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Month: October 2019

Memory and Influence

The first four chapters of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale introduce us to a dark, dystopian future of the United States in which fertile women are enslaved and extreme religious doctrine govern every facet of life. The story follows Offred, one of many fertile women enslaved to serve as Handmaids for the families of Commanders. One of the first things I noticed was Atwood’s use of multi-clause sentences, misused or missing punctuation, and extremely rich and detailed descriptions of objects, people, and settings. For me, this writing style suggests that we are not reading a memoir or diary, but rather the Offred’s flow of memories. These detailed images include the descriptions of the gymnasium, Offred’s room in the Commander’s house, the detail of  the faces of Nick and the Commander’s Wife, and even the manner in which the Commander’s Wife puts her cigarette out. We are also unaware of the narrators name even through the first four chapters (unless one is familiar with the story or read the introduction).

The detail in Offred’s memories also suggest a way to cope with the monotony and dread of life as Handmaid. Offred notices small details in her surroundings and often infers or questions meaning and purpose. This could be a method of keeping her mind sharp, active, and constantly thinking so that she does not go mad from her situation and the extreme rules that govern her life. Offred’s attention to detail may also be an indication of the boring, repetitive nature of her life in the Commander’s House. With very little variation in her daily activities, she is bound to become familiar with even the smallest details. Vivid descriptions are also utilized in Offred’s reflections of the past and the way life used to be, suggesting the role of vivid and detailed recollection as a means of coping with lack of freedom by grasping every detail from her past life and the society now gone.

Lastly, a connection is clear between the nature of young Guardians in The Handmaid’s Tale and younger members of Iran’s ruling party in Persepolis. In describing the Guardians, Offred recalls that “the young ones are always the most dangerous, the most fanatical, the jumpiest with their guns,” which parallels Marji’s description of the young soldiers and young members of the Guardians of the Faith as being more fanatical and supportive of the regime. These two images reflect the susceptibility of young people to extreme doctrine pushed by those they look up to and those with the power to influence their education. It can even be seen in the US today with the rise of hate speech and toxic nationalism among some populations of white teenagers in Trump’s America. If anything, both descriptions serve as a warning of the power of influence those in power have over young people still searching for meaning in the world and their own purpose, and just how that influence can be utilized in extreme cases.

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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes us into a world quite unlike our own. The book starts in quite a confusing way. Offred is in a gymnasium with other women while they sleep in cots and are monitored by Aunts and Angels. They are constantly being watched and the Aunts and Angels are not afraid to take action against a rebellious woman. We then jump to the present, where Offred is stationed in her first home as a Handmaid.

The role of the Handmaid is to bear children, period. Women can also either be Marthas or Wives, each group with their own distinct role and color that they wear so they can be easily identified. The groups of women are not supposed to interact socially, but Offred wishes she could share in gossip with the Marthas. We hear quick stories about violence that give us another indication that something is not right in this society.

There are many rules in this society, especially for Handmaids who are the lowest on the totem pole. Offred notes that many items are restricted for Handmaids and that speaking out of turn is a huge offense for a Handmaid. Offred is slowly establishing the world of Gilead, leaving the reader very confused as to what kind of society this might be. It is clear that the society has not always been this way but it somehow came to be. It is interesting how members in the society are not only ranked, but women are ranked against each other. While women as a whole hold a lower place in society, there is an order amongst women from Wives to Aunts to Marthas to Handmaids. Because the story is narrated from Offred’s perspective, we see Gilead in a different light than we would if it was being told by a Wife. As Offred holds one of the lowest positions in society, she if often observing those above her, while someone in a higher position would most likely just ignore those below them. Offred has a different insight into this society and there is much to be discovered about Gilead and about life before Gilead.

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Living as a Prisoner in Your Society

The first chapters of the Handmaid’s Tale paint a dark picture of what it means to live in the Republic of Gilead. While in Persepolis, the women in Iran were incredibly restricted in how they could behave and present themselves in public, the women of Gilead, especially the Handmaids, are not nearly given the amount of freedom that Iranian women have. The Handmaids in Gilead exist simply as property of the state, and have no autonomy over themselves. It is incredibly jarring as a reader, especially coming from a western perspective, to see women treated this way in a fundamentalist society.

I think the most important element of the opening chapters, though, and the book as a whole, are Offred’s flashbacks. We learn that she not only lives in a society that treats her so cruelly and dehumanizes, her, but she remembers living in a world that closely resembles our own. Offred has not lived her whole life in Gilead and has not only existed as a Handmaid. There was a time in which she did not know what this life was, and we know this given the perspective of the first chapter when she is in the gym with the other women as they discretely share their names with one another in hope to evade the Aunts. this is incredibly important because we ourselves like to think that our society is well founded enough and that we have systems in place to prevent something like Gilead from taking reality. However, I find that the most terrifying part of the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale to be the fact that this kind of society was not always considered normal, however it was entirely possible for these extreme views to come into fruition and be imposed on the people.

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Paternalism to a New Extreme

The first four sections of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale paint a very descriptive image of a dystopian future world known as “The Republic of Gilead.” In this world that seems to be a future of what used to be the United States, true fundamentalism and paternalism rules. Women are demoted to roles and are considered the property of their husband. “Handmaids” live to bear the children of their “Commanders.” In this bleak existence, people in general are banned from sexual expression unless they are permitted to marry.

The first thing that popped out to me about this society was how they justify this existence. The Aunts tell stories about how things were before Gilead and describe it as a horrible place where women were constantly at risk of sexual exploitation. Using things like cat-calling as an example of how life was “worse” before Gilead is how they justify the oppression of women under this new republic. They claim that this restriction is for the sake of protecting women, and that they are better off being completely abstinent and separated from men than having to worry about protecting themselves constantly. This means of justifying a clear dystopia reminded me of how many totalitarian dictators justify their oppressive regimes by claiming that they are protecting their people from some outside threat.

Another thing that I noticed overall in this section is how this world reminded me of Persepolis, or more specifically, of fundamentalist Iran. The oppression of women in this fictional world seems like a dramatized version of how women were (and still are) treated in Iran. Given how this book was written in 1985, it makes me wonder whether Atwood was inspired by the treatment of women in Iran to write this book. Of course, women have been treated this way (usually under the justification of religious beliefs) for centuries across various different cultures. Whether the justification is in the name of Islam or Christianity, women have faced the same oppression throughout time. I am very interested to see where this story in Gilead goes.

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Persepolis Final- Satrapi escapes

Firstly, I found Satrapi’s objections in art class to bring up a the ultimate problem of all the oppressive laws towards women: they did not make sense. During this sectioN there are many instances of utter frustrations, Satrapi cannot seem to assimilate to her own traditionalistic society and in most instances it only bring her trouble. Although her resistance is honorable and makes those in her family proud, it never seems to be appropriate in society. When Satrapi is caught after class drawing the man, she is chastised, to which she responded something along the lines of, “What do you want me to draw him facing the wall?” The instructor exclaims, “Yes!” The distinction in laws between males and females seems to have no other sound argument other than women are the property of men, which I guess it pretty the underlying truth in this society. 

Satrapi talks about the ability of her and her friend to balance this traditionalist society which doing their own art at home and/or partying every night. In a time of war and oppression she claimed, this two-faced life, cmade her and her friends ‘shitzophrenic,’ Satrapi seemed lost again, gets married and then has another episode of enlightenment. In terms of being married she becomes the exact woman she never wanted to become. By marrying and ‘acting normal’ she was conforming to the traditionalist regime. Ultimately Satrapi makes the choices we have all been waiting for and relieves herself of this lifestyle by moving to France. 

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The Price of Freedom (End of Persepolis)

Trigger warning: mentions of attempted suicide

There were so many pieces to this final section of Persepolis that really jumped out at me. The first thing I found most jarring was how quickly we bounced back from the section about Marjane’s attempted suicide. On 272-273, she shows this remarkably sad tale of her attempt and then the consequences of it, and on 274-275, we see her teaching aerobics. It’s a very abrupt shift, and I know it’s meant to show that this moment very rapidly changed her life, but it was really something that stuck with me through the end of the story. It colored the way she both pushed herself with her small rebellions and how she accepted a bit of conformity. The way she conformed still served to further her ability to make her own decisions. It led her to have a bit more agency.

We really see Marjane grow into the person I think we’ve all been rooting for her to find throughout the whole story. She talks about how she is neither western nor Iranian right before her attempt, but then we see her begin to believe in herself, make decisions that are actually for herself, and take pride in some of her accomplishments. I was very struck by how she went to the graves of her grandfather and Anoosh before she left, but I was rather perplexed by how she chose to end the story. Not the fact that it ends with her moving to France, but the specific words she chose.
She tells us that her grandmother passes away a couple years later and she only managed to see her one time in the time that passes. And then she says “that’s the price of freedom…” I think the ending is left intentionally ambiguous in that sense. Does she mean the price is that she wasn’t with her grandma when she died? Does she mean the entire story? Regardless, the choice to end the story with “…” rather than a simple period really implies to me that the story continues. There’s not perfect moral or lesson to take away from the story. Each person can get what they want from her story.
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Maturity and Personal Growth

This final portion of Persepolis can be characterized by Marji’s acceptance of herself as a unique individual as well as her considerable growth in maturity. Comparing back to the beginning of the book, there are many distinct changes that we see in Marji, which largely went unnoticed along the way. For physical changes, studies have shown that it takes six months to notice any personal differences. As we read through Marji’s life, it takes reflection back to Marji’s beginnings before we notice just how far she has come, both physically in how she is represented by Satrapi’s art style as well as how she has changed in her thoughts and actions. 

Because we have seen Marji’s life through her own eyes, it is hard to acknowledge when Marji acted unfairly. When Marji was in Vienna, she looked at the Western students with contempt because they hadn’t known war, especially when she was asked if she had seen people killed. On page 278, we see these roles switch. Marji, who had previously been shielded from the most horrific aspects of war and who had spent a good portion of her life in Austria finally acknowledges that she had not had the most horrific experiences in the room. In fact, she asks Reza nearly the same question that Momo asks her: “What? You killed people?.” 

This entire story has been about the conflict between individuality and conformity and we see Marji attempt to stand out in her own way from the norm in every way that she can. Finally, Marji has found that individuality does not mean being different in every way possible. Similar to when she was candid with the Mulah during the exam interview, Marji has found out who she is and acknowledges that she shares many experiences with others but also many experiences that remain very personal to her. As the reader, we can’t ever know what Marji truly felt like, no matter how well Satrapi does at portraying it, but we can sympathize and learn in the same way that Marji has grown to do the same.

 

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Mental Illness in Persepolis

In the final section of Persepolis, a lot goes down; however, the most important part to me was Marji’s attempted suicide. Marji attempts to kill herself due to being depressed for so long after returning to Iran and struggling to adjust back to her home’s culture and deal with processing her life in Vienna. This section of the graphic novel again shows how important the cartoon/child-like drawings are to making the story of Marji’s life digestible to a large audience. There are so many points in the story that are sad, dark, or scary, and if it were to be a typical written novel rather than a graphic novel it would have probably attracted a smaller audience of mainly those in academia. In the graphic novel form, Marji was able to share her message about Iran that she wanted to while reaching a wider audience through the accessibility of a graphic novel. 

Even though this section made me sad, it was interesting to note how quickly and without any dramatic flare that Marji wrote this section. It seemed as though it was just another casual anecdote about her life and not a traumatic life event. This section of the graphic novel brings up important points about mental illness and the effects of living in a war torn nation can have upon its citizens. Even for those who leave also suffer negative side-effects as Marji noted of being a third-world citizen and feeling out of place wherever she went. I think this is an important part of the novel to recognize the effects situations like life in Iran can have on all of its citizens.

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Less is More

This last section of Persepolis covers a lot of ground; however, I want to focus my attention to pages 304 through 309. Soon after starting art school, Marji discovers that half of her classmates share the same traditional beliefs as the government while the other half thinks similarly to her. These likeminded individuals gather at one person’s home and practice drawing in a way that the school prohibits: one individual holds a pose while the others observe and sketch their physique. Marji notes that over time, the number of individuals in this outgroup increases. I find it somewhat surprising that their professor supports the student’s artwork that they complete outside of school. Specifically, the professor tells the students “bravo! An artist should defy the law” and congratulates them. Based on previous interactions throughout the graphic novel, I expected an individual in a position of higher power to prohibit any creative expression, particularly an act that the government would find unacceptable.

In addition to drawing, Marji and her friends gather nightly to throw parties. The patrol of guardians of the revolution routinely bust these events; however, their visit on one particular night has greater intensity than those prior. Satrapi conveys the magnitude of this dark encounter through the absence of words on pages 307, 308, and 309. This artistic decision effectively communicates the story and embodies the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.” In this case, the three pages worth of wordless cells depict one man’s death as he falls short in a jump from building to building (an attempt to outrun the officers). Satrapi’s decision to illustrate this heartbreaking scene with a minimalistic style demonstrates that fact that “less is more.”

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A Talk With Jennifer Tipton (Event Reflection #1)

On Wednesday October 23, I attended a talk with Jennifer Tipton at the Modlin Center. Jennifer Tipton is an acclaimed lighting designer for dance and theatre whose work has earned her a prestigious MacArthur award as well as two Tony awards. As I am currently working as assistant lighting designer for our theatre department’s main stage production, I was excited to attend and hear about her experiences and wisdom in the field. The talk was moderated and put together by Anne Van Gelder, director of dance at UR, and Maja E. White, faculty in the theatre department, lighting and sound designer, and my mentor. When Maja was young, Jennifer Tipton was one of her mentors, so it was interesting to hear from the mentor of my mentor and to see how the influence has trickled down to me.

She had quite a lot to say about how her experience has shaped but little to say in terms of specific advice. She talked about how being a performer (a dancer) made it easy to approach a piece from a performer’s point of view and that she only fell in love with lighting when she literally stepped back to look at the big picture. That was her first broad piece of advice. The second was to be rough on yourself. She didn’t really elaborate but I got the sense that she meant it’s okay to be your own worst critic because that’s how we improve.

Something interesting that came up was that Anne asked Jennifer if she had some commentary on how she felt being a woman in, what some might call, a male-dominated profession (lighting design or even just technical theatre in general). The interesting thing is that Jennifer didn’t really seem inclined to entertain that train of thought. She is of the older generation and the stereotype I have of that is that they say “that’s just how it was/is” or “I was discriminated against for being a woman” even if they actually were. And sure enough, what she said was that you get hired for your art. And maybe there were plenty of times that she wasn’t hired because she was a woman, but she could do nothing else but assume it was because of her art. I found a strange sort of comfort in those words. Kind of thinking about how I could either be bitter and assume I wasn’t hired because I’m a woman or I can assume they just weren’t looking for what I was offering and that somewhere else, they would be looking for it.

The last thing I’ll throw in is that I really related to a little anecdote she had that I found quite relatable. She talked about how when she moved from lighting dance to lighting theatre, the whole script analysis thing was very difficult for her. She didn’t understand the ins and outs of analyzing a script like a director would. So much so that for her first Broadway show… she didn’t even read the play.

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