Why I loved Persepolis

Cover of Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007); image courtesy of shelflove.wordpress.com

Cover of Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007); image courtesy of shelflove.wordpress.com

When I saw the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, it was a pretty rad time to be a feminist moviegoer. In the last month of 2007 and the first month of 2008, this movie came out, along with Juno and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Having just completed a girls’ studies course, I was ecstatic that three different movies, each from a different country, were released with complex, resilient protagonists who were girls and young women.

Two of these movies earned Oscar nominations a few months later. Juno won Best Screenplay. Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature, but unfortunately lost to Ratatouille. 4 Months, which documents the harrowing day of one college student trying to procure an illegal abortion for her roommate during the last years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s in Romania, won the Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier in 2007, but failed to receive any nominations. For some reason. Perhaps it escaped nomination as a technicality, but I don’t understand why no one, particularly writer-director Cristian Mungiu or lead actress Anamaria Marinca, got any Academy recognition. Perhaps because it lacked the allegorical importance of No Country For Old Men or There Will Be Blood and cut to very real (and tremendously gendered) issues facing real people in the real world, many of whom reside in developing nations. 

But it is really no matter. No Country, There Will Be Blood, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There were but more examples of what a very fine time this particular two-month period was for movies. But 4 Months was easily my favorite movie of that year. The movie whose source material will be the focus of this post was a very close second.

Having seen the movie upon its U.S. release, some context has changed considerably upon revisiting Satrapi’s autobiography about coming of age inside and outside of Iran from the late 70s to the early 90s, a time period where the country witnessed the fall of the Shah (aided by the United States), the swift and crushing oppression of its citizens by Islamic extremists, a devastating eight-year war with Iraq, and the neighboring country’s launch of the Persian Gulf War. In late 2007, we were still living under the Bush Administration, so the country’s positioning as part of the “axis of evil” was in my mind, but being pretty ignorant about the country’s political history and our involvement with it past the Iran-Contra Affair, Bush’s branding of the country read more as a promise that the United States were, in fact, going to try and spread democracy by force to all of the Middle East, snatching up its real or imagined WMDs and drain its oil resources in the process. And I knew about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and was disgusted by his views on the Holocaust and heartened by the student protests around his adminstration, but was not yet aware of just what a dangerous despot he is.     

This was, of course, before this year’s highly controversial presidential election, which Ahmadinejad “won” by a suspiciously high margain over rival candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, an Independent reformist. At the time, what seemed more present in our minds in the states was what Twitter was doing to help cover and contextualize the civic protests and how quickly mainstream broadcast news was going to incorporate the still-emergent micro-blogging site’s Tweets into their 24-hour cycle, regardless of how accurate they were. 

As a result, I was a little jaded by the “Twitter users coverage of the Iran election is going to change news reporting” angle many seemed to be taking and instead wanted to know more about how the election was fraudulent, why certain people (specifically journalists, protesters, students, and politicians) were being arrested, what the stakes were, who was doing a good job covering this news story, and, most importantly, what circumstances led to the current iteration of Iran. Remembering that local branches of Barnes & Noble were donating proceeds to the Paramount upon purchase last weekend, shilling out my money to the big box chain for the sake of preserving a historical movie theater seemed as a good an opportunity to buy the book that may provide answers.

And, I’ll be honest. Reading the book left me with more questions than anything else (a similar feeling came over me when reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, two books whose timelines stretch past the 70s-90s, but contain a considerable overlap in terms of time with Persepolis, focusing on what was going on with ordinary people in Afghanistan, another contentious Middle Eastern country that borders Iran). It was hard not to check some ugly American tendencies I have toward Islamic traditions — particularly toward its views on marriage, sexuality, gender politics, and dress. At the same time, I was incredulous of how pro-West rhetoric and ideology, alongside our smuggled trinkets of popular culture, could possibly reform a nation, or at least save a person.

Luckily, Satrapi is skeptical of both and, like me and other feminists from all over the world, has a lot to negotiate. She grapples with these issues head-on. She argues with teachers against the physical restrictions and societal double standards that come with the hijab and the burka (sidenote: I know that Faegheh Shirazi, who teaches Middle Eastern Studies at UT and rejects traditional Islamic dress, has written and taught courses on gender and clothing in the Middle East, but any other suggestions for further reading are welcome). She watches her female peers grow up to only want marriage and children, in large part because these are the only things their nation’s leaders believe define their worth. Particularly poignant for this co-habitator, she regrets getting married to a man named Reza because they could not legally live together (or even walk the street) without proof of marriage, dissolving the marriage and leaving for France.

Marjane and friends reject the hijab; image courtesy of rand.org

Marjane and friends reject the hijab; image courtesy of rand.org

Satrapi is a smart rebel who reads constantly, thinks clearly, and never backs down from an argument. She yells at authority figures who bully her or deny that there are any political prisoners in Iran after learning about the loss of her grandfather, who was son and prime minister to the ousted king (a tie that Satrapi suggests is not uncommon).

College student Satrapi damns the man; image courtesy of butterfliesandbears.wordpress.com

College student Satrapi damns the man; image courtesy of butterfliesandbears.wordpress.com

Luckily for Satrapi, she gets through all of this with the love and support of her politically aware and resistant parents, their friends, and one rad paternal grandma. Not so luckily, she also knows and meets lots of folks who suffered for speaking up, speaking out, or just living in the wrong house during an aerial bombing. Something tells me that many Iranians could recount similar tales of horror.

Satrapi also learns that the ways of the West are not always ideal, either. While a pre-pubescent in Iran, she hangs Iron Maiden posters on her wall her parents smuggle from a vacation in Turkey when the government lifted border restrictions. She defiantly walks around her neighborhood, blaring Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America” from her Walkman while sporting a Michael Jackson pin. But noting that their daughter’s rebelliousness is hardly a phase and that escalating conflict with Iraq could mean the imprisonment or death of their mouthy teen, her parents send her to live with a friend of her mother’s in Vienna.

Still from the film; image courtesy of whatsontv.co.uk

Still from the film; image courtesy of whatsontv.co.uk

Satrapi finishes high school, barely scraping by as she finds odd jobs, dates dumb boys, takes a lot of drugs, and runs into authority figures who want her to tow the line and behave. She also falls in with a group of radical misfits who dabble with nihilism, Marxism, hair dye, and punk. While Satrapi initially finds a home with these punks and new wave kids, she soon discovers their privilege has made them cowardly, pretentious, self-righteous, entitled, and lazy. Her outsider status also makes her cool, her Austrian peers clearly jealous by what she has seen and experienced without really processing the weight of it between drags off their joints and skims through their copies of the Marx-Engels Reader in their well-appointed bedrooms. It’s small wonder that, when Satrapi finally returns home to Iran after she finishes high school homeless and afflicted with bronchitis, she washes off a punk stencil from her bedroom wall. And while she’s sad that her mother gave away her cassette tapes, she probably wasn’t going to listen to them anyway. She would’ve kept the Kim Wilde tape, however.

So, ultimately, I do feel this revisit of Persepolis helped clarify my feelings about the state of Iran. It also left me with several questions and a need to know more. Ultimately, though, it left me with the sense of universality that exists between people, especially tough, smart women and girls, while at the same time recognizing the particularities that inform their realities. And continues to inform them. Back in June, Satrapi spoke out against the election results with filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalba. Something tells me that her grandmother, who passed away shortly after Satrapi moved to France at the close of the book, would be proud.

Quality time with grandma; image courtesy of rwor.org

Quality time with grandma; image courtesy of rwor.org

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6 comments

  1. lain

    As a muslim girl who has been a fan of your blog for a while, this post put me off, seriously. Physical restrictions? What? This woman who wrote this comic has probably never worn one. I wear it everyday to school, summer to winter, its no different to wearing jeans and a shirt. My best friend wears the niqab (despite her family disagreeing with that) out of her own free will and feels totally comfortably in it.
    Have ever even met a muslim person before?

    “She watches her female peers grow up to only want marriage and children, in large part because these are the only things their nation’s leaders believe define their worth. ”
    Really only this women’s experiences define Islam for you, right?
    Cos I am a Somali muslim (no I don’t care for Ayaan Hirsi and can’t tell you some tragic story about female circumcision), I can’t say I’ve ever been to Iran or know anything their culture, but really all of my female muslim friends (who range from white converts, to Asians, africans and arabs) were raised to prioritize education first.

    “Michael Jackson pin”
    Oh how rebellious! My mother grew up listening to him in Somalia without any fuss.
    Honestly we can only be liberated by western culture right?

    I hate these patronizing assumptions about muslim women. You talk about essentialism but will latch on to any anti-islamic rhetoric made by a middle eastern person as some voice of reason. Honestly if its one thing that western (mostly white to be honest) feminists repeatedly do its infantilizing muslim women.
    After this and that Alicia Keys post, I think I will be un-following your blog.
    I’ll just stick to racialicious.

    • Alyx Vesey

      I’m truly sorry if my posts have alienated you, Lain. I hope I haven’t lost you as a reader, and I thank you for your insights. I recognize that, as a white secular American feminist, it is tricky business to champion a graphic novel/film adaptation of a Iranian-born French woman’s memoir, especially in light of how many people have criticized Persepolis and Satrapi for being anti-Muslim and blindly pro-West. I also anticipated some push-back against my Alicia Keys’ piece, and in fact hoped to encounter some, as I know my anti-fandom is intensely problematic in terms of its racial and gender politics.

      However, I do take issue with a few of your statements. Specifically, I think you are applying (and, in some sense, distorting and presuming) my perspectives on one book/film and having that stand in for my opinions about Islamic cultural practice. I recognize that there’s extensive literature about Islamic feminist practices that confronts and challenges western feminist condescension toward dress, ritual, family, and gender roles. I did not bring that into this essay and maybe I should have. Frankly, I didn’t think that Satrapi’s experiences (which are time- and nation-specific) in any way represented the complex entirety of Muslim female and feminist subjectivity. Having read the piece over again, I still don’t think that was even a subliminal intention. However, I recognize that words take on a variety of meanings apart from authorial intent, so I apologize if that was in any way misunderstood.

      As such, I don’t latch on to “any anti-Islamic rhetoric made by a Middle Eastern person as some voice of reason” and take issue with any accusation that I do. I was speaking specifically about Satrapi’s project. Again, I think it’s problematic to assume that was is being said about one text is applied to a person’s belief about an entire religion and/or its practitioners. As such, Satrapi’s experience doesn’t define Islam for me–it only provides one perspective though, admittedly, one that is very palatable for western feminist audiences. Thus, I wasn’t saying that the physical restrictions Satrapi depicts in the novel or her gradual disconnection with her female peers speaks definitively to Muslim women’s lived experiences. I know that many Muslim women and girls proudly wear their niqab, acquire first-class education, and don’t encounter systemic violent suppression. Satrapi was an Iranian teenager who came of age during the Iranian Revolution. You are a contemporary Somalian Muslim girl. I would never assume your lived experience reflects hers (and, following this conversation, would love to hear your larger critique of Satrapi’s work, along with some possibly corrective literature, if you would feel willing to share it). While I may have been too generous with the novel at the time (which I still think is great but, over two years after I read it, felt I needed more nuanced perspectives), I thought the ways in which it universalized certain human experiences while placing hers in a very particular sociohistoric context potentially helped allay anti-Muslim sentiment. I may be naive, but I at least recognize that Satrapi’s experiences are her own and not necessarily yours, or even her contemporaries.

      One final thing. To your point about the Michael Jackson pin, I think it represents a symbolic form of freedom, one that often brings about culturally imperialist notions of American cultural primacy as a consequence. However, Satrapi embeds a critique against such blind championing of Western popular culture when she recounts her time as a student in Austria. For me, this is actually the most productive part of the book and wherein Satrapi offers a real contribution to our understanding of cultural exchange and the ethnic and religious insensitivity that informs much western liberalism. This is also why I take issue with baseline rejection of Satrapi’s book, as I feel many critics are often overlooking this portion of the book where she sees many western values and ideologies in practice and recognizes how even the most intellectual and supposedly culturally sensitive individuals show their ass. I may have been one of them at times in this post. Yet I sought here and continued to seek to recognize and establish where such cultural texts are endemic to their authors and their surrounding contexts and lived experiences and thus can only speak in a limited and highly contingent capacity about national, religious, raced, generational, and gendered identities.

      • Alyx Vesey

        That said, I chose to write on Persepolis. Naturally, selection of blog post topics presents its own power dynamics and cultural biases. Again, I don’t expect you to rattle off a list of texts that counter Satrapi’s views on Islam if you don’t want to. But you are of course invited to if you would like and I would greatly welcome it.

      • Kell0x

        I really love this review. I find it a shame that a woman had to ignore your review of this wonderful book and movie by acting as if you’re attacking her religion. This experience was on the revolution of Iran and how it tried to stop its people from developing. She doesnt seem to understand that wearing a Mj-pin in those days was rebellious because anything western was seen as wrong and immoral. Many free Muslim women just are still in Denial of how there brothers and sisters are treated in Iran. It has nothing to do with religion it has everything to do with a goverment forcing their own moral codes upon people. Heck she could have been lashed for wearing make up.

  2. lain

    Thank you for the response. I don’t have time at this very moment to give a full reply, but I was really disappointed at the particular post, since I was a follower of your blog.
    I am glad that you see my point of view, but your issue with the hijab and movements and then posting a picture with the police telling her to move in a less a ‘obscene way’ (how unrealistic, seriously! who talks like that?and Islamically she’s right, he shouldn’t be looking at her ass!) just set something off in me. I just felt that it was perpetuating terrible stereotypes of male as well as female muslims.

    I remember watching the film on Film 4 and not being able to finish it. my sister and I just found the way she glorified western culture (like the whole punk thing) a bit spurious. But thanks for your reply anyway.

    Lain

    • Kell0x

      I know this pose is way to old. But I just had to reply to this. If you were just to WATCH and finish the movie or read the book you would know She criticized western society as well. In fact she wanted to return to Iran after living a helish lifestyle in Germany. When her boyfriend wanted to move out of Iran she opposed this idea because, When you die in Iran, your loved ones will mourn for you. when you die in the West nobody cares”However she doesn’t criticizes Islamic religion she criticizes how the Iranian Goverment forces women, Dont deny that they dont. I have talked to plenty of Islamic people that agreed with the aurthor . I just fear that you can’t handle any sort of criticisme that might be close to your religion yet you have no problem to vent on the west society. Understand that there both NOT perfect.

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