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Thursday, October 21, 2010


Feminism is not a singular ideological viewpoint. Rather it is a collective term for a set of ideas and theories that pay special attention to women's rights and women's position in society. Many theorists talk of many 'Feminisms' as these theories engage with a various other areas such as linguistics, psychoanalysis, Marxism, poststructuralism, cultural studies, postcolonial theory, queer theory and gender studies. In the context of our syllabus, we focus on two major kinds of feminism, namely Pre-poststructuralist Feminism and Poststructuralist Feminism.

Pre-poststructuralist Feminism

  • One of the most important works of this strand of feminism is Mad Woman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
  • In this work, they examine the Western literary tradition and say that the word 'woman' in connection with 'writer'.
  • Gilbert and Gubar talk of a metaphorical connection between 'pen' and 'penis' that seems to have created such a tradition and limited women writers.
  • They explore different possible causes for this: (1) it could be because of the anxiety created by unsure paternity (not knowing whether they are really biologically related to their children) or (2) it might be a reaction to the threat of castration.
  • Works of such feminists radically altered the way we think about women and literature. As a result, today works of many women writers have been raised to a canonical stature.

Poststructuralist Feminism

  • Though Gilbert and Gubar questioned male dominance in literature, they did not question writing itself.
  • Important theorists of this strand of feminism are Helen Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva (French Feminists); Judith Butler and Dona Haraway (American).
  • There are also some Indian women who have contributed to the feminist theory by pointing at the gaps of Western theories.
  • Mary E. John, Tejaswini Niranjan, Sussie Tharu and others argue that Western theories do not fully explain the Indian scenario. So, they seek to fill the gaps so we might be able to get a holistic view.

Helen Cixous

  • Cixous picks up Lacan's idea that women and men enter the Symbolic order differently.
  • She talks about Western cultural structures as 'Phallogocentric' meaning a system composed of binaries such as man/woman, day/night, culture/nature, etc. and the concepts on the left side of the slash are preferred more.
  • It is a combination of two concepts namely Phallic (Freud) and Logocentric (Derrida).
  • Then, Cixous gives a metaphor of the theatre where men are closer to the centre and women are on the periphery.
  • So, it is easier for the women to escape the authority of the centre or Phallus.
  • Men on the other hand suffer because of they do not have the possibility of escape. They do not have access to their own sexuality because it is defined in limiting terms.
  • Cixous further says that most women write from a masculine position because they are caught in the phallogocentric system.
  • Therefore, she talks of the concept of l'ecriture feminine as feminine writing. This according to Cixous is possible only in poetry because it does not rely on stable signifiers.
  • She further talks about the concept of jouissance.
  • She says that women must find their own sexuality, one that is rooted in their own bodies and write about that pleasure, which she calls jouissance.
  • She does not want to define such feminine writing because that goes back to the idea of stable signifiers.
  • Cixous favours poetry because it allows for such feminine writing. Novel on the other hand is more direct and based on stable signifiers.
  • 'The Laugh of the Medusa' is one of Cixous' most important works where she looks at the myth of Medusa,a woman with snakes for hair and whose stare can turn men into stone.
  • She argues that snakes represent a lot of phallus which is fearful to men.
  • She upturns the Freudian idea of female sexuality that is defined be a sense of lack or absence. She characterizes female sexuality as complete and not as an absence of phallus.

Luce Irigaray

  • Irigaray carries forward some of Cixous' arguments specifically finding a link between language and bodies.
  • In her essay 'The Sex Which Is Not One', she argues that female sexuality has always been defined in male terms.
  • She points out that this is flawed because we are focused on finding one single female sexual organ and the visual is given more preference over the other senses. So, vagina is seen as absence.
  • Irigaray further says that a woman's sexuality is based on touch and she is complete unlike the man.

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