Écriture Féminine: Lady Gaga as Cixous’s Medusa

In her 1975 manifesto “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous claims, “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies” (1942).  Cixous explains that it is through writing the body that women’s voices are heard, and this challenges the phallocentric[1] tradition that has previously imprisoned women in their own silence.  Women have been imprisoned in silence because “writing has been run by a libidinal and cultural—hence political, typically masculine—economy” (1945), which has manifested in such examples as “[s]mug-faced readers, managing editors, and big bosses [who] don’t like the true texts of women—female-sexed texts” (1944).  To overcome repression, Cixous exhorts women:

Write your self.  Your body must be heard.  Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth.  Our naphtha will spread, throughout the world, without dollars—black or gold—nonassessed values that will change the rules of the old game.

To write.  An act which will not only ‘realize’ the decensored relation of woman to her sexuality, to her womanly being, giving her access to her native strength; it will give her back her goods, her pleasures, her organs, her immense bodily territories which have been kept under seal; it will tear her away from the superegoized structure[2] in which she has always occupied the place reserved for the guilty.  (1947)

It would seem, then, that Cixous claims there is something essential about women’s bodies, which, if they can tap into it, will allow them to write in a way that will enable them to overcome patriarchal repression and regain control of their bodies and their selves.

In the introduction to “The Laugh of the Medusa” in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent Leitch, complicating any essentialist interpretation, observes that écriture féminine is part of a greater dialogue concerning écriture or deconstruction (1939).  He explains that male deconstructionists have used feminine imagery and tropes in order to describe what has been repressed in conventional Western philosophical discourse; in other words, the female body has been used as a metaphor for everything that has been sidelined.  Cixous, then, made the metaphor literal and proceeded to explore the effects (1940).  “She claimed that écriture féminine was characterized by the explicitly female body parts that had been repressed by traditional discourse and were being ex-pressed by the woman writer” (1940); paradoxically, however she also claimed that men, too, could write in the style of écriture féminine.  In order to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory claims, Leitch writes, “It could be argued that these claims are mythic, performative, and critical rather than descriptive.  In her puns […] she works on and in language, not in the empirical world” (1941).  In this way, instead of making any essentialist claims about the female body, Cixous demonstrates the performativity of her theory through the manner in which she writes about écriture féminine.

In one way, écriture féminine can be viewed as an essentialist theory; there is something essentially feminine that allows women to write in a certain way.  On the other hand, écriture feminine can be viewed as a theory that uses the woman’s body as a metaphor for everything that has been repressed by traditional philosophical discourse.  It is not because a woman is a woman that she is able to write in the style of écriture féminine; rather, she is able to write in this style because she is a woman in a system that privileges Man.  Taken in this view, then, anyone (even a man) who is oppressed by hegemony can write in the style of écriture féminine.

These contradictory assertions that écriture féminine originates in the female body but is also able to be written by men demonstrate what Leitch terms the “impossible logic that is écriture féminine” (1941).  Écriture féminine is not either essentialist or performative; instead, it is both/and.  This impossible logic is perhaps best expressed by the impossibility of actually defining écriture féminine.  According to Cixous:

[Écriture féminine] can never be theorized, enclosed, coded—which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.  But it will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system; it does and will take place in areas other than those subordinated to philosophico-theoretical domination.  It will be conceived of only by subjects who are breakers of automatism, by peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate.  (1949)

Écriture féminine cannot be defined because definitions belong to phallogocentrism; instead, écriture féminine exists outside of this logic.

Even though écriture féminine cannot be absolutely defined, it does generally possess certain characteristics.  If phallocentric discourse is based on a “masculine economy […] which accepts the tenets of Aristotelian logic, the logic of non-contradiction, the mutual exclusion of opposite terms [and which] promotes thinking in terms of hierarchical binary oppositions (such as man versus woman), in spite of any experience or even enjoyment of the complicating or undermining evidence” (Still 239), then écriture féminine will seek to undermine this logic.  However, écriture féminine is not necessarily illogical; rather, it is a-logical; it demonstrates a different kind of logic.  As Diana Holms explains, “écriture féminine will disrupt the order of the masculine text, but beneath its apparent incoherence may display a different type of order, based on the cycle rather than the straight line” (226).  Écriture féminine, then, will involve a deconstruction of Aristotelian logic, including binary oppositions, and a circularity of time or themes or both.

One way in which Cixous describes her theory is through the myth of the Medusa, who functions as a synecdoche for women in general.  She writes that, just as Perseus did not dare look fully at the Medusa, man, the Subject, does not dare look fully at woman, the Object; instead, for ages, he has subjugated and marginalized her by understanding her according to his own terms: a phallus.  Because woman does not have a phallus, the patriarchy has defined her in negative terms.  She has been viewed as the subordinate component of the man/woman binary opposition, which, in other words, is a person with a phallus/a person without a phallus.  Thus, woman is the negative opposite of man; she is to the dark as man is to the light.

Cixous elaborates on the subordinate component of the man/woman binary opposition and explains that darkness is not actually essential to woman.  Instead, there is a “repression that has kept [women] in the ‘dark’—that dark which people have been trying to make them accept as their attribute” (1943).  She further describes this dark:

As soon as [women] 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.  (1944)

This dark difference, this negativity, is a mystery, and femininity is the unexplored “Dark Continent” (1951).  Cixous, however, asserts, “It is still unexplored only because we’ve been made to believe that it was too dark to be explorable.  And because they want to make us believe that what interests us is the white continent, with its monuments to Lack” (1951).  Because man has constructed his identity on the basis that he is not a woman, “men have committed the greatest crime against women.  Insidiously, violently, they have led them to hate women, to be their own enemies, to mobilize their immense strength against themselves, to be the executants of their virile needs” (1944).  In order to affirm their own identity, men have compelled women to adopt the binary opposition man/woman, and, to prevent women from thinking in any other manner that might not affirm man as the ultimate Subject, men have warned against exploring the “Dark Continent” (1951) by perpetuating the idea that darkness is characterized by danger.  In this way, women, too, have considered men the privileged component of the binary opposition, and, in consequence, have come to understand themselves through the negative definition that they are women because they are not men, because they do not possess a phallus.  By following this patriarchal definition, men have not fully acknowledged women, and neither have women fully acknowledged themselves or their abilities.

Cixous critiques this lopsided definition of women and asserts:

Too bad for [men] if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men, or that the mother doesn’t have one.  But isn’t this fear convenient for them?  Wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning?  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)

Men, because they are not like the Medusa, do not understand her and have considered her mysterious sexuality ugly.  Not having a phallus, the Medusa has only been understood according to the negative terms of castration; her “Lack” (1951) sets her outside the phallocentric discourse.  Her difference has resulted in her alienation from both the hegemony and herself.  To men, the Medusa’s difference is horrifying, and they have only dared look at her on their own terms—as a reflection in a shield.  They have only tried to understand her according to their own definitions and have failed to look at her straight on as she really is.

Rosi Braidotti’s essay “Mothers, Monsters, and Machines” is helpful in understanding the implications of being different, especially for women.  She describes a monster as a human being that has been defined by difference, especially bodily difference.  Tracing her research back to Aristotle’s The Generation of Animals, Braidotti observes that the male body has traditionally been considered the human norm; the male body is the standard against which difference is measured.  Therefore, because women’s bodies are different from men’s bodies, it logically follows that “[w]omen as a sign of difference is monstrous” (65).  Because women do not adhere to the male norm, they are considered deviants, monsters.

This connection between women and monsters correlates well with the Medusa, who, as the myth goes, is hideous, dangerous, and hybrid, being part human and part monster.  Instead of hair, the Medusa has snakes on her head, and one cannot look upon her without being turned to stone.  Some versions hold that the Medusa and her two sisters were born monstrous “with snakes on their heads, instead of hair, with yellow wings and brazen hands” (“Medusa in Myth”); however, the predominant version of the myth maintains that the Medusa was born beautiful, but Athena cursed her, transforming her into an ugly monster.  According to some sources, Athena cursed the Medusa because she had “boasted that she was more beautiful than Athena” (“Medusa in Myth”), but other versions claim that the Medusa was cursed by Athena because Poseidon raped her in Athena’s temple.

Cixous, however, points out that this myth has been propagated by the phallocentric hegemony (which operates according to the logic of hierarchical binary oppositions), and of the Medusa, she asserts, “she’s not deadly.  She’s beautiful and she’s laughing” (1951).  Unlike the phallocentric hegemony, Cixous has dared to venture into the “Dark Continent” (1951).  In fact, she has “been there often” (1952) and has found that “the continent is not impenetrably dark” (1952); it is not at all the place of horror that it is renowned to be.  What is more, she is an eyewitness: she has seen the Medusa and has returned to tell the tale—no ugliness paralyzed her.  She has also seen “the trembling Perseuses moving backward toward us” (1952), insinuating that she, too, is a Medusa, laughing, “What lovely backs!” (1952).

It is insufficient, however, to merely flip the binary opposition, to claim that the Medusa is not bad but good, is not dangerous, but benign.  Cixous also acknowledges that men are right to fear her, for the Medusa’s difference challenges the way the world operates; her difference challenges phallocentricity.  She writes,

A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive.  It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there’s no other way.  There’s no room for her if she’s not a he.  If she’s a her-she, it’s in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the “truth” with laughter.  (1954)

A feminine text will be subversive by deconstructing binary oppositions (such as man/woman), which have characterized the logic of masculine texts.  It will not reverse everything and make the negative positive and the positive negative, for that would preserve the structure of the phallocentric system.  Instead, a feminine text will “shatter the framework” (1954); it will offer something completely new.  This shattering will be a joyful event—there will be “laughter” (1954)—because women will finally begin to be understood and to express themselves on their own terms.

It is precisely because “there’s no room” (1954) for women in a phallocentric system that Cixous exhorts women to explore the “Dark Continent” (1951) of femininity and female sexuality.  They must look on their Medusa-selves full in the face to bring women and men to a more authentic understanding of female sexuality.  Through this self-exploration, by delving into what before has never been discussed or given a voice, women will achieve liberation from the oppressive patriarchy that has alienated themselves from themselves.  They will discover “a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful” (1943), and a “body that knows unheard-of songs” (1943).  Like the beautiful Medusa, they will laugh in their newfound freedom and at the men who do not understand them.  For Cixous, a woman who writes her body “un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield” (1949).  By exploring contradictions, by acknowledging multiplicity, women overcome phallocentric oppression, which is caused by a system that tries to make everything conform to its own standards and center of meaning.

Cixous self-identifies as a Medusa, but Lady Gaga, too, is a contemporary Medusa.  Calling herself “Mother Monster,” an appellation that highlights her relation to the realm of difference, she reveals herself to be one of the “peripheral figures that no authority can ever subjugate” (1949).  When analyzed as text, her work, in particular her music videos “Bad Romance” and “Yoü and I,” is characterized by aspects of écriture féminine, which includes the deconstruction of binary oppositions through a multiplicity of personas and the circularity of time and themes.  Écriture féminine allows Lady Gaga to subvert order and expectations that would objectify her and relegate her to a role designed to please Man.

[1] Phallocentric refers to phallocentrism, a system that privileges the phallus.  In other words, it is a system in which man is at the center; woman, lacking a phallus, is less privileged and finds herself on the periphery of the system.  Phallogocentrism is closely related, referring to male dominance in the realm of language.

[2] Vincent Leitch, editor of The Norton Anthology for Theory and Criticism, explains in a footnote that “superegoized structure” is a reference to Freud’s “superego,” the part of the psyche that is characterized by the values of the individual’s society.  (1947)


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