, and explodes the idea of sexual difference by proposing a new meaning for the “feminine.” Ironically, Cixous’s “Le Rire de la Méduse” was published in an edition of a small French review (L’Arc) focusing on the work of Simone de Beauvoir, who held a universalist view quite different from Cixous’s differentialist text. To everyone’s surprise, nestled within this edition of L’Arc was a manifesto for a new feminism that focused on the acceptance of difference (of others and of self) rather than reaching equality through sameness.
To make this call for the writing of female bodies and for a new economy — a new way of interacting with humans that escaped the possessive, colonizing, defining tendencies of patriarchy —, Cixous summoned the Medusa. Misunderstood as a tragic beauty that embodied death, Medusa had been recorded in History as a Gorgon raped by Poseidon, punished by Athena, and conquered by Perseus. Crowned with venomous serpents and endowed with a fatal gaze, the monstrous Medusa stands out as an interesting historical figure because she has survived the centuries as a symbol of seduction and power, as muse, feminist and castration threat. As Garber and Vickers note in their study of this figure, “The most canonical writers (Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Shelley) have invoked her story and sung both her praise and her blame.” One of the most notable body parts of the Medusa is her snaky hair, which has been interpreted both as a representation of the phallus and of pubic hair, making Medusa’s head a castrating, metaphoric vulva. In Cixous’s interpretation of the myth, Perseus feared Medusa because of her power to petrify and to kill; consequently, he appropriated her body to use it for his own purposes.
In the Greek myth, Perseus kept Medusa’s slain head to use it as a weapon against his foes. He then passed this ophidian head on to the goddess Athena, who also used it as a weapon: “The first and most ancient of armorial signs is the head of Medusa, often emblazoned on a proud warrior’s breastplate as well as on his shield. Medusa’s head thus becomes apotropaic, literally warding off or turning away the evils it embodies” (Garber and Vickers 2). Medusa’s troublesome authority placed her in a state of endangerment that led to her demise, though her menacing authority would surpass the death of her physical body to live on in the myth itself and through numerous cultural reinterpretations.
To de-naturalize conceptions of the female body as dangerous, Cixous unravels the relationship between sexual difference and fear through the Medusa. Medusa as femme fatale represents a delusion of the male gaze motivated by a fear of “castration,” or a loss of identity and authority. Contrary to emphasizing an essential identity of “woman,” the epigraph (a passage situated at the beginning of “Le Rire”) emphasizes the category of women and corresponding female sexuality as learned. Cixous’s essay, then, probes its readers to question the naturalization of women as a homogeneous, dangerous category:
Mais il faut dire, avant tout, qu’il n’y a pas […] une femme générale, une femme type. Ce qu’elles ont en commun, je le dirai. Mais ce qui me frappe c’est l’infinie richesse de leurs constitutions singulières: on ne peut parler d’une sexualité féminine, uniforme, homogène, à parcours codable, pas plus que d’un inconscient semblable.
(“Le Rire” 39, author’s emphasis)
But first it must be said that […] there is, at this time, no general woman, no one typical woman. What they have in common I will say. But what strikes me is the infinite richness of their individual constitutions: you can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes.
(“The Laugh,” 876)
In this 1975 essay, Cixous rewrites Medusa and places emphasis on her laughter. How could a woman so well-trodden muster a laugh? In an effort to move past all this misunderstanding about the female body, the Medusa expresses amusement and derision at this investment in a fear of other bodies, which transforms into a desire to conquer and possess. Instead, she invests in a “feminine” desire not based on a fear of loss or a reduction of the “Other” to the “self,” but rather indulges in Amour Autre (Other love), or an opening up to “otherness” and difference. Cixous rewrites the Medusa as an embodiment of this feminine economy that experiences a jouissance, or intense intellectual and physical pleasure, that results from this interaction with alterity that questions definitions of gender, sex and sexuality (and even race, if we read closely into the color politics interwoven in the epigraph).
While the essay was originally published in 1975, Medusa remains a figure of the present. After the 2010 republication of “Le Rire de la Méduse,” Cixous reintroduces Medusa as a queer body that diverges from the traditional masculine/feminine binary:
Méduse a toujours déjà été queer comme la littérature. Queer, c’est torsion, c’est twist. Eh bien, la Méduse, son emblème, sa chevelure, est une touffe de torsions. La torsion est la signature ; il s’agit de produire des entorses, de ne pas aller en ligne droite.
(“Méduse en Sorbonne” 144-145, author’s emphasis)
Medusa has always already been queer, like literature. Queer is a torsion, a twist. Well, Medusa’s emblem, her hair, is a tuft of twists. The twisting is her signature: it’s about producing twists, about not going in a straight line.
In this interview with Frédéric Regard, professor of English literature at the Paris-Sorbonne University, that closes a collection of essays on “Le Rire de la Méduse” (Le Rire de la Méduse: Regards critiques, 2015), Cixous recognizes her own work on the Medusa as queer, as a body through which to shift boundaries and challenge social expectations. Cixous’s imagination of Medusa as a queer body opens up the meanings of “woman” and “feminine” and empowers (female) sexuality to experience the pleasure that awaits within the discovery of alterity within oneself and between all forms of bodies.
And yet, the corporeal heterogeneity and freedom that exudes from this essay is somewhat stifled thirty-five years after its initial publication. Within her preface to Le Rire de la Méduse et autres ironies (2010), a republication of “Le Rire” and some of her other essays, Cixous transcribes a conversation with her Medusa that conveys this sentiment:
Elle pose sa couronne, s’assied, rose, et puis : où sont les femmes aujourd’hui ? dis-je. – En 2003, je suis née et j’ai vécu en Corée, on arrivait en 1970, dit la couronnée. Tout de suite après, ce sont des latinas qui m’ont appelée, et ces jours-ci je vis en Californie. C’est l’Heure de la Méduse entre les Amériques. Je n’arrête pas de galoper les airs d’Asie. Et en France, c’est comment ? – Je crains qu’il faille que tu reviennes voler devant ma fenêtre, dis-je. Ce temps-ci l’air est plein d’algues, on étouffe et ne rit pas beaucoup.
(“Un effet d’épine rose” 33)
She settles her crown, sits, pink, and then: where are the women today? I said. – In 2003, I was born and lived in Korea, we got there in 1970, said the crowned. Right after, the Latinas called me, and these days I live in California. It is the Hour of the Medusa in the Americas. I never stop galloping the airs of Asia. And in France, how is it? – I fear that you need to come back and fly by my window, I say. Right now the air is full of algae, we are stifled and do not laugh very much.
If there is a lack of the “laughter” once inspired by the Cixousian Medusa, in France and elsewhere, does this suggest a return to the repression of the body that Cixous had worked to rehabilitate through the rewriting of the Medusa? Is the femme fatale in popular culture being reclaimed as an empowering form of female sexuality? A glance at some fairly recent film releases, (the dangerous female is a particularly scopic fetish) in France and the United States seem to confirm the fabrication of female bodies as a locus of danger and desire (Elle, 2016; Teeth, 2007; La Forêt de Quinconces, 2016). Is it still desirable to depict women as devilish, femme fatale endowed with an uncontrollable sexuality that endows women with power over men? Is this a real (feminist) answer to sexual inequality? These are the “dangerous” questions that we must continue to ask as we reflect on Cixous’s essay and its continuing relevance today.
Not only does Cixous’s subject matter figure as dangerous material, but she herself has also been considered “dangerous” because of her keen intellect. In a 2014 interview (Le magazine littéraire), the journalist noted that while Cixous has received various awards for her literature, she is paradoxically not well known: “More than any other intellectual, Hélène Cixous is associated with a menacing image, the one of being the woman that has ‘too’ much knowledge, too much intelligence, and whose texts are difficult to access; the polysemy and playing with sounds causing fear. Her encounter with misogyny is without a doubt sharper than compared to others.” Her response? As the author of the newly born Medusa, she recognizes that these criticisms are simply the projected fears of her readers: “These prejudices say nothing about me, but a lot about those who project them” (my translation).
Cixous, H. (1975), “Le Rire de la Méduse,” L’Arc, Vol. 61, 39-54.
–. (1976), “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, 875-893.
–. Le Rire de la Méduse et autres ironies. Paris: Galilée, 2010.
–. “Méduse en Sorbonne.” Le Rire de la Méduse: Regards Critiques: ed. Frédéric Regard and Martine Reid. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2015.
Diatkine, Anne. “Portrait, Hélène Cixous, sage femme.” Le magazine littéraire, December 2014, Vol. 550, 36-38.
Garber, Marjorie and Nancy Vickers. The Medusa Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.