“Female Writing” by Hélène Cixous: a feminist literary theory that questions the patriarchal control of language

In 1975, an essay titled The Laugh of the Medusa was published by French feminist writer Hélène Cixous which has since been recognized as a major work of feminist literary theory. It was almost immediately translated in 1976 by Paula Cohen and Keith Cohen and was titled The Laughing jellyfish. The essay became seminal due to Cixous’s mention of the term female writing, which means ‘feminine writing‘.

In the 1970s, France experienced a new wave of feminist movements because of the apparent exclusion of women from political institutions. The United States even called it the ‘new French feminisms‘. Meanwhile, many feminists were convinced that language is a major reason why emerging female discourses get lost in the puddle of existing male discourses.

Hélène Cixous, feminist literary critic and writer, became famous at this time thanks to her essay. She used this growing consciousness in women to find their own voice and encouraged them to channel it into writing in an entirely new form she called the Feminine writing.

Feminine Writing

Hélène Cixous, in her essay “The laugh of the jellyfishaddresses the dominant patriarchal control in the language system we use daily. His work dates back to the work of psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan whose theories conclude that the structure of language is controlled by the phallus. Cixous’ challenge is to this patriarchal structure of language that operates through a single voice of ‘phallic‘ thinking.

As Freud theorized, women are characterized by alack‘ because of the lack of a penis. Hélène Cixous used this psychoanalytical concept to say that the “lack‘ subjected women to a position of ‘otherness‘. She also elided the term ‘Jew‘, meaning Jewoman, to articulate the complex experience of her’otherness‘ as a Jew in society.

Her concept also focuses on acquiring a female voice, the loss of which has led women to learn to speak in a ‘borrowed language‘. Hélène Cixous says that in the exercise of feminine writing, women must write in ‘breast milk‘ which originates in the developmental stage of a mother-child relationship just before the child is introduced to ‘human-centered verbal language’. This relationship between a mother and her child at the pre-linguistic stage manifests itself in writings that abolish repressions and subvert the existing logic.

By the introduction of the term ‘feminine writing‘, Hélène Cixous found an expression of this otherness and a break with the phallocentric Language. She was part of what some critics called ‘essentialistfeminism during the French feminist movement. She theorized the importance of the female experience and promoted its expression in forms superior to those then existing.

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The basic concept of feminine writing is the articulation of feminine sexuality in writing and in speaking, which can eventually lead to a change in the linguistic system. It is a type of writing that does not remain chained within the West phallogocentric rationalism and has a certain sense of ‘fluidity‘. Cixous believed that only women could bring this fluidity to language. Drawing inspiration from the theories of Jacques Derrida, she observes that women are off-centre, and therefore freer to create.

Read also : Gynocriticism: A Feminine Framework for the Analysis of Women’s Literature

Hélène Cixous Biography – Facts, Childhood, Family Life & Achievements

Cixous writes:Although male sexuality revolves around the penis,[…] the woman does not operate the same regionalization which serves the couple head/genital and which is only inscribed in borders. Her libido is cosmic”. Word ‘cosmic‘ refers to a superiority in female sexuality that goes beyond representations of ‘phallic uniqueness. She thinks women should start thinking about their relationship with their body and their sexuality, because of its repression by men and by themselves. Women should be the starting point for a new type of discourse.

Feminine writing is to express this ‘cosmic‘libido in women through’an ecstatic torrent of words‘. The expression is accompanied by a type of writing that has incomprehensible meanings and images, eccentric disturbances with punctuations, gaps, silences and puns.

Her concept also focuses on acquiring a female voice, the loss of which has led women to learn to speak in a ‘borrowed language‘. Hélène Cixous says that in the exercise of feminine writing, women must write in ‘breast milk‘ which originates in the developmental stage of a mother-child relationship just before the child is introduced to ‘human-centered verbal language‘. This relationship between a mother and her child at the pre-linguistic stage manifests itself in writings that abolish repressions and subvert the existing logic.

Besides milk, Cixous also uses several other metaphors like honey, orgasm, and the ocean to describe female writing. It shockingly deconstructs and disrupts the established stability of phallogocentric symbolic order and brings scopes for a more flexible play area in writing.

Feminine Writing in Other Literary Works

The discussion of female handwriting asserts that female handwriting is not only independent of the monolithic phallus, but is the result of their own multiple sexual experiences. French literary critic Julia Kristeva theorized the concept of ‘choir‘, which is a signifying process centered on the mother.

Hélène Cixous’s line of thought ultimately turned towards history and autobiography. Consequently, his work on female writing has remained a hugely impactful, yet indefinable concept for most of us. Several critics of the literary world have written about this interesting concept and even traced them to the works of famous authors and poets.

She calls it the ‘semiotic‘ which remains repressed because of the language controlled by the father. She calls this father-centered dominant systematized language thesymbolic‘. Semiotics can break out at any time to cause a revolutionary shock to the foundations of this authoritarian language system. This is exactly what happens with the concept of feminine writing. This language, being semiotic, disrupts the symbols and the language system that forms the symbolic.

Emily Dickinson, the famous American poet of the 19th century, applies the concept of female writing, knowingly or unknowingly, through her particular writing technique. His poetry is replete with unusual pauses and pauses, with punctuation marks used chaotically. The images evoked in his poems are also mostly bizarre and unusual. Similar to Dickens, there are many other works by avant-garde and modernist writers in which Kristeva located creative experimentation with women’s writing.

Read also : What is misogynoir? : Unpacking the intersectional layers of racism and misogyny

Hélène Cixous’s line of thought ultimately turned towards history and autobiography. Consequently, his work on female writing has remained a hugely impactful, yet indefinable concept for most of us. Several critics of the literary world have written about this interesting concept and even traced them to the works of famous authors and poets.

On the contrary, literary theory can rightly be called a foreshadowing of the multiplicity of genres and studies of gender identities today. female writing thus remains an endless literary theory, taking shape and form in new ways, with new concepts and women’s writings every day.


Featured image source: The Hindu

Sharon D. Cole