The Medusa is one of the most intriguing characters in Greek Mythology. With her head full of serpents and her intimidating stare capable of turning into stone those who dare to look directly to them, this character has inspired so many writings.
The text we’re going to talk about today is a call to action for women to embrace who they are and discover their purpose in life. Originally published in 1975, Le Rire de la Méduse (The Laugh of the Medusa) came at a key moment in the history of France when only less than a decade before, major civil rights' protests took place. These movements were just the spark that shaped our views on the movement even today.
Written by Hélène Cixous, founder of the first center of feminist studies at the University of Paris, the essay has a clear purpose: to empower women to find their own voices and make these heard. Using the iconic mythological character of Medusa, often seen as this beautiful and yet frightening misunderstood creature, she exposes the nature of gender inequality. For her, women have been historically understood and perceived as inferior and obscure beings that are unknown or undecipherable, and for that reason become frightening and dangerous, just like the Medusa. If you remember the story, Medusa was the Gorgon beheaded by Perseus who then used her head as a weapon. So, what’s more on this parallel with women in general?
Medusa’s head is filled with venomous snakes and if this wasn’t intimidating enough her sight is capable of turning anyone who sees directly to it into stone. Cixous explains that if you really think about it, she symbolizes power and seduction. There’s something alluring about danger but that doesn’t really mean that she’s treated in terms of equality by those that encounter her. At the same time, what we generally see as her unique powers (or lethal weapons) also symbolize a threat of castration making even more obscure and for that reason not understood for what she is. Why castration? According to the essay, what makes Medusa stand out as an individual (bear this idea in mind which is very important to understand the powers of this text) is clearly her serpent hair. This throughout history has been often interpreted as a phallic symbol. In that way, at first, Perseus fears her for her powers, but then he decides to take advantage of them and use them in his own favor.
In Cixous rewriting of this character, she portrays a Medusa who finds this idea of fear transformed into guts, to conquer and appropriate of the powers of women, hilarious. Instead, it’s more of a priority to invest in female desire based in self-love. This is going to be essential in her work, otherness not as a negative term but actually as the means to achieving the equality we need. Her text is often considered as belonging to the branch of “Difference Feminism”, which proposes an idea of gender equality based on the premise that there are differences between men and women but by no means those differences have any applicable value.
For Hélène Cixous, it’s of vital importance for women to focus on their individuality of their body and mind through self-love and confidence, only to being able to love and embrace the unique differences from one another. One of the most damaging things that have happened to women through the passing of time, is actually, what she calls the logic of anti-love, understood as that systematic and constant oppression passed from generation to generation through a system of self-hatred ingrained in all of us. In that way, she promotes us to start becoming narcissists with an immense love for ourselves instead of following that oppressive weapon that wants to prevent us from really embracing ourselves and channeling our power.
For Cixous, the only way to achieve this empowerment is through writing. For her, writing is the only way in which women can actually achieve the freedom that has been denied throughout history. Through words, which is the realm that the patriarchal establishment hasn’t fully taken from us, women can actually explore and deal with subjects that define them and only then, these empowering ideas will actually be transferred into the strong narrative over our bodies far from being only been considered an object of male pleasure.
To wrap things up, what Cixous proposes is a new understanding of femininity and the means to actually achieve women empowerment that even when more than forty years have passed since its publication, it’s still an extremely relevant subject we should be bringing into the current social conversation.
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Images by @martabevacqua