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"Persepolis:" Adding Feminism to the Graphic Novel

epeck's picture

          “Persepolis” tells the story of Marjane Satrapi’s childhood, adolescence and transition into adulthood set on the changing backdrop of her cultural location and identity[1].  Through her personal story, Satrapi educates her audience on what it means to her to be an Iranian girl and woman, the political situation in Iran at the time of her upbringing, and how she often clashed with her surroundings and fought back against oppressive and simplistic ideology encountered in both Iran and Europe.    As inspiration for her graphic novel, Satrapi cites “Maus” by Art Spiegelman[2].  While in some ways “Persepolis” is very similar to “Maus,” the changes that Satrapi has made can be seen as her way of creating a feminist text out of an uncommon genre – the graphic novel.

            “Maus” provides an interesting description of World War Two and the Holocaust, in which mice represent the Jews, and cats represent Germans[3].  This cat-and-mouse tale is personal for the author, Spiegelman, because it is his father’s story of survival through the Second World War and eventual relocation to the United States.  It is drawn in black and white and has a hurried and crowded feeling that could be inviting the audience to feel the sense of chaos and crowdedness that Spiegelman’s father surely felt as he experienced the events in the graphic novel.  The novel includes its own writing as part of the plot, with pages about the author’s visit to his father in order to hear the story as introductions to many plot points.  It feels as if the audience is invited into the process of creating the graphic novel, since we see its earliest inspiration. 

                                                             This image shows the detail in “Maus,” and is a scene in which the father is telling Speigelman his story and the reader begins to see the process of “Maus”’s creation.  There is shading, and many small details, such as the father’s tattoo from the concentration camps.  This level of detail is not seen in “Persepolis.”

This image shows the detail in “Maus,” and is a scene in which the father is telling Speigelman his story and the reader begins to see the process of “Maus”’s creation.  There is shading, and many small details, such as the father’s tattoo from the concentration camps.  This level of detail is not seen in “Persepolis.” 

        “Maus” is primarily a story about men, with Spiegelman and his father being the two most prominent characters.  There are women present, but their characters are one-dimensional, and could be described as “wife” or “mother.”  This is not necessarily a flaw in the work, and it does not necessarily make “Maus” anti-feminist, but it does make Satrapi’s use of her inspiration all the more interesting in her telling of a story primarily about the lives of women.  It is significant that Satrapi looked to a primarily male text as a starting point for her own work.

            Knowing that Satrapi saw “Maus” as an inspiration for her own work, it is clear that “Persepolis” borrows some stylistic elements from “Maus”; however, Satrapi adds a personal flair that makes her work unique.  She also uses black and white, but the feeling of her panels is drastically different from Spiegelman’s.  They are much less detailed, so instead of the claustrophobic and cluttered feeling of “Maus,” the panels and pages of “Persepolis” seem carefully thought out, with each detail being necessary to either the plot of the story or an understanding of Satrapi’s internal conflict and dialogue.  Satrapi does not show her audience the process of her writing, but instead presents the novel as a pre-formed and thought out story.   An obvious, but important distinction between “Maus” and “Persepolis” is that Satrapi represents her life with human characters, while Spiegelman chooses to distance himself and use animals, perhaps softening the blow of a harsh moment in history.  Although “Persepolis” also tells of several horrific moments, Satrapi humanizes them by allowing the reader to see them as she did.

        The key difference between “Maus” and “Persepolis” is the presence of women in “Persepolis.”  Male characters, such as Satrapi’s father and uncle, are certainly well developed, but women make up the core of the novel.  Satrapi herself, her mother and grandmother are all extremely well described.  They are multi-dimensional characters that show us their beliefs and inner conflicts.  These women are shown to be imperfect, and Satrapi does not try to glorify, disparage, or unite women.  Instead, she shows the complexities of their relationships and in doing so, their essential humanity.  Conflict between groups of women is shown when Satrapi describes her feelings about wearing the veil.  In these scenes, Satrapi only explores her own character; she does not claim to know the mindset of “the Iranian woman.”  The audience encounters women who are polar opposites from Satrapi, but we do not learn very much about them.  “Persepolis” truly tells the audience about the life and mind of one woman; it does not try to show all perspectives or even explain anyone’s actions but Satrapi’s own. 

                                             This panel shows the stark lack of detail in “Persepolis.”  Satrapi shows the details that are important, but leaves everything else blank.  In “Maus,” the faces of the individuals behind Satrapi’s parents would likely have been filled in, and the characters themselves would have had more details or shading.  By using strong lines and showing only what she wants, Satrapi controls the narrative and brings emphasis to the key emotions and plot points.      

These panels show the stark lack of detail in “Persepolis.”  Satrapi shows the details that are important, but leaves everything else blank.  In “Maus,” the faces of the individuals behind Satrapi’s parents in the airport scene would likely have been filled in, and the characters themselves would have had more details or shading.  By using strong lines and showing only what she wants, Satrapi controls the narrative and brings emphasis to the key emotions and plot points. In the scene depicting Satrapi and her mother, the audience can see their relationship and begin to understand the complexities of their cultural identities.

            By examining her thoughts and presenting events as she witnessed them, Satrapi forces her audience to think and see as a girl and woman.  By writing her own story, she has given herself agency and a voice, despite the many times her voice was “veiled” by others or by oppressive regimes.  Telling the story of one woman and thoroughly exploring a female character, along with several female side characters, can be seen as feminist, and using the genre of the graphic novel makes it even more so.  Traditionally, comics have used male protagonists and often hyper-sexualize their female characters or use them solely as plot devices.  Satrapi’s use of the genre, without hyper-sexualizing her protagonist, claims it and defies the reader’s expectations of the graphic novel.    

            Using a graphic novel format, but altering key elements to suit an individualist feminist message works well in “Persepolis.”  Although it can lend itself to many interpretations, “Persepolis” can without a doubt be read as a feminist text, due to its exploration of female characters in male-dominated spheres, and an often male-dominated genre.  Because the genre is so associated with male “heroes,” using it to tell a woman’s story creates more thought and discussion for readers.  If Satrapi had written a memoir using prose, there would most likely be less conversation about the text, but by breaking a genre barrier, Satrapi promotes discourse about the implications of a heroine telling her own story.

[1] Satrapi, Marjane.  The Complete Persepolis.  New York, New York: Pantheon, 2009.

[2] Hattenstone, Simon. "Confessions of Miss Mischief."Guardian UK. 28 March 2008: n. page. Web. 11 Feb. 2012. <>.

[3] Spiegelman, Art. Maus:A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History & And Here My Troubles Began. New York, New York: Pantheon, 1986.



epeck's picture

I was trying to remember the

I was trying to remember the conversations you mentioned about Spivak and I'm not sure I entirely understand what you mean.  How does the "context-specificness of our valorization of 'the individual'" relate to Persepolis?  I saw Persepolis, although she was definitely priviledged in many ways, as being more of an underrepresented perspective, more similar to Breast Giver than to Jane Eyre.  I'm interested in thinking about how Spivak would critique Persepolis...

Anne Dalke's picture

beyond self-representation

I think the point here is that any text that is about an individual--so, really, any autobiographical narrative--is not, from the Spivakian p.o.v.--feminist, because it is not collective. It valorizes the life of one over the life of many; in bringing one woman to voice, it silences others; it takes up all the space on the page, on the screen, in the classroom.

McIntosh writes about this in her 5 stages of curricular revision, moving from "womanless history," through "women in history," and "women as problem/anomaly/absence in history," and "women AS history" to "history redefined/reconstructed to include us all." An autobiography, definitionally, would be an example of stage 2, or perhaps--if the representation were problematized--stage 3; Spivak's imagining stages 4-5. (As I am of course inviting you to do!)

epeck's picture

Hmm...a lot of things for me

Hmm...a lot of things for me to think about.  Looking at Maus as my only comparison, I have to say that I don't think Satrapi's stylistic choices seem particularly feminist to me, although I see how they could be interpreted as such.  True, Maus is telling the story of the author's father, but it is through the frame of the story being told to the author, so we definitely still get bit of first-hand persepctive in Maus as well.  However, I think that comics are often from the view of men, so even if Satrapi is also using a comic to show her point of view, forcing comic readers to see as a girl seems feminist.  To me, Satrapi's use of stylistic elements expressed her own personality and sentiment, such as the g-d-like perspective and the bluntness of the images. So, to answer your question, no.  These choices do not seem very genderized to me,  they seem "Satrapi-ed."  Then again, on a basic level, Satrapi's assertion of her own character (as a woman) could be interpreted as a feminist act.  

Now that I have some distance from this essay, I see it probably would have been important to add that although Persepolis can definitely be read as a feminist text, it also can just be read as a text written by a women.  I could have pointed out some problems with reading it as feminist - I think I got so caught up in the simple argument of "Maus vs. Persepolis.  Persepolis is feminist" that I forgot to really look critically and include some questioning about my own  argument, or offer another reading/point of view.  With regard to the Spivak point of view, maybe I am still too stuck in my Western-Individualist-Feminist mindset (maybe I'll try and unsettle myself out that in my proposal for the remainder of the course...) to not see this as feminist.


Anne Dalke's picture

Adding Women?

I'm glad to see you placing Persepolis in the tradition of graphic narrative: the comparison of Satrapi's text with the use, in conventional comics, of male protagonists and hyper-sexualized-yet-minor female characters, is a good one; and of course using Maus as a foil is also apt, since Satrapi named Spiegelman's text as her primary inspiration, the one that showed her how comic forms can be used to take on larger historical issues.

But where I'd interrupt your narrative--and invite you to go on thinking further--is @ the moment you suggest that what's happening here is "putting in women"; I think the process is not simply additive, but so much more complex than that. As we noted in class, Maus was not Satrapi's only source; she also drew, for her aesthetics, on Persian minatures, with their "God-like" perspective, and on avant-garde, black-and-white expressionistic films. We looked, too, @ Hilary Chute's analysis of the "Texture of Retracing" in  Persepolis, @ her choice of "visual emptiness," of "simple, ungraded blackness" to highlight the "thickness" and "depth" of memory--do you think those choices are genderized? Chute talks, too, about Satrapi's use of "stylized," "even symmetrical formations of bodies" in the public scenes, her "pointed degree of abstraction in order to call attention to the horror of history," employing "pared-down techniques" to render the "child's eye" view... might part of the difference be that she is rendering her own experience, while Spiegelman renders one told to him?

It puzzles me to see how much your essay is written without the context of our in-class discussions. This is perhaps clearest in your closing comments, that “Persepolis can without a doubt be read as a feminist text"--since we spent the week after we read the novel specifically interrogating the context-specificness of our valorization of "the individual," highlighting the ways in which--among other things!--Gayatri Spivak problematizes the way we use female Bildungsroman (like Persepolis) as archetypal feminist texts. There are still some doubts here....