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Essay: Hélène Cixous: A Poststructural Feminist Leader

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Hélène Cixous, born in 1937, was a French feminist critic and theorist, as well as a playwright and novelist. Born in Oran, Algeria, her passions against authority were kindled from a young age. At the time, Algeria was a French colony, sparking in Cixous a rebellious desire to rectify the oppression of the human spirit that the presence of power and domination had created. Cixous was one in a family of German Czechoslovak Hungarian Jews; being of this descent in a French colony, Cixous had grown up with a constant feeling of displacement, accompanied by the overwhelming oppression of colonialism and antisemitism enforced by the political authority that seemed to fall directly on her mutt-like self.

With age and experience, her feeling of isolation only became more prominent. As she was growing up, attending schools in Algeria and France that catered to native males, she experienced first-hand the consequences of being both foreign and female in a world dominated by the majority, those who were universally accepted; this meant the Caucasian male. In these schools, her differences from this accepted majority were constantly exemplified. Algerian schools allowed only a limited number of Jews to attend, and she was also one of the only girls in a boys’ school. When she moved to Paris, Cixous was the only North-African student in her high school: “That is where I felt the true torments of exile… I was deported right inside the class” (Cixous). Through these experiences, the discrimination enforced onto both sexual and culturally minorities by politics and society became evident to Cixous (Hilfrich).

A few years after earning the agrégation, the highest level teachers’ exam, Cixous assumed a teaching position at the University of Bordeaux in 1962. There, she befriended philosopher Jacques Derrida, who, also being mixed with Jewish, Algerian, and French descent, shared the understanding of Cixous’ cultural isolation. Together and for years to come, with multiple co-authored texts and novels, the two examined and exposed the significance of one’s roots and their consequential exclusion; this was a thought-provoking dialogue, as it was between a male and female of similar cultural experiences and different sexes. Their joint work shed light upon shared patterns of postmodernism and postcolonialism, a concept that had not previously been analyzed. With postmodernism, the late-20th-century rejection and criticism of long-established ideologies, came the idea of gender as a human construct; this was to be deconstructed by Cixous. Her work with Derrida and his idea of “Derridean deconstruction”, a critique of literature and its meaning, heavily influenced poststructural feminism, a central focus of Cixous’ career as a feminist and philosopher (Hilfrich).

Hélène Cixous’ works and preachings established her as a leader of poststructural feminism, a theory criticizing gender binaries and the external forces that created them; this was inspired once she completed her studies on Western discourse. In essays including Sorties, The Newly Born Woman, and The Laugh of Medusa, Cixous breaks down the gender hierarchy, recognizing women as the objects and pieces of property in a world of patriarchy and rejecting logocentrism, the Western philosophy relating speech, thought, and writing while fully crediting the male race. As Cixous stated, “Intention: desire, authority—examine them and you are led right back . . . to the father. It is not possible not to notice that there is no place whatsoever for women in the calculations” (Cixous). Cixous used the literature that she had studied as a prime example to highlight patriarchy, as literature was carpeted with the marks of the male race, excluding women from all realms of discourse. In perhaps her most famous essay, The Laugh of Medusa (1976), to rectify this injustice, Cixous introduced the idea of ecriture feminine (female writing), in response to the fact that “there [had] not yet been any writing that inscribes femininity” (Cixous, 349). Its writing style was designed to be nonconforming to confining binary logic, using fluidity to piece texts together. This was a practice conceived to dismantle the male-dominant writing system and create one in which the restrictions of gender binaries would be broken, ultimately leading to the idea that each gender is the other, and sexuality is not constricted to the binary of male and female. The Laugh of Medusa was a dedication to free the female spirit in all of its glory with Cixous’ explanation that “a 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… Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (347). Just as men had suppressed women’s bodies and their sexual desires since as far back in time as humans can research, men were also responsible for the exclusion of women in discourse. Not only did Cixous make this fact apparent to the public, but she also designed ecriture feminine as a solution to bring justice to the system (Mayne).

As a feminist, literary critic, and philosopher (among other things) with countless books and articles that inspired writers, philosophers, and the international public, Kathleen O’Grady, a Canadian author and academic who interviewed Cixous, describes her triumphs not as “the accomplishment of a lifetime, but the culmination of several lifetimes, each united and infused by the solitary voice of a poet” (O’Grady). Hélène Cixous was one of the first philosophers to recognize and shed light on the idea that the world’s writing system held a large amount of responsibility for the overall oppression of women, dating back to its birth. With the symbolic idea that women had to write themselves into history in order to amend it, along with the rejection of gender binaries, Cixous inspired the beginning of feminine writing and the collapse of the universal acceptance of male-dominant literature supporting a patriarchal society; she devised the practice of changing the future by changing the past through writing.

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