Gender Roles and Sexuality in Marjane Satrapi’s ‘Embroideries’ (unfinished) (3/1/12)

30 Sep

            Considering that comics began as a rather masculine-ruled field, it’s no surprise that many Western and American illustrators have grossly misrepresented women. From skimpy outfits to lustfully drawn eyes, the female superhero has been for the most part placed on the page for the young male gaze. Both Marvel and DC Comics, two widely known publishers of serially-based works, got their start in the late 1930s but it wasn’t until The Bronze Age (roughly 1970-1985) where subscriptions really boomed. For many younger men, figures like Superman, Spider Man, and Wolverine, were plastered in their imaginations as a flawless goal for their own lives or, if nothing else, a symbol of everlasting security. But, the cultural and governmental implications behind comics are often lost in the magnitude of personalities on the page. These younger fans of serial comics aren’t going to sit down and analyze the influence of a patriarchy, the capitalist agenda, or other Western values on the comics they’re reading, but the existence of the graphic novel gives this chance to contrast them. In Marjane Satrapi’s Embroideries, the female sexual voice is used abundantly to dethrone the patriarchal conventions and oppressions from the Iranian government.

            Our Western culture furthers many of the same patriarchal elements as the Iranian nation, but these tropes are filtered through our abundant freedom. Many of the Western offenses as a society are rather subconsciously embedded – a woman is posed in front of a fast-moving camera with a fan-blowing her hair selling lipstick as if it is beauty, a man tells some joke about his wife to a group of friends on screen to which they laugh and clink bottles of some commercial beer, a young boy denies his sister when she asks to play a sport with him because, after all, sports exist “for men.” We see these sorts of things throughout our media and culture, but they aren’t necessarily pressuring us enough to revolt or make a drastic change in the media. This is why it’s taken us so long to recognize the rights of women, other races and other cultures, and in many ways, the majority still does not do so. Since the U.S. has craftily avoided becoming a dictatorship, the governmental imprisoning of rights that people experience in Iran and other Middle Eastern nations seems almost too foreign for us to understand. Yet, the Western lens of freedom lends the ability to isolate one kind of oppression – in this case sexual – and look at the differences between our culture and Iran’s. Certain tendencies lend to a realization that Western culture’s oppression is rather subtle, deceptive, and barely existent in comparison to the violent regimes that Iran has faced in the past.

            Looking at American comic books for evidence of a patriarchal agenda, it’s easy to look at Wonder Woman (1941) being introduced after Superman (1932), Cat Woman (1940) coming around after Batman (1939), and Storm (1975) and being drawn years after Beast and Cyclops (1963) – although there was Jean Grey.[i] In many cases, heroines have been an afterthought to heroes, because more often than not, the illustrators were men. Looking at a picture of Wonder Woman, what comes to mind? She’s scantily clad with a low cut top, lipstick, and long flowing black hair – not to mention that she’s white, as his Superman and many of the early comic figureheads. Digging deeper into cultural influence, Wonder Woman wears bulletproof bracelets and a golden tiara. These things just feed a feminist argument that fashion is sold as security for women. Having powers hidden behind the guise of jewelry creates pressure on the female reader to purchase them in support of the capitalist agenda that seems to claim women need these things for security when in actuality they are reinforcing the male gaze. If Wonder Woman wore a T-shirt and sweatpants with no make-up, these distinctions would have a harder time holding ground, but it’s a double-edged sword, because a feminist could argue in wonder of why she would have to wear frumpy clothing to be recognized as not a product of men but as her own person. So, since these characters have for years been products of male illustrators, male writers, and male subscribers, it’s near impossible for women to break the mold that has been created for them in the world of comics. Yet, the multi-cultural graphic novel – specifically Embroideries by Satrapi – shows an even more drastically pressured femininity.

            Lori Cohen writes about Western students’ opinions of Middle-Eastern women in “Unveiling Students’ Perceptions about Women in Islam.” In this study, she chronicles the general characteristics with which her students used to describe Islamic women originally based on pure stereotype and hearsay, yet then clarified through a study of Middle-Eastern works including Satrapi’s Persepolis. She notes that the consensus seemed to center around “the image of women covered head to toe with clothing; the worship of Islam; the notion that most have the mind of a terrorist” (20). She explains that this is most likely generated from the terrible events of 9/11, and the misgivings of the students’ surrounding parents and friends. Satrapi does much to reject this sort of thinking, not necessarily by coming right out and saying that Iranian women are not like this but through her sexual expressions. One scene, Satrapi really brings the truth of the Iranian women she knows to the surface. After visiting a woman who specializes in white magic, Shideh takes her advice to insert a small key into her vagina after sex with her husband so that she can get some of his semen on the key to put into a cup of tea which will furthermore make him fall in love with her after drinking it. Although this is a rather crackpot method of doing so, this passage at the center of Embroideries manages a couple of things. First, it shows that Shideh is sexually active before marriage, and not in a subtle sense as the text shows her having sex three times for this particular attempt to conjure love. Second, it showcases Shideh as concerned with finding love before marriage, something that really seems to go against arranged marriages – although these also occur in Embroideries.

            Cohen next mentions that she taught Persepolis as part of the unit to dethrone these stereotypes among her students. She mentions the scene in Persepolis where Marjane desires to be “’the last prophet… to be justice, love and the wrath of God all in one’ attributes that are normally attributed to Muslim men, not women” (Cohen 24). Satrapi has become just that, as she works to expose the true sexual lives of Iranian women, something a little less in the face of the audience during the culture clash of Persepolis. Satrapi could easily have depicted women as tight-laced, conservative and dry abiding by the rules to wear their veil, but she chooses not to do so, instead ‘unveiling’ them and letting them discuss what’s been behind closed doors. “Of course, this idiot doesn’t know that every time he kisses my breasts, it’s really my ass he’s kissing,” confesses a character about her recent plastic surgery to move her gluteus fat to her breasts. Considering that plastic surgery has largely been a Western obsession, Satrapi explains that Indian women have taken it even further to affirm their power as a gender rather than to reaffirm the possibility of becoming a sex object. Even though these women have been wronged several times by largely misogynist men, they have figured a way to turn to the tables on them. As they’ve showed their strengths in the bedroom and their unwillingness to submit to men’s lust (not their love if it’s recognized as true), Satrapi’s Iranian women are constructing an internal domestic matriarchy from an external cultural patriarchy.

            Derek Parker Royal, a writer for MELUS, stated that “because of its foundational reliance on character iconography, comics are well suited to dismantle those very assumptions that problematize ethnic representation, especially as they find form in visual language” (9). In Embroideries, characters are given several panels of their own to tell their full story. Their dark hair, wrinkles, frowns, and black dress are illustrated without discretion – because there shouldn’t be discretion! Romanticizing and emphasizing a ‘universally attractive’ woman like Wonder Woman alienates the female reader as well as misrepresents a gender. Although Satrapi works in the black-and-white medium to muddle racial distinctions among other accomplishments, the reader recognizes even moreso that these are Middle-Eastern women. Yet, through their stories, these distinctions are made into moot points, because first and foremost, they are women before they are Iranian – and that pride is conveyed through a certain promiscuous wisdom. The government plays a portion in this, because Ayatollahs and other leaders perpetuate the Qur’an – or do they? Lori Cohen claims that the “Qur’an provides clear-cut evidence that woman is completely equated with man in the sight of God in terms of her rights and responsibilities” (22). Much like the disconnect between the Bible and several Christian congregations, these true meanings throughout the Qur’an have been lost on many, presumably out of fear. Inherently, rulers basing much of their dominance on the wrath of God and other religious connotations, work to put pressure on the minorities: women, other races, other religions, other sexualities, etc. If they establish a firm hand on the voice of the people, they believe they are avoiding revolution. In this case, rulers bank on the pressure for men to be honorable and religiously moral. Under this pressure, men are often forced to idolize Western freedom much like the women in Embroideries.

            So where the pressure on Western culture to reinforce the existing patriarchy is subtle and subconscious, the Iranian and Middle Eastern struggles to avoid patriarchy have been met with violence and oppression. Pardis Mahdavi wrote an investigative article about teenagers in under rule of the Islamic Republic. Even though she discusses mainly the younger generations and teenage sexual rebellions in the culture, her findings have a lot to say about Satrapi’s storytelling and the generations of women beforehand. “Findings suggest that urban young adults in Tehran are constructing and embodying what they call a sexual revolution in response to social and political changes” (Mahdavi 446). Considering this article was written in 2007 and Satrapi’s Embroideries was published in 2005, her findings are pretty relevant and closely linked to the sexual endeavors by Satrapi’s female characters. Although, much of her work is borderline memoir, the reader is forced to confront the possibility of exaggeration and at least calculated emphasis. She seems to move throughout the narrative in an attempt to dissuade the audience from believing women are entirely submissive in her culture. While the government seems to have a terrifying grasp on Islamic males – who may or may not thereby extend that control over their wives – Satrapi shows women are living in ‘revenge’ on these Western notions of submissiveness.

            However, there’s a bit of a generational conflict. Somewhat similar to the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s on the soil her in the U.S., sexual freedom and experimentation scared traditionalists. The more conservative government of the time wasn’t sure how to handle these sorts of aggressively opposite actions by a mass number of people. In a similar movement, yet under much more pressure as lives are on the line and have also tragically been taken, “the nation’s younger generation has been affected by the Islamic Republic’s free education policies and its successful national literacy campaign” (Mahdavi 446). Knowledge has frequently had the tendency to split up a conservatively based culture such as the Islamic Republic, which is just part of social and governmental evolution; the problem being that the rulers want to isolate that freedom of education from a heavy-handed rule, and it just doesn’t work that way. Introducing someone to new ideas is infectious in that both awareness and curiosity spread like wild fire. Due to this, an academically uninformed government defeats itself in the promotion of that very academia – the equivalent being promoting the voice of the people under a regime where personal voice is suppressed violently. Mahdavi exposes the youth as frequent partygoers stating that “perhaps there is no place in the world where the stakes of partying are so high” (448).

            In terms of sexuality, “most of the young adults noted that they were not heterosexual or homosexual but, rather, sexual. They noted that their sexual interaction with members of the same sex was just an extension of same sex love and friendship and a different level of intimacy” (Mahdavi 451).

[i] The Encyclopedia of Comic Books and Graphic Novels by M. Keith Booker.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013 in Scholarly Essays/Responses


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