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Author: Sara Messervey

tldr; The Commander is a Rapist–If You’re Romanticizing This Story, Fucking Stop.

“The club,” as the elite-boiz so fondly refer to it, represents a location of deeply embedded irony (237). For Offred, this former hotel is a familiar space. This is not the first time she has been here with a married man, and with this Commander, it may not be the last. As pointed out in Michael Paul’s blog post last week, her affair with Luke and the Commander were internalized in very different ways. Though Offred possesses far less (/little to no) agency and autonomy in her “affair” with the Commander, it is this relationship that she considers to be perverse and dirty (even in the absence of non-Ceremony-related sex). However, this is not unexpected, given that Offred had chastity and purity drilled into her by the Aunts as a handmaid. She is expected to value her purity above all else, and use her body only as a tool for carrying and delivering babies for wealthy families.

But while the women of Gilead are expected to act chaste in this traditional godly society, wealthy men can be held accountable to no such oaths in return. The Commander uses the same arguments of gender essentialism that condemn women to lives as objects of their husbands to justify the need for a brothel for married men, commenting that “nature demands variety, for men” (237). He blames the need for variety on the lack of variety in clothing, while failing to acknowledge that the society banned variety in clothing to avoid vanity and persuasions to stray based on desire for variety in the first place.

It’s worth noting the different lenses through which Offred and the Commander view the world. The Commander justifies “the club” (a shining symbol of the double standards that exist in Gilead that exist to benefit men solely on the basis of gender and class) by acknowledging that “everyone’s human, after all” (237). Of course, in his use of everyone, he describes men–since they represent the only gender worthy of moral status and personhood. Similarly, when Offred asks about the people there, the Commander assumes she is speaking of the men and talks about them, until she corrects him to ask instead about the women. This again demonstrates how women lack personhood to the Commander.

Recognizing these different lenses is critical to the way we evaluate this book in class. From the perspective of the Commander, his “relationship” with Offred, is the romantic story of a well-to-do man wooing the heart of a poor girl whose life he continues to flood with intrigue and meaning. From the perspective of Offred or (more astutely) any of the other handmaids/jezebels in this book, this is the story of a man amusing himself with the sex slave that he repeatedly rapes in an oppressive fascist regime that he supports and facilitates. I hope that we can all cut off the first narrative/fantasy before it runs away with us, as though it is a prettier story that pretends to restore agency to Offred, it is not the reality and horrifically depicts the Commander as some kind of romantic hero rather than the complicit monster and *active* agent that he is in this society and in taking advantage of his handmaid by way of Gilead’s regime.

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The People Without Eyes (or Hair??)

Throughout the graphic novel, Marjane Satrapi has use black pinpoints to indicate the pupils of all of her characters. It is not until we meet blonde characters that we first see a switch to small circles in those faces, likely to indicate blue/green eyes. Though this change in pupils was not noticeable to me on the rare occasion that they were used for characters like Lucia or “Heidi,” they become especially noticeable in these chapters for characters like Ingrid and Markus.

Looking back at the reading, it’s interesting that not every blonde character seems to possess this feature, and no dark-haired people do (even from Europe). Obviously not all blonde-haired people have blue/green eyes, but this choice nonetheless reflects intentionality of the author behind who has these glaringly different pupils. They are especially noticeable with Markus, which suggests that she may have regarded them as a particularly salient or attractive feature. Similarly with Ingrid, it may have had to do with the distinctness of her light eye color in Marjane’s memory, or may have possibly been tied to their relationship with weed together, which the author often emphasized through sketches of glazed or spiraling eyes. Or maybe she was pointing to a certain vacantness in both characters.

Whatever the reason, I loved this feature in these chapters because it was startingling in a way that reminded me of Beloved. When Beloved referred to white people as the men “without skin,” it was a disorienting way of describing whiteness with “absence” of features. Similarly, by leaving a hole where the pupils for other characters can be found, Marjane is pointing to an absence of color in the blue/green eyes that are often highly regarded in Western culture. The pupiless eyes look creepy, much like the idea of people without skin. Needless to say, this detail didn’t add positively to my perception of these characters.

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Persepolis: A Surprisingly Accessible Piece in Canon

Persepolis needs to be interpreted in its intentionality in format. We can assume that Satrapi produced a graphic novel in part because of her interest in producing comic-strips, but when considering how the message of her work is translated to the audience, we can speculate what other motivations may have led to this. Satrapi talks about the influence that the graphic novel presentation of theories of dialectic materialism had on her as a child, and there’s no denying the influential power of complex topics being introduced in such an accessible and visually appealing format.

Furthermore, there’s something to be said for the tone of her novel. Already it is addressing heavy topics of assassination and the systematic disenfranchisement of Iranians in the face of revolution and political instability. Her comic strips depict the childish vibe achieved by works like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which strategically engages readers with a much more serious topic. It’s also a very appropriate depiction, given that these events were occurring throughout her childhood, which really puts us in the empathetic space of what it might feel like to be a child in such a tumultuous period of Iran’s history.

My only experience with graphic novels for adults was Fun Home, and the importance of the accessibility of the medium was erased in that work by the complicated references to F Scott Fitzgerald (a niche, high culture reference to an author that not every reader is intimately familiar with). That shaped my expectations of graphic novels, which led to my surprise with this work and its easy comprehensibility. I’m excited to see how her language might transition as she becomes an adult over the course of this memoir.

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Beloved: A platform to promote new “Definers”

I want to focus on the quote that Morrison introduces in the first chapter of Part Two. In her rememory, Sethe comments on a time that Sixo redefines stealing, and how the whitepeople punished him for it: “Schoolteacher beat him… to show him that definitions belong to the definers–not the defined” (225). In the foreward, Toni Morrison notes that “to render enslavement as a personal experience, language must get out of the way” (xix). This feature of the use of definitions is really important, because the language we use to shape slavery is a language by and generally for whitepeople.

I believe those two quotes combined point to the purpose of Morrison’s novel inlaid with new words of her own creation. Morrison has made herself the definer to reclaim a narrative of slavery that has far too often been taken over by whitepeople. As a whiteperson, I have found myself often confused by the language and timelapse of Sethe’s narrative, and I’m finally beginning to understand how that disorientation is intentional. Whitepeople (specifically in the US) never had to adapt to learning new languages and understanding different cultures. This book forces whitereaders to challenge their expectations of literature and open themselves to a whole new form of narrative storytelling to empathize with the characters–who feel far realer than fiction–forced to exist in a world where words were used to oppress and define them without any regard for their humanity and experiences.

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(I can’t believe I have to say this:) Black Women are Human, Too

In part one of Beloved, I was horrified by the description of the enslaved men who raped cows in place of women. It was horrific, because the act felt so against nature, and so violent. Yet, what these enslaved Black men did pales in comparison to the rape perpetrated against enslaved Black women by White slaveowners. The story seamlessly glides between the two horrors, with the Sweet Home men and the cattle and Mr. Garner and Baby Suggs, daring us to blanch at the idea of fucking cows, but not at that of raping Black women.

It’s so easy to look back at slavery from a place of White privilege and pass judgement upon the behavior of those our ancestors enslaved. I found myself disgusted yet again in the second chapter, reading Paul D’s perspective of resentment toward Sethe for not being a more worthy “lay.” The idea that women weren’t seen as fully human, but as fuckable things, and in the case of Black women, deserving only slightly more respect than the cattle (if that), was revolting. And yet, that is how Whites treated Black men and women for centuries. Our ancestors taught them that they were violable things, and in spite of being raised with that understanding of themselves and their place in the world, the fact that the Sweet Home men could treat Sethe with such delicacy and kindness is a testament to these men’s humanity and goodness in the face of such depravity.

That alone can’t change the experience of enslaved Black women like Sethe and Baby Suggs though, which is why an understanding of intersectionality is so important. Not only were Black women treated as inhuman for their race by White men and women, but they were also stripped of their humanity yet again by men–Black and White–who saw them as violable, fuckable objects because they were women. It’s hard to read a book like this, knowing the humanity these women (and the Sweet Home men) deserved to be treated with, but were denied on the basis of characteristics that should not ever have defined them.

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Women’s Suffrage: Breaking Out of the Yellow Wall-Paper

Women’s right to vote was obtained through no easy feat. Patriarchy was established to keep us in check, crippling women financially, civically, and most importantly, socially. Without the financial means (fair and equal access to work, personal accounts, and loans) and civic power (the right to vote and hold office) to protect our rights and personal interests, women were left entirely at the mercy of men, at a societal level and within the home. This system was justified through the disparagement of the “fairer” [read: female] sex, and it became socially instilled into men and women that women were inherently biologically different from men to the point of being “irrational” beings who should not be left in command of themselves for their own protection.

Overall, this strategy was very effective. Through social/pseudo-scientifc posturing about the way women are, and through complete financial and legal domination, women were either without the means to advocate for their own rights or pitted against their oppressors (men) and “science” in trying to fight it. Patriarchy not only stripped women of their power, but also of their voices and ability to be taken seriously. This is showcased very effectively in the work The Yellow Wall-Paper, by Charlotte Stetson, where the female protagonist is constantly forced to question her own perspective and experience of reality due to what may be mental illness but what is also certainly gaslighting by the husband who controls every aspect of her being (down to where she is allowed to be and what she is allowed to think).

Given the patriarchal norms that stripped women of the power to speak and be believed, it is impossible for them to have received their right to vote in any way other than fighting, and working alongside the Civil Rights movement for Black Americans. It is also understandable (though still wrong) that this movement became co-opted by racist white women who sought to gain power comparatively by stealing rank from black men (and obviously black women doubly so). While the narrator of The Yellow Wall-Paper may not have truly gained power by the end of the story (like women), she managed to break out of the initial binds of the wall-paper (gain the right to vote) which was certainly a first step.

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Intersectionality and Blackness in a Post-Slavery Society (9/4; Post #1)

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano is a powerful memoir documenting the life of a slave in the mid-eighteenth century. Olaudah Equiano tells the story of his abuses–from his kidnapping and separation from his sister, through the loss of his close friend and abuses of each master. His story is painful to read, even with his almost jovial writing style. The abuses he faces are harrowing, and yet delivered dispassionately as if his experiences were not traumatic and disturbing in the slightest. The way he found the bright side of each situation he was in–feeling close with and unwilling to leave the captain who literally beat him to strip him of his African name and identity, to the point of feeling betrayed when sold; being grateful for the occasional “kindness” from his masters and abusers, who were participating in a system to oppress Olaudah to begin with–challenged my emotions constantly. It leaves me to wonder whether he actually believes that small acts of kindness were all that he was entitled to from his white oppressors as an African man.

Recognizing the context of the time period this work was created within, I can only guess at Olaudah’s intentions without further research into the matter. But it’s not difficult to ascertain that this book was written with the purpose of humanizing black people to an audience of white people. Olaudah’s story had to be told within a framework of white saviorship in order to remain palatable to white readers. Kindness and recognition of slaves as somewhere on the spectrum of “human” was all that was required to not be the villain of Olaudah’s story, a small step given that the enslavement and disenfranchisement of his people and all who still share any semblance of his skin color is entirely due to the direct action and complicity of white people then and today. His story could not be too real, because then it would have been rejected before it could impact the masses. He was unable to be too angry, or else he would be written off as another hyperaggressive (“savage”) black man. And in this way, Olaudah was partially invisible.

But as we learned from our reading on intersectionality, black men were not the only ones made invisible. The traumas experienced by Olaudah were most frequently shared, as it is the stories of black men that were recognized by white people throughout history in comparison to black women. We fail to hear the personal accounts of black women, who were not only objectified as laborers, but also as tools for sexual gratification. And recognition of that reality is what makes accounts like this even harder to read and to attempt to bring to life within our imagination. Those stories are likely too dark for people now (particularly white people) to fully comprehend.

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