Why Did Marjane Satrapi Write ‘Persepolis’: Essay

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Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, sheds light on a perspective of middle eastern women not explored previously by western audiences. Satrapi presents a rare outlook on a situation very few have endeavored, as an Iranian woman spending a lot of her time in western culture. Dissatisfied with how Iranian women were portrayed in western cultures, Satrapi challenges these stereotypes by offering a new perspective. In her words, “From the time I came to France in 1994, I was always telling stories about life in Iran to my friends. We’d see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, ‘No, it’s not like that there.’ I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be an Iranian for almost twenty years. How strange when it isn’t something I did or chose to be?” (Satrapi, “Why I Wrote Persepolis” 10). Satrapi, having first-hand experience with both eastern and western cultures & feminism, interprets the female Iranian perspective in a way that can properly be digested by western audiences. Satrapi displays how systematic oppression of a minority, in this example women, can lead others to be victims of stereotype threat and completely succumb to the molds placed for them in society even if it is not their own; displaying as well how difficult breaking through the glass ceiling set in place for them can be.

Mary Louise Pratt, describes this novel as an autoethnographic text, claiming Persepolis acts as “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (Pratt 35). Persepolis, which depicts Satrapi’s life up to this point, displays an almost unseen understanding of representation. As one theorist has argued, “In discussing Persepolis in relation to the theme of women and space, we will draw upon a framework suggested by Pollock for reading the work of women artists…Pollock refers to three spatial registers: first, the locations represented by the work (and, in particular, the division between public and private space); second, the spatial order within the work itself (concerning, for example, angles of vision and other framing devices); and third, the space from which the representation is made, including the working space of the artist, and more generally the social and psychic space within which she is located, and within which her work is received” (Miller 39). This quote illustrates to a tee how Satrapi chooses to engage her readers, utilizing what Miller refers to as the ‘third space’, having the readers activate the social and psychic space of their cognitive skills and reflecting on their own experiences.

Satrapi seems to be using nego-feminism perspective in Persepolis to display properly describe how she feels about the treatment of Iranian women in their culture while sounding unbiased and rational. In a sense she is acknowledging there are circumstances that she understands are the reason women are treated the way they are in her culture, but not to say there is not mistreatment as well. Lois Tyson has a well-put explanation of perspective of this in her novel, Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide, stating “Feminists don’t deny the biological differences between men and women, in fact, many feminists celebrate those differences. But they don’t agree that such differences as physical size, shape, and body chemistry make men naturally superior to women: for example, more intelligent, more logical, more courageous, or better leaders.” (Tyson 82) Since Satrapi chooses to narrate her story this way, she essentially reclaims her identity as well as how she and the women of her culture are represented and gains the ability to properly explain to the audience how she viewed life as a woman growing up in her home. Since this is an illustrated novel, Persepolis also has the form of visual communication, which allows Satrapi to use images of privileged characters whose backgrounds match or relate to western audiences which resonates much deeper. Satrapi begins her tale as a child allowing the narrative of middle eastern culture to be shifted, by displaying a nurturing and kind home life echoing values similar to western cultures.

Satrapi is an advocate for children to become world travelers and properly garner of understanding of what it’s like to be immersed in other cultures stating; you cannot hate what you know.” (Satrapi, “Why I Wrote Persepolis” 11). While Satrapi had the privilege of studying abroad she acknowledges that those resources are not available to all, and how privileged and fortunate she was to have the experience. Satrapi wrote this book to share with people who could never properly understand what it’s like to grow up in a middle eastern culture without an insider's view, to give them a lens of what it’s like in an easy-to-digest format. While illustrating and writing from a child's perspective it also alludes to the understanding that most western audiences might have of how Iranian women are treated. Her childhood perspective reflects how privileged she truly was, with the understanding for most westerners being middle eastern women are oppressed and have little to no freedom, Satrapi is able to build a bridge and highlight the similarities between both cultures. Satrapi is also challenging what she deems to be as appropriate and inappropriate for herself, something that most westerners fail to understand is that not all women, or men, in fact, succumb to the mold set in place for them by their government, peers, and family. This is illustrated when Satrapi states, “Then came 1980: the year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school. One thing that's important to note is that only women wear the veil. The boys' clothes change, but they're never as restrictive as a veil. Couldn't they at least make the boys wear a propeller beanie or something?” (Satrapi 4) Here displays the common acceptance amongst both western and Iranian cultures. Women are expected to cover up to protect themselves from men. “We’ve often said or heard it said about a male exhibiting overly or inappropriately aggressive behavior..” (Tyson 104) It’s a common theme amongst cultures that the ‘boys will be boys’ stereotype runs rampant and instead of checking our men in place, we shield our girls to what we deem as acceptable.

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Many of Satrapi’s actions in Persepolis demonstrate her self-possession. Even as a child, she demonstrates a facility and freedom of speech that embodies American values. Throughout the book, she independently moves on her own, is unafraid to speak her mind, works for social activism, and endeavors to create an equal world for all. Overcoming Western stereotypes that women have no voice in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Satrapi easily marries and gets divorced. Echoing these thoughts, Miller explains that one should “interpret the book within a liberal-humanist framework, according to which ‘Marji is just like any other teenager in the West’ but one whose normal rebelliousness over dress codes is transformed in the context of Iran into resistance to the fundamentalist theocracy” (Miller 45). Satrapi’s outspokenness allows her to express herself and her strong sense of what is right. In supplying pictures of a world in which Muslim women can express themselves in similar ways to Western women, Satrapi utilizes Western feminism as a means to make apparent notions and embodiments of Eastern feminism.

Quoting Western feminist philosophers and feminists (mainly Simone De Beauvoir, in the chapter “Pasta”) Satrapi as a protagonist develops her own perspective and shows experiences where she broke through expectations that were set for her. Once she established a framework in which readers could sympathize with their own Western perspective, she included experiences in which, while still relevant to Western politics, she fought political traditional values on behalf of “modernity.” For example, in “The Convocation,” as an adult, she designs a new school uniform that once limited her self-expression into one that was more accommodating of personality: she created an outfit with a short head scarf and wider trousers, instead. In this circumstance, Satrapi sympathized with Westerners in a way that is thought-provoking: “[the veil] has been co-opted both into the ‘Western narrative of Islam as oppressor and West as liberator’ and into the alternative narrative of ‘the essentialness of preserving Muslim customs, particularly in regard to women, as a sign of resistance to imperialism.’ It may be argued that Satrapi colludes with the first of these narratives by portraying the imposition of the veil solely as a coercive measure introduced by an Islamic regime that had usurped the victory of the surprise against the Shah” (Miller 42). This example demonstrates her facility for expression and changing her situation, ultimately showing that Iran has become less strict than Westerners might assume.

The values Satrapi chooses to espouse as a protagonist also reflect certain Western values. In the first chapter, she explains that she “was born with religion” (Satrapi, Persepolis, 6). She devotes herself to her religion and serving God, frequently talking with him while she is preparing to sleep. Satrapi is also very proud of her nationalism, as evidenced by “The Vegetable.” One could easily tie the symbolism of religion and nationalism with certain Calvinist values that have manifested in American culture. For Satrapi as a protagonist, faith is very important to her. Satrapi as a protagonist is also extremely family-oriented, prioritizing her nuclear family over many aspects of her life. For example, her character moves back to Iran to be with them, she shows her rejuvenation from time with her mother, and ultimately chooses Iran and her family over some aspects of her self-expression, including being able to show her hair and ankles. In this way, like many Western stories, family factors into Satrapi’s creation of her own identity (Miller 47). Lastly, Satrapi includes her own focus on educating herself as a reoccurring value for her protagonist in Persepolis.

Quoting Mary Louise Pratt, “where there are legacies of subordination, groups need places for healing and mutual recognition, safe houses in which to construct shared understandings, knowledge, claims on the world that they can then bring into the contact zone” (Pratt 40). In Persepolis, Satrapi used the subordination she saw demonstrated in the media about Iran to fuel a powerful story that Westerners could empathize with, further demonstrating that identities as a strong, independent woman and feminist with family values cannot be separated by also being a Muslim Iranian. Satrapi uses a language expressed by pictures in a way that echoes Monsoon and Bennaifer, welcoming the Western reader into her own personal world in order to demonstrate the similarities and differences between the two of them. These pictures allow the reader to construct their own emotions in response to the striking black-and-white pictures that tell the story. This expression of her world fits the definition of nego-feminism--giving and taking from her reader, in providing them sympathetic perspective coupled with experiences very different from what many Americans know and will ever experience (Naemeka 357). Further, Satrapi seeks to provide a different gaze, in Lacan’s terms, instead of “entering into the scopic regime of the European city unveiled, [Satrapi saw] herself being seen in a new way, and this gaze rearranges the very dimensions of her body. And in that distortion, she feels herself to be disintegrating and at the same time recomposing in alignment with a new image” (Gokariksel & Secor 196). She used the perspective conceived of by Western viewers, the one that had been created by her, and used it to demonstrate her similarities and independence. Instead of being forced into a new image, Satrapi chose to create her own and changed Western perceptions in doing so.

Works Cited

  1. Gökarıksel, Banu and Anna Secor. The Veil, Desire, and the Gaze: Turning the Inside Out. Signs, 40, 1 (Autumn 2014): 177-200.
  2. Miller, Ann. “Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: Eluding the Frames.” Johns Hopkins University Press: L’Espirit Createur, Vol. 51, No. 1, Spring 2011: 38-52.
  3. Nnaemeka, Obioma. “Nego‐Feminism: Theorizing, Practicing, and Pruning Africa’s Way.” Signs, Vol. 29, No. 2, Winter 2004, 357-385. Online.
  4. Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Perspolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2004. Print
  5. Satrapi, Marjane. “Why I wrote Persepolis: a graphical novel memoir: writer Marjane Satrapi faced the challenges of life in post-revolutionary Iran. She used the graphic novel format to tell her unique story.” Marjane Satrapi. Writing!, Nov-Dec, 2003, Vol.. 26(3), p. 9(5) Cengage Learning Inc.
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