June 24th, 2008
Persepolis, graphic novel and movie reviewed.
Autobiography has become the life blood of mid-ground comic books. Sometimes the lives recalled are woven into the fabric of dramatic and horrific events of global historical importance, sometimes the events described are decidedly quotidian. In American Splendor (Vertigo, 2008 ) – which often immortalises lives of no particular consequence other than the fact that they are being lived by human beings – author Harvey Pekar rants, ““I’ve done a lot of stuff in my life I’m not proud of but at least…” and then lists such non-acts as “never got high and shot my wife in the head” and “never conned my country into a needless war to boost my ego”.
It was while reading Persepolis (Jonathan Cape, 2006) – Marjane Satrapi’s collected autobiographical tales of life in and in self imposed exile from Iran – that I suddenly realised my own life was probably going to be best evaluated by what I haven’t done. I haven’t tortured a man with a burning hot iron, or hung a woman or cut another human being into pieces. Neither have I, as Satrapi has, had a friend die during a roof top flight from armed militia nor had one’s dress sense publicly questioned by guardians of the Islamic Cultural Revolution.
On the other hand, I do remember confronting school teachers as a child much as Satrapi did. Once, my French teacher asked a young French boy to read a passage from our class text book. We were then asked to applaud him. I refused on the grounds that, of course he read the text fluently, he was French. Later labelled by the teacher as part of the “desert” of children who were slow learners, I argued that if I could understand French I wouldn’t need to be taught it and that was the teacher’s job.
Transfer such behaviour from a Welsh private school and place it in an Iranian state school during the Islamic revolution and such middle-class precociousness takes on a distinctly political edge. Satrapi’s conflicts with her teachers focus on: being taught revisionist history that seeks to forget the past, the impossibility of taking life drawing classes without looking at the male model and the Islamic fundamentalist dress codes that are hypocritically imposed more strictly for women than for men.
In her introduction to Persepolis, Satrapi gives readers a brief history of Iran. It takes us from the second millennium B.C. and the founding of the Iranian nation in the seventh century B.C. through successive invasions by Arabs, Turks and Mongolian invaders to, in one mighty bound, the Twentieth Century and Britain’s post World War Two support for the Shah..
One effect of Satrapi’s introduction is to make it seem as if Iranian history has authored Satrapi’s life, or at least given it its significance. However, I would argue that the influence is the other way round and that it is Satrapi who has taken Iran’s history and has actively made the past significant from the point of view of the here and now. But then Satrapi is influenced by dialectical materialism and I’m influenced by Phenomenological/Hegelian Marxism so I would say that [of course you would! - ED].
Persepolis is explicitly about memory. Satrapi herself offers Persepolis as a public memorial to commemorate the lives lost in that history., “I don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten”.
But, ultimately, an autobiography is about the person writing it. As social historian Carolyn Steedman has written (Past Tenses) “In the autobiography, or in the telling of a life story in a pub…the person there, leaning up against the bar, or in another place, writing a book, is the embodiment of something completed …a human being.” Such forms of recollection can therefore be seen as a process of gathering together again the fragments of a life and turning them into a narrative with the self as protagonist and product.
Much of Persepolis is about Satrapi becoming a young woman and coming to terms with how that h
is defined for her, by Islamic fundamentalism and patriarchy and by herself. In doing so, her story stands as an example of a process that a German feminist collective have called ‘female sexualization’ (Haug et al, 1987). In part, this is the socialization of women into an identity with sexuality as it defining core. For Satrapi this requires her to overcome the norms and strictures of her Iranian up bringing. So, at a party in Vienna, she is turned off by public displays of affection and is horrified when she over hears cries of pleasure coming from her host’s bedroom- “My God, they were in the middle of……having sex!”. Next day, she finds the sight of the man in his underpants is embarrassing and comical.
Female sexualization also involves adopting ‘body techniques’ by which women attend to the training, manipulation and grooming of their bodies so that their ‘inherent’ sexuality is made visible to others. For Satrapi this process is complicated by her country’s fundamentalism which prescribes what is and is not acceptable for a woman. Satrapi details the ways in which wearing make-up becomes not an act of oppression as it would be seen by feminists at the time in the West but an act of resistance. She criticises one group of Iranian women for looking “like the heroines of American TV series, ready to get married at the drop of a hat” but then, on reflection, realises “that making themselves up and wanting to follow western ways was an act of resistance on their part.”
Inevitably, much of Satrapi’s account focuses on wearing the veil. Slight differences in the way the veil is worn become signs of resistance. Individuals also become skilled in interpreting a woman’s body beneath the veil from the way the garment hangs. So a bump at the back of a head scarf signals that a woman has a pony tail underneath. One Mullah at college even allows Satrapi to redesign the veil to fit the fashion for long, wide trousers.
Female sexualisation also involves women coming to see and evaluate themselves from the perspective of men. I imagine the feminist collective being appalled at Satrapi’s vision of a liberated self. After a page of leg waxing, hair plucking, a perm and applying make up Satrapi flirtatiously presents herself to us as “a sophisticated woman”. However, this is partly the result of the way the norms of femininity in the West, however patriarchal, act as a source of resistance to the norms of Islamic fundamentalist culture for Satrapi and her women friends.
Although the fundamentalist regime has rules governing men’s appearance, it is clear that the focus of the regime’s attention is the regulation of women’s sexuality. At a lecture on ‘Moral and Religious Conduct’, the young Satrapi stands up and confronts this hypocrisy. “Why,” she asks, “ is it that I, as a woman, am expected to feel nothing when watching these men with their clothes sculpted on but they, as men, can get excited by two inches less of my head scarf?”
For the German feminist collective memory plays a key role in the subordination of women. Women’s memories, they argue, have been colonized by patriarchal ideology. One effect of this is to forge a unity between a woman’s present, subordinate self and their childhood past by creating a false chain of cause and effect and papering over the cracks and contradictions of the life course. The collective challenge this by showing how past memories of conflict and resistance to male power can be recovered by collectively shared remembering.
Satrapi’s personal account certainly traces continuities with her childhood self. But her recollections are precisely about conflicts, crisis and personal questioning. Satrapi represents herself as critically reflective. As a child she questions all forms of authority, including God. Where she doesn’t understand situations she turns to reading Karl Marx in cartoon form and Simone De Beauvoir. She also listens to her family’s stories of political oppression and observes how they are treated.
However, there is a powerful infantilization of Satrapi’s identity at work in Persepolis. The first book (‘The Story of a Childhood’) focuses directly on Satrapi as a child but even the second volume ‘The Story of a Return’ signals a return to her childhood land. The movie makes this infantilization even more explicit. Although told in flashback while the adult Satrapi is at Orly airport, the end credits feature a snippet of dialogue between her childhood self and her grandmother. Satrapi is ever the daughter, ever the grandchild.
Satrapi’s illustrative style is also childlike, as if Studios Herge had decided to reproduce the adventures of Tintin as a series of wood block prints. Satrapi is also the author of children’s books and, at times, she casts herself as a shy child watching the adult world of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll as if it were a gang of big kids in a playground. Her dilemma is: should she join in, stand and watch or simply run away?
But this infantilization can also be seen as an ideological position. As Erving Goffman pointed out long ago in Gender Advertisements (1976) our culture often represents women as children even in the way women pose for photographs.
On one page Satrapi contrasts a group shot of her friends’ veiled public persona with their ‘fashionable’ westernized private appearance. In the public drawing one of the veiled women adopts the canted stance that Goffman sees as typical of women’s public display of submission to male authority. Although canting is a natural gesture of subordination, evidenced in the behaviour of dogs, it is human nature to invest such gestures with complex meanings.
Goffman argues that images like this are ritualised displays of that represent social norms, in particular alignments of power relations between men, women and children. Such displays dramatize alignments of power as physical alignments of, for instance, body position, between individuals of different status. Goffman calls such ritual displays in advertising ‘mock-ups’ and exploits the different meanings of the word ‘mock’ in his analysis.
To mock is a humorous act of ridicule. Women adopting this canted position in advertisements are doing so playfully. There is a humour here, evidenced by the women’s flirtatious smiles. However, mock ups are also simplified prototypes or models of behaviour to be enacted later. Like mock exams they are preparations for the real thing. Mock canting is preparatory to situations where subordination ceases to be a game.
Of course the figure of the child has often been evoked in fairy tails (The Emperor’s New Clothes) and in cultural politics (Walter Benjamin) as a position from which society can be criticised and opposed. But to criticize a political system a child would have to be particularly knowing. Satrapi might argue that she was as a child, although she humorously recaptures the rampant egotism of small children-as a child she imagines herself to be the last prophet of God and vows to banish pain from the world. Children are also powerless. While adopting the position of a child gives Satrapi critical purchase there is also little sense that she is actually empowered.
At the end of the day, we are left with an image of Satrapi dressed in black sitting and smoking. Her austere clothing part a sign of her place as an internationalized intellectual and part an Iran ex-patriot forever exiled from her homeland.
If there is one area that she does feel able to make a change then it is in her chosen life as a cartoonist. One of Satrapi’s stated aims is to challenge the way Iran, in her words, “this old and great civilization” is represented in public and discussed “mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.” In this, I am not sure she entirely succeeds.
Comic books have joined military intelligence reports and package holidays as one of the main ways in which those of us in the West come to know foreign lands, their history and people. Certainly, Satrapi puts a human-or cartoon face on actual Iranians an important counterpoint to the howling mobs usually seen on newsreels. Most of the people we come to know and care for in her story are her friends and family. In part, Satrapi wants her book to be a memorial as much as a memoir.
Persepolis therefore carries a self imposed burden of representation and reviewers quoted on the back cover emphasise its pedagogical role. “Persepolis will teach you more about Iran….than you could learn from a thousand hours of television documentaries and newspaper articles” writes Mike Haddon while Natasha Walter of the Independent on Sunday adds that the book condenses “a whole country’s tragedy into one poignant, funny scene after another.”
Certainly, within Persepolis’s pages, we meet individuals recognisable as human beings who appear to be just like us. In particular we meet Satrapi herself who is identifiable because, in a sense, many of her personal experiences are shared by us all: her childhood imaginings of possessing god-like powers (she imagines herself being the last prophet), her defiance of school teachers, her naughty behaviour (Satrapi owns up to having been a bit of a bully at times) and her adolescent experiences of growing pains, experiments with drugs and sex and painful decisions along the path to adulthood.
However, the autobiographical form constrains as much as it enables. Carolyn Steedman has usefully discussed the tensions between history and autobiography as ways of knowing the past. For Steedman, history is an empirical activity of checking records, triangulating data, cross referencing facts. History lies often unknowable beyond the life of the historian.
In contrast, autobiographies are phenomenological in that their contents – the people we read about, the events that occur- are granted existence and meaning by a writer’s consciousness and their use of narrative conventions from the point of view of the ‘here and now’. In Persepolis, Satrapi does give life to the Iran of her past but those granted individuality tend to be her family and friends.
The difficulty is that torturers, fundamentalists and soldiers opposing armies undoubtedly have personal stories too as difficult as it is to think of a father, for instance, branding and killing a human being by day and then going home to his family at night. Here the various fundamentalist regimes appear, as they must have appeared to Satrapi herself, as anonymous albeit not entirely faceless representatives of an oppressive regime. The effect of this is to reinforce dominant Western representations of Iran as a land in the grip of a totalitarian regime supported by a fundamentalist mass rather than to challenge them.
Satrapi’s point of view is also a class position. She makes no secret of and takes pleasure in her location among an Iranian savant guard intelligencia with links to royalty. Her resistance against the Iranian regime is therefore class inflected and we learn that Islamic Fundamentalism is supported mainly by the working and peasant classes of Iran, here represented largely as a shadowy mob.
Satrapi’s identification with her fellow countrymen is imagined (as opposed to imaginary) and I feel uneasy about the equivalence that she draws between her own personal fate – forced to leave her family- and the fate of those political activist who are killed standing up for their beliefs or who die as agents in or casualties of war. While Satrapi’s own life puts a human face on Iran it can’t stand for all Iranians.
Although Satrapi details the lives of those who resist successive regimes, it is clear that the regimes’ ideologies permeate every aspect of life, regulating the kinds of behaviour deemed appropriate in public and private. The truth on offer here is that fundamentalism; fanaticism and terrorism have pervaded Satrapi’s life and structure her personal narrative. Despite herself, Satrapi’s story paints a picture of everyday life in Iran that exactly conforms to expectations in the West.
Now that Persepolis has been made into a movie (on general release in the UK at time of writing) it may be hoped that Satrapi’s story will get wider exposure. Unfortunately the showing I went to could optimistically be described as half full except it was almost entirely empty. Of course I saw Persepolis on a blazing hot summer’s day in Brighton, Britain’s premier weekend holiday destination where families would rather be anywhere than inside.
The local Odeon has the hardest seating I have ever experienced in a cinema but they provided, in the manner of church pews and school benches, an appropriately austere position from which to view the film. Persepolis has been feited by film critics but often, I suspect, because they compare it with the offerings of Pixar and Disney.
There are some notably successful moments. The look of the film develops Satrapi’s black and white comic book drawings into dramatic chiaroscuro effects. And, when the young Satrapi’s father tells her how the British installed the Shah as an emperor, the events are played out as a kind of shadow puppet play. A scene where Satrapi is interrogated by the women’s branch of the guardians of the Islamic revolution has her tormentors veiled bodies writhe like black serpents.
Elsewhere, moments of comedy are doodled around the fairly sombre proceedings as the animation team attempt to inject the joy de vive that seems natural to animation. -through a window we glimpse Satrapi covered in soapsuds from washing dishes, her landlady’s already grotesque dog takes a joyful pee in the street etc. But these moments are few and far between and the film has the worthy, slightly pedagogical feel of one of S4C’s Animated Shakespeare shorts.