Women’s Writing, Modern Day Feminism in Art and Fiction
Famous critic and writer Hélène Cixous said that, “women are body” in her 1975 essay, “The Laugh of The Medusa”. She has a point here, and it must be explored even today, almost 50 years after publication. That essay brought up critical thinking points about what it means to be a woman in art, specifically authorial work. It became a phenomenon and is still studied today. But what is ‘funny’ about this subject is how people may not realize it is something to question or think so critically about. Women write books, create art, create music, etc. and are allowed to do it, right? Where is the issue with that? Just because women’s lives today have such liberations they were not always given centuries ago, does not make them truly all that free with their voice and tongue. Cixous explains this, and this article will go into more depth about what it means to write as a woman today, examples of both the past and present, too.
“The Laugh of The Medusa”
Starting off with this essay in order to understand exactly the topic we’re dealing with here, the subject of evaluation here is part of the group of feminist theories and specifically, Cixous’ idea of l’écriture feminine. This phrase does not automatically translate to “feminist writing”. This term describes women writing for themselves, returning to their bodies that have been confiscated from them for all these centuries. Throughout history, this topic of bodies and sexual revolutions have been addressed and limited before, but with new technology and perspectives, allow for room to grow in how people think of these subjects in society. You can read more about sexual revolutions through science here.
This is seen in books like Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, where Brontë becomes emersed in the adaptation of a female narrator not providing the male gaze exactly what it wants–Jane’s love interest, Rochester, is an unattractive, arrogant, brutal man that does not fit the standard of beauty and elegance the 1800s aimed for. Even today, a common storyline in a romance book may be two attractive young people falling in love over the course of their complicated, tragic story. Any ‘flaws’, mostly physical, that may exist in characters would turn off the reader, as if thinking, no one wants to read a book about people who are not idealized and romanticized. In Jane Eyre, some characters are finally not romanticized, and readers may not worship Jane and Rochester’s romantic relationship in the start because of this. Still, Brontë figured out a way to write a climatic book where the reader does root for these two in the end, no matter the unconventional routes of their characters.
Cixous claims if women have access to their native strength, she will be given back her sexuality, her womanly being, her goods and pleasures, her organs. This power will take her away from the ‘superegoized’ structure that has been reserved for the guilty. For a woman is guilty of so much, when written by a man, she is too motherly to be ‘hot’, too hot to be a mother, not enough of a woman without having children, it goes on and on (Cixous 1975). Charlotte Brontë exhibits some of these manners that Cixous speaks of, which is a huge thing to praise considering their hundred-year age gap from the time the Brontë sisters were alive and the publication of Cixous’ work. It is about writing for and towards women, which makes l’écriture feminine so powerful, and even, a real thing. Women today don’t always want to read about the perfect couple in a Hallmark movie that carries on simplistic, unrealistic features and traits.
This style of story writing is seen as writing for the male gaze, not the woman’s, and also, seen as men writing for men with perhaps no women involved in the creation process at all. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where a physical or sexual interaction between a man and woman is perfectly played out, with no awkward tendencies–where the woman is always wearing the perfect matching lingerie set and aces the innocent yet sexy act? These are examples of how women have not had control over their bodies and how they are written about in different forms of artworks. Every woman knows a genuine interaction with a man is fairytale-like, yet, they expect it to be simply because literature and film has taught them to. This expectation and sheer disappointment has created much negativity in society. It only makes sense that women have been silenced in order to lay low of the patriarchal voice, perhaps, because men have been worried to be outshined. When the woman breaks free of that silence, Cixous explains that she will be explosive in finally writing about the truest form of female identity.
Writing For Women and its Limitations
These frameworks of thinking are very much under the category of feminism, which sometimes can be groped with radical feminists and the poor stigma behind them. But, the fact of the matter is that everyone should be a ‘feminist’, as in agree with how any fixed idea about what women like to read or write about is stupid. It’s dangerous to assume this, too, because of how much it reduces women to a limiting stereotype. It isn’t radical and rebellious of women or anyone to see it this way, if anything, it is just them being hyper aware now more than ever. One may argue that genres like chick lit are made for women, so how does this make sense then? Is that not a version of women’s writing? Well, yes, it can be. But it is the idea of this genre being made only for women with a limiting viewpoint. Even though Chick lit is wildly popular and markets well for female audiences, there are many writers who are steering away from this category of writing in order to not feel so limited in what they can do.
Leading novelists today also do not agree to call themselves feminists, even though precisely that is what they may be, because this will also limit their art. It is not because they disagree with the political instincts of feminism. This is because great writers, no matter the genre or gender, want to write textured novels with round characters and stories. They do not see everything they write as any kind of gender “ism”. What authors are examples of this? Virginia Woolf is a classic for approaching literature through a feminist lens yet also helped define what the word ‘feminist’ actually means.
Woolf lived a tragic life of mental health issues, deaths in the family and personal struggles with her art of writing. But, through all of it, she produced exquisite works of fiction and literature by creating a holistic form embracing aspects of life that were “fugitive” from the Victorian novel. This is how her career started out, in 1908, but soon developed into some more cultural based on anatomy between the feminine and the masculine. Critics have credited her distinctions with her credits to an evolving, distinct feminine diary form of writing, one that explores, with perception, honesty and humor, her mosaic self.
Another thing about her work is how today, in comparison to when she was alive, her books are studied, not necessarily read for leisure. Woolf was also keenly intent on grounding her literary themes within the world of sensation and physicality. There are many of these themes in her works that make them not only classics, but learning strategies for young readers and writers.
Modern Day Women Writing
Keeping all this in mind regarding the last century of the women’s literary movement, what has all this history truly done for present day writers and readers? Who is the next Virginia Woolf? Has anyone perfectly mimicked the elements of Cixous’ strategies behind creating your own language outside of the patriarchal complex? Here, we’ll dive into a few authors who have established a name for themselves, perhaps not on the same level as Woolf, Brontë or Cixous quite yet…but, they hold much potential for literary greatness already.
A main factor that seems to be addressed in women’s writing is always the separation from the dominance of the male gender. British author and essayist Zadie Smith has been critically acclaimed for her work on these matters. Her debut novel, White Teeth, was published in 2000, and has been studied for this unique storyline and approach to exploring the lives and relationships with immigrants from the British Commonwealth. But, her books all feature a feminist attitude that some critics do not recognize right away. In this book and many others, she is able to give a voice to the women who seem to only be in the shadows; the women are able to become independent of the men who dominate the novels and be heard. Her female characters, specifically women of color, come to the forefront of the literary analysis. For example, her characters face social issues and societal problems involving discrimination and inequality, all the same between genders, but she highlights how much more women face than men. It is these female characters that propel her work. This can look like storylines that include issues with race, ethnicity, sexism and gender. She also touches on topics of intersectionality, which can be understood better through this article on Yoair Blog.
But it is not only about the actual content of books that make them a factor of women’s writing that Cixous explains; it is the way in which people write. It is the language, the phrasing, the unexplainable attributes that only women can create in their texts, that make up such powerful books and essays. Smith succeeds in not being afraid to touch upon her own language and terms, not giving into the male gaze of writing. She writes for women, and as a woman, especially one of color, she is a perfect example of modern-day women’s writing.
Irish author Sally Rooney is newer to the literary world than Smith is as she has truly made a name for herself in the past few years since the publication of Normal People. Normal People became a hit in the UK and then all around the world, creating so much buzz that BBC and Hulu took the story and made it a 12-part TV series. The show also did very well with the public, so much, that Rooney’s earlier book, Conversations With Friends, is also in the works to become a TV series. Her books are all set in Ireland for the most part, even having characters attend schools in major cities like Dublin, where rich literary history is already a phenomenon. Read more about Dublin’s culture and history here!
These types of things happen all the time in the entertainment industry. Books become movies, shows, music videos, etc. However, it is truly satisfactory that this millennial writer has achieved literary success without suppressing herself to please a certain audience. Her recent publication, Beautiful World, Where Are You even touches on the life of a young famous female writer, and the struggles behind having people expect certain things from you. The character’s name is Alice, one of four main characters in this book, and is not very likeable. The key thing about Rooney’s books is her characters being utterly unlikeable. They’re ‘normal’ to the extent where readers question the reason to even create them. Normal isn’t interesting, right? That’s the common idea that has been put into everyone’s heads–writers, readers, critics, all of us–because of how literature has been conditioned to exist like. This makes her, even as a real life person, unlikeable, too at times.
The Atlantic did an article about her response to harsh critics, claiming that she “has been accused of being overly sentimental and insufficiently political” (The Atlantic). The rigor with which Rooney conformed her narrative voice to the shape of her characters’ consciousness deserves praise, but also left her vulnerable to political critique. But maybe these critics are harsh, involving politics and the sentimental traits of her characters because no one has really seen a female writer do such a thing; create righteous and intelligent characters that, if all sat in one room together, would not get along politically or sentimentally. Every character is opinionated in their own way, which makes them intimidating to read about, too. This set of features is not a direct relation to feminism, but that is exactly the point–it isn’t supposed to be. Remember, Virginia Woolf was never known as a feminist author or a leader of the movement. Instead, she redefined the term in her own literary way. Rooney takes on a version of this mindset, and it seems like no matter what these critics may say, she won’t conform to them or any patriarchal limitations in her future works.
There is much more to be said and argued on this topic, but, this article is meant to be a start to introduce readers into the lives of women writers who have truly achieved literary success by going against the norms they’ve been conditioned to. Doing this, as we see with Sally Rooney, can put you in a tough situation with critics and readers not necessarily ‘liking’ you. But, the books still get read and bought. Articles are still being written. People are still talking about the characters, storylines and political attributes of these types of books. So, something must be right in the way that these women have learned to embrace their femininity through language.