Helene Cixous' notion of the female aesthetic is useless without the first realization that all writing up until the point of realization is that of the masculine world -- written for, about and by a masculine voice, regardless of the sex of the writer. This body of male-dominated writing has been "run by a libidinal and cultural - hence political, typically masculine - economy [and] this is a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated, over and over, more or less consciously." Women have been silenced historically due to this cultural domination and it is because of this fact that language is necessarily male. It is possible to identify the female voice through the barriers of this repression, however Cixous' female aesthetic can never be truly embraced and identified until it is fully extricated from the male language. "Woman has never [had] her turn to speak" and because of this, she has not had time to develop her own literary history based on a female language. Cixous proposes that "woman must put herself into the text - as into the world and into history - by her own movement," and thereby equates the act of writing with the acquisition of agency. This writing must stem from woman's own personal experience, an experience which is most likely sexual but necessarily rooted in the body. She instructs her reader: "Write yourself. Your body must be heard," implying that it is an expression of the body which appears on paper when a woman writes, as a woman's language is centered on and draws from her body: "[A woman] doesn't `speak,' she throws her trembling body forward."
In directing the woman writer to her own body as a source of inspiration to her female voice, Cixous implies that the female body is isolated from the male construction of language and literature and consequently, her body can liberate her. Put in the reverse, this idea implies that the male language, that which represses women, is written from the male body, that this male body has become universalized as "(hu)man's" body.
In this way, when a woman refers to her body as a means of writing her experience, woman is exclusive to her own sex and operates from outside of the traditional and historical paradigm, in that she writes in a language that is inherently and purely female, one which identifies with her own body exclusively. Necessarily, women who write this "feminine text[,] cannot fail to be more than subversive."
This is an enormous claim as it seeks to encompass all woman writers and simultaneously establishes itself as a basis against which all women writers must be judged. In creating a body of woman's writing within this "new insurgent writing," Cixous applies a sweeping generalization to an infinite number of female writers. She indicates that there is a history which coincides with this female voice and one which does not, thereby establishing a firm one-or-the-other differentiation. The specificity of a woman's language to her body implies a feminization of language, or some kind of a likeness between the female body and the female text. If a text does not coincide with Cixous' female voice then it necessarily falls to the other side, a text which represents the male experience and the male body. In this way, Cixous reinforces the differences that exist between men and women. In fact it is these differences which allow such a female voice to emerge. This is tricky for many feminists, particularly American feminists who assume that feminism as a term implies the advocation of equality between the sexes. Cixous' definition leaves no room for a text to integrate the male and female voice or to allow them to play one off of one another. She does not recognize the way in which Constance Jordan describes it is possible to use ideology, one that may be male-based, as both a critique of that ideology and its language as well as a defense of a feminist and revised ideology. The ultimate goal of Cixous' assumption is in fact a community or a history of women's (only) writing, and such a goal may apply to writers who do not comply with Cixous' essentialist notions of the female aesthetic. Such writers use their societal role rather than their bodily roles as a way in which to assert a female voice, without a complete rejection of that society. It is possible to look at Erauso's Lieutenant Nun as a text written by such a writer because Erauso accomplishes just this: as a woman dressed up as a man, she ultimately revises or reimages the female role.
In Lieutenant Nun, supposedly written in Spain in the mid-1620's, Erauso's transformation into her male self is quite natural and anticlimactic:
I struck out, in what direction I cannot say, and came upon a chestnut
grove just beyond the walls, on the outskirts of the convent grounds.
There, I holed up for three days, planning and re-planning and cutting
myself out a suit of clothes... my nun's habit was useless and I threw
it away, I cut my hair and threw it away, and on the third night, wanting
to get as far away from the place as I possibly could, I set off without
knowing where I was going.
The material symbols of Erauso's femininity are hastily discarded. Emotion and a sense of immense transition are wholly absent from the passage, in its step-by-step account of the process. We are led to imagine that Erauso herself did not even stop to realize the implications of such a transformation, one which ends up being permanent. The fact of her true sex is rarely addressed again, except when she cleverly uses it to avoid a somewhat sticky situation in chapter twenty by resuming her female self so that she will be judged as a woman, and thus, on different terms than a man. Erauso only uses her true sex as a tool of convenience for her adapted sex. There is no doubt throughout the book that Erauso acts completely and totally as a man. It is even possible for the reader to forget that Erauso ever was a woman because of the fact that she never refers to her identity except in relation to other men, in situations which are traditionally among men. Her abandonment of femininity seems to entirely contradict Cixous' argument in that she essentially embraces the man by whom she has historically been repressed. She acts as roguishly as all other men in the memoir, if not more so. She does not in anyway use her position as a female cross-dressing as a man to fight against the mistreatment or neglect of women. In fact she exploits and uses women in much the same way as any man: "Finally one night she locked me in and declared that come hell or high water I was going to sleep with her - pushing and pleading so much that I had to smack her one and slip out of there." Erauso proceeds through her adventures as a man to establish a respectable situation for herself, she rises out of a socially inferior situation and into one through which she may exercise much more autonomy than that which she knew at the convent before her transition.
Based on what is written in "The Laugh of the Medusa," I would guess that if Cixous read this text, she would deny it as evidence of a female voice, and would quickly write it off as a female voice that has fallen prey to a male construction of society and language. This analysis of the text is however hasty and dismissive and it indicates the way in which Cixous' argument may need reinterpretation or revision. Such a revision could be demonstrated by arguing that Erauso's narrative is not necessarily that of a man, in that it is not necessarily the memoir that a man would write if he had the same experiences as Erauso. Though Erauso essentially denies her body and neglects to "write her body," and thereby neglects to write a "feminine" text, as Cixous would wish, it is important to look at what Erauso does write. Though Erauso thoroughly adapts the male role, she feminizes the role, and applies her own female aesthetic to it. After all, at the end of the memoir, Erauso is less renowned for her accomplishments as a man than she is as a woman who dresses as a man, with the general acceptance of society:
And one day in Naples, as I was strolling about the wharves, I was
struck by the tittering laughter of two ladies, who leaned against a
wall making conversation with two young bucks. They looked at
me, and I looked at them, and one said, "Senora Catalina, where
are you going all by your lonesome?"
"My dear harlots," I replied, "I have come to deliver one
hundred gashes with this blade to the fool who would defend your
The women fell dead silent, and then hurried off.
Erauso defines herself as most definitely not a woman, however it is obvious that she is accepted as not quite a man either, as this passage suggests. Her infamy seems to be actually based on the fact that she is in many ways both male and female. Erauso uses her female role when it is convenient to her as a man. It is as if she is a man who often dresses up as a woman. Such a liminal role seems shocking for seventeenth-century Catholic Spain, a society that relies heavily on the division of male and female in order to maintain a patriarchal power structure, much in the same way in which Cixous relies on the division of the sexes to emphasize the female voice. Erauso expands on the notions of female aesthetics as she sheds light on the complexity of this female/ male differentiation and demonstrates the ways in which the limits of these roles can easily be transcended, and how difficult they can be to embrace in the way that Cixous expects.
One can also not ignore the history of transvestite women, both in Spanish literature and drama as well as in feminist criticism. The mujer varonil (the manly woman), a woman who either dresses up as a man or else acts in a particularly masculine manner, is incredibly dominant in most Golden Age drama, which spans over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These women who appear in works such as Guevarra's La Serrana de la Vera or Caro's Valor, agravio y mujer, represent an integral part of Spanish drama, dressing as men usually in order to avenge some man's offense to their honor.
the woman warrior
The history of women who cross-dress as men reveals a history of women who overcome the constrictions of their own role in order to pursue some personal goal. In this way, transvestites have been seen as "among the first feminists," in that "even the slightest semblance of women (and men) rejecting their conventional garments was threatening because this implied that women ceased to be feminine (i.e. ruled) and men ceased to be masculine (i.e. ruling)." Marjorie Garber emphasizes this implication in the foreword to Lieutenant Nun when she explains the "transvestite effect" as a "category crisis," that is, "a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, permitting border crossings from one apparently distinct category to another." In other words, the evidence in literature or drama, of a world in which a woman must cross-dress as a man because of the insufficiency of the female sex, indicates a crisis which is internal to the society: "these transvestite figures mark the narratives in which they appear as narratives of a world under conceptual stress." The writer is thereby employed in a kind of interpretation of her society. That Erauso writes as a woman who dresses as a man may indicate a kind of conceptual stress on her society, one in which she perceives that "the question of `gender' as a category of analysis within seventeenth-century Spanish and New World culture remains a space of negotiation rather than a set of knowable answers." This idea of the revision of the structure that has established the male and female roles and a consequent denial of that structure's strength, is surely subversive in a way that would indicate a voice similar to that which Cixous advocates. This revision of the sexual role carries over into Erauso's narrative technique as she adapts and feminizes a tradition which is essentially male, the picaresque form, adapting not only parts of the social role of the man but also parts of his interpretive powers in narrative.
Erauso's text implies the existence of a female picaresque, one that reshapes a previously male-dominated tradition. Before this can be further examined, it is necessary to explicate the picaresque tradition in Spain in comparison with Erauso's memoir. The picaresque text was defined in 1895 by Forger de Haan as:
the prose auto-biography of a person, real or imaginary, who strives
by fair means and by foul, to make a living, and in relating his
experiences in various classes of society, points out the evils which
come under his observation.
Spanning from Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554 through the mid-1660's, the picaresque demonstrates the singularity of individuals, and the struggle of those individuals for freedom from their social bonds, usually via ascent out of a lower class into a higher class. The pícaro is in all senses an outsider. He does not have "a status defined by rights and obligations... On the contrary, in a prevailing situation of minimal social mobility, he is distinguished by a lack of ties: nothing binds him for long to a particular place, master or task." The pícaro is unable to join his fellow men but is instead forced to "rediscover" the values of Spanish society, according to his own moral judgment. In this way, the picaresque text is a "highly sensitive mirror of the social conditions and mode of life of the time in which [it was] written." This is similar to the way in which the transvestite is an indication of a crisis in a society as well as a call for a revision of that society's foundations. All Erauso has to do in order to portray her own interpretation of the values and moral character of the society, is dress as a man. This feminization of the text would not be in the way which Cixous believes is connected to the body, but instead, it is isolated from the body and dependent on the social role and the narrative form which that role allows. By comparing Lieutenant Nun only to the masculine and traditional picaresque, one which is most easily recognizable in the pioneer picaresque text, Lazarillo de Tormes, we see this revised feminization.
Written in 1554 by an unidentified author, Lazarillo de Tormes portrays Lázaro, whose life is one of "disaster, danger and bad luck." It is the quintessential male picaresque, as it elucidates the ways in which a sixteenth-century man ascends from a low social standing to a superior one in a kind of coming of age. Lázaro becomes a pícaro out of necessity: his mother cannot afford to care for both him and his younger brother and so "she said she would put me in [a new master's] charge, and as I was the son of a good man... I wouldn't turn out worse than my father. She begged him to treat me properly and take care of me, as I was an orphan." After being bumped back and forth between various abusive and cruel masters, Lázaro finds peace in a job in the Civil Service, one which grants him the social standing for which he has fought: "God was gracious enough to lighten my way and guide my steps along a fruitful path." With his new job and lovely wife, Lázaro, after all his hardship, is free to live "in service of Your Honor and of God." Within a realm of such "minimal social ability," Lázaro, as the male pícaro, is an outsider and is able to freely move through the constraints of social structure, finding himself somehow miraculously on the other side of the coin. In such a short text, in which life changes seem to occur at a galactic pace, Lázaro's social mobility is highlighted in the way in which he acquires this desired social role. In this way, the text itself appears as simply a tool in the "rediscovery" of the values of Spanish society.
Erauso's text is very similar in the formal basics. However, there are differences worth noting at both the beginning and the end. While Lázaro's assignment to the blind man as his first job is out of necessity and is the only thing a mother of such social standing can offer her son, Erauso's is more out of defiance: "when I was about to take my final vows, I got in a quarrel with one of the sisters, dona Catalina de Aliri... I was but a girl - and when she beat me, I felt it." That which brings Erauso to assert her individuality and her separateness from the rest of society is not a necessity but that which her role as a woman represents. This role is unsatisfactory as is the role which Lázaro may have played in his lower-class childhood. In other words, without such a negative experience as a woman, Erauso would not have been so moved to become a man. The social mobility and easy access to high status that is offered to a man, as is exhibited in Lazarillo de Tormes, are an easy alternative to the degrading and limiting role of a woman in this society. This difference between Erauso and Lázaro indicates a way in which Erauso's text is feminized.
Once she has gained her desired role as a free and respectable man, Erauso finds herself in the same place as Lázaro, and it is the picaresque text which has brought her there. However, Erauso attains this position by confessing and absolving herself in the end, using her physical femininity when it suits her, one which represents a social role that is greatly different than the one which she was so bound to in the convent. It is instead a femininity which, by association to her actions as a man, has strength and power. It is essentially revised, separate from the femininity which the role of the Spanish woman had dictated for her before she became a man. In this way, Erauso's position as a man is itself a higher social position as it allows her this reinterpretation and reuse of the female role at her own discretion.
It is evident that Erauso's adaptation of the picaresque form has not resulted in merely a duplicate of the male picaresque, but instead produced a female picaresque, one whose "sensitive mirror of social conditions and mode of life," does not necessarily reflect the same conditions that the male picaresque reflects. Instead, Erauso's mirror of society dresses up in a man's clothes and indicates the conditions which must be revised, according to the woman whose values and morality are underneath the clothes.
Such conditions are those which are a result of a firm division between male and female. It is in fact this division that Erauso criticizes. In exercising a freedom as the outsider to wander out of one sex and into another as she pleases, Erauso demonstrates the arbitrariness of the division between the two. In this way, she utterly opposes Cixous' argument as she cannot embrace the female sex exclusively, but only as this strange conglomeration of male and female.
Erauso's mirror of society reflects the "category crisis" which her existence as a transvestite necessarily indicates. This interpretation of society is not one which is characteristic to the man but to the transvestite, or to the person who transcends the limitation of gender. The fact that Erauso's text resists the male tradition of the picaresque which revises many aspects of the society, though not the sexual roles, allows Erauso to fall into Cixous' feminine category that she has just defied. It is indeed possible that a woman may express the feminine voice without a direct correlation between her body or sexuality and that voice. Erauso simultaneously pronounces a reinterpretation of the female role within Spanish society, as well as a reinterpretation Cixous' dichotomization of feminine and masculine writing, by utilizing aspects from both aesthetics, and explicating a need for this fusion.
Silvia Bovenshen expresses the need for such an interpretation of Cixous' theory. She emphasizes the development of new forms of productivity, rationality and, if necessary (which it is), aggression." Instead of "abandoning one aspect of the duality in favor of the other," as Cixous implies in so thoroughly isolating and essentializing the female aesthetic, Bovenshen predicates the female artistic voice on "conquering and reclaiming, appropriating and formulating, as well as forgetting and subverting." Erauso's text involves the "self-fashioning" of a woman who finds the existing division of the male and female roles in her society unacceptable. Instead of complying to the distinctions which these roles imply, Erauso makes room for a revision of them.
This investigation reveals an important fault in Cixous' call for the female voice and female community. The idea that a woman must be wholly separated from society in order to exercise a female voice, is similar to the notion that a woman must be separate from the church or the workplace so that she does not exercise her inherent femininity in an improper sphere. In either case, this isolation from men and arbitrary lumping of women both objectifies and essentializes woman. Bovenshen's exploration of the female aesthetic shows that the effort to "retroactively fabricate community" can often backfire, in attempting to create community where it does not exist. The idea of female isolation in order to unveil the female voice does not attempt to explore or revise or "reclaim" the duality that separates the male and female role. Instead, this isolation only widens the gap. If I were to examine this essay in accordance with Cixous' perspective on the female voice, I would find myself as guilty as she might find Erauso, as I'm writing in a form which does not illustrate my own personal and bodily experience as a woman, but rather in an analytical form, one that is associated with a male-based analytic language. I am, by writing in this manner, going against the notion that "it is impossible to define a feminine practice of writing, and this is an impossibility that will remain, for this practice can never be theorized, enclosed, coded." However, such a definition and theorization is precisely what Cixous has accomplished in her description of the female aesthetic. The search for a feminine language is in this way somewhat aimless. To discount this paper on the basis of its analytic character would be to discount the aspects of it that seek to question the structure behind that analysis. It seems as if Cixous herself is more at fault in the reinstatement of such a male structure than I or Erauso might be. The undefineablity of the feminine language presents an ideological problem that baffles many feminist critics, leaving them at a dead end on ways in which to analyze the female text. It seems that it is maybe necessary to realize that each text written by a woman is feminine, regardless of its adherence to or disavowal of the male tradition and it is this recognition of a woman's tradition which is crucial to such "conquering and reclaiming."
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return to English 341
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