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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.


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.

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.



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.


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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The Grass Isn’t Always Greener on The Other Side

I had high hopes for Marji’s new life in Europe. It seemed as though, because of her rebellious nature, she would fit into European culture much better than she fit into Iranian culture. I think Marji felt as though she would have new found freedom in Austria. Freedom to dress how she wanted, freedom to think how she wanted, freedom to act how she wanted. But perhaps the freedom was too much and too drastic for Marji. She had no stability during her time in Austria, constantly moving from friend to friend and house to house. She never quite found her footing and she eventually hit rock bottom by living on the streets. I could never have imagined that Marji would end up in the circumstances that she did. We forget that she is still a young adult, practically a child, and here she is facing the world on her own.

While it is impossible to know what would have happened to her if she stayed in Iran and not gone to Austria, one could at least imagine that her experiences during her teenage years would have been drastically different. Although Marji faced many difficult experiences that overshadowed any joy she might have felt in Austria, she was able to learn more about herself through the hardship that she faced. Marji still does not have a strong sense of self, but she at least knows who she is not. We are left with a sense of hopefulness after Marji reconnects with an old friend. Upon seeing her friend who is now confined to a wheelchair, Marji realizes that her life could be much much worse and she has no reason to feel sorry for herself anymore.


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.


Marjane’s Homecoming

This section of the novel was very jarring for me. It was painful for me to watch Satrapi fall in love only to have her heart broken after investing everything in Markus. It was especially painful to see her become homeless after seemingly finding her place in the world. Watching her literally digging out of trash cans and sleeping on benches was sad but seemingly had a purpose. It is clear that Marjane never fully adapted to the culture in Europe, and despite her thinking she was fitting in there was always that voice in the back of her head that she didn’t belong. This was never more clear than when she found herself alone and homeless.

All of this said, it was sort of bittersweet when she made the choice to return home to Iran after all these years. Watching her don the veil again with a somewhat sad look in her eyes gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was finally returning to her home with her culture and family. But on the other hand she was returning to an oppressed fundamentalist Iran. Her brief moment of freedom was now being rescinded. However, in many ways this part of the story is representing a “coming of age” story for Marjane. She realizes that she flew too close to the sun during her time abroad and has hit rock bottom. Now it is time to see how she rebounds from this and how her time at home in Iran impacts her further.