Acting the Part: The Theatricality of Resistance in Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS

Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis is a text about revolution told revolutionarily. The character of Marji lives through the Iranian Revolution and, throughout the text, revolts against status quos in Iran and Austria and from the West. Persepolis is a revolutionary text in that itambitiously combats stereotypes Westerners have about Iran. Telling a biased, personal story about the lives of ordinary Iranians not represented by the Iranian hemegeny and Western media is revolutionary, and made more so by how Marjane Satrapi uses comic elements and techniques in non-traditional ways. Satrapi uses comic techniques that resemble the theatrical stage. Though most likely unintentional, Persepolis exemplifies how graphic narratives adapt or mirror theatrical elements to tell narratives and inspire revolutionary change or resistance in the spirit of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.

The theatre stage and the comic page are not the same. Theatre and comics are different media: theatre techniques as comic elements are not equivalent. They can, however, be analogous. That is the intent of this argument. To make such an argument, however, requires an establishing of foundational vocabulary, assumptions, and conceits.

  • graphic narrative: In essence a graphic novel, but the decision of narrative concedes that some works are not solely fictious novels, but non-fictional accounts (453). “A graphic narrative is [any] book-length work in the medium of comics” (453).
    • Aside from coinging “graphic narrative,” Chute also articulated the built-in ethicacy of the genre. She sees “[a]n awareness of the limits of representation[…] is integrated into comics through its framed, self-conscious, bimodal form; yet it is precisely in its insistent, affective, urgent visualizing of historical circumstance that comics aspires to ethical engagement” (457). Persepolis, as a graphic narrative, aspires ethical engagement. It does so in the same way Augusto Boal’s “The Theatre of the Oppressed” does.
  • The Theatre of the Oppressed
    • Inspired by Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which sought to transform the teacer-student relationship to that of a student/teacher-teacher/student process in a “quest for mutual humanization” (Freire 75). 
    • “Theatre pedagogy: The use of theatre to develop language and social awareness; Theatre of the Oppressed is a form of theatre pedagogy.”
    • Theatre of the Oppressed: A system of theatrical games and techniques that examine and dismantle dynamics of oppression.”
  • audience = reader; character = actor; Satrapi = playwright, art director, director, and chorus/narrator (breaking the fourth wall)
  • I am following in an academic tradition of appropriating terms and ideas from other disciplines and applying or proving their application on the comics page. Joseph Darda did this, using Judith Butler’s concepts of “precariousness” and “precarity” in his analysis of Persepolis. Jennifer Brock also did this when quoting Iranian film critic Hamid Naficy and how he “contextualizes the history of the presence of Iranian women and the politicization of their gaze in the context of post-Islamic Revolution filmmaking” (229-30). I am, in a way, swapping theatre for cinema in comparing that medium to comics. 
  • Persepolis: conceits

    • My limitations/biases as ignorant American
      • Western perspective
      • Page limit
      • Lack of expansive or extensive research
      • Going on a fermented thought, and my conviction that it is worthwhile.
    • My conviction comes from seeing Darda and Brock both do this.
  • Technique 1 – Persepolis
    • Aristotle’s Poetics and catharsis, which is Greek for “laxative.” : As a bildungsroman, Perspeolis follows the Airstolean model of forward, linear plot momentum using scenes that build upon each other, in how panels in a deliberate sequence build upon each other to denote forward temporal and spatial momentum in narrative.
      • Examples: catharsis – humorous catharsis and 301 (“Don’t look at my ass!”) or sad release, page 153 (Marji is pressed against the airport glass, physically and emotionally diivided by her passed out mother and equally grief-stricken father.
      • Emersion in the text.
    • Narration as Brecht’s “distancing effect,” defined by Encyclopædia Britannica as “the use of techniques designed to distance the audience from emotional involvement in the play through jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica).
      • p. narration jolts from submergence in scene: 3, 142
      • repetition as consciousness
      • McCloud’s closure: “ “phenomenon of observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63).
    • Brecht used “distancing effect” in his plays to engage in conscious political engagement. Satrapi elicits this too: think critically and recognize hypocrisy of within the story. Ebi and Taji’s Marxist views and privilege/wealth; the hypocrisy of Marji in “The Make Up” chapter and at other times. Oppressive nature of what Chiamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story,” or in this case, the dangr of a single storytelling, is a tool of fighting oppression (Adichie). The Iranian Revolution created a single story; the West created a single Iranian. The danger of a single story is “It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar” (Adichie).
  • Technique 2
    • Kabuki theatre make-up and masks of noh and Greek theatres — movement, musicality, words (implied multi-sensory in comics – motion and emotion lines p. 207; 218)
    • While make-up is also seen and used in Persepolis, such as in narrative propulsion 274, 318, characterization in 259, and both, such as in “The Makeup” chapter, a more accurate and meaningful comparison can be found in the faces, made up or others, of the Persepolis characters.
    • Darda’s Levinisian face and role of the face in Persepolis. Darda summarizes Levinias’ notion of the face in his own words: “The face positions the other not as alien but as a neighbor incomprehensible in her complexity[…]The face tempts us with murder at the same time that
      it prohibits us from committing it. The face is neither the same nor different.”

      (36).

      • The comic face is similar to make-up or a mask because representation of actual, lived people. Non-fiction story, but the character of Marji does not present Marjane Satrapi’s life anymore than Satrapi presents the Iranian Revolution. That is to say, Persepolis is a history, but not the history of Marjane Satrapi and the Iranian Revolution. All of the characters in Persepolis are static, painted tools and metaphors — in essence, masks — of lived people and larger ideas. The comic face and theatrical mask/make-up are tools of mimesis, or representation.
    • Comic face is made of color (black and white: unifying principle of characters), linework, (smooth and not jagged lines; body lines curved and never straight; thinner line) and cartoon as “amplification through simplification.” EXAMPLE: 233, 191,
    • Face is never in statis — can move in meaning and metaphor from scene to scene on both the stage and the page. EXAMPLES: Marji – as her face ages between different periods, correlates to different emotional registers and possibilities.
    • Lack of emotional control an act of resistance against Iranian government, seeks to control the spiritual, meaning psychological, lives of the Iranians and do this through controling the physical. How do collegiate girls within story resist: make-up and clothing and parties. Reader is made to feel resistance in how they interpret the face: are not allowed to control the face of the women in Persepolis. Not all just women in black chador, indistinguishable from one another.

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  • Technique 3 – Persepolis p. 194; 290, 336
    • stage blocking: deliberate positioning of bodies for the benefit of the viewer.
      • (1) Visibility of actors in scene
      • (2) Communicate relations
      • (3) Communicate atmosphere
      • (4) Stage and comics, always fourth wall. Can be broken to great effect, or not. Regardless, that wall is the audience or reader. Establish meaning from viewing.
      • Dismantles oppressiveness theatre can have on audience. Theater as dialogical performance, coined and defined by Dwight Conquergood as “self and other together so that they can question, debate, and challenge one another” (qtd. in Thompson 17). Theatre is not the answer, but the conversant. Story does not hold unchecked power over spectator/reader. It is all about dialogue, cmmunication — mutual betterment. That is the purpose of Theatre of the Oppressed.
  • Conclusion – Theatre of the Oppressed and Persepolis

Works Cited

Adichie, Chiamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” TED, https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript?language=en.

Brock, Jennifer. “Chapter Twelve: ‘One Should Never Forget’: The Tangling of History and Memory in Persepolis.” Graphic History: Essays on Graphic Novels And/As History, edited by Richard Iadonisi, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012, pp. 223-41.

Chute, Hillary. “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 2, 2008, pp. 452-65.

Darda, Joseph. “Graphic Ethics: Theorizing the Face in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.College Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, 2013, pp. 31-51.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Alienation effect.” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/alienation-effect.

Freire, Paulo. “Chapter Two.” Pedagogy of the Oppressed. <INFO NEEDED>, pp. 71-86.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperPerennial, 1994.

Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed. “Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed: A Theatre of the Oppressed Glossary.” Philadelphia Theatre of the Oppressed, http://tophiladelphia.blogspot.com/2011/12/theatre-of-oppressed-glossary.html.

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Persepolis. Pantheon Books, 2003.

Thompson, Ayanna. “Practicing a Theory/Theorizing a Practice: An Introduction to Shakespearean Colorblind Casting.” Colorblind Shakespeare: New Perspectives on Race and Performance, edited by Ayanna Thompson, Routledge, 2006, pp. 1-26.

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The Revolution will be Drawn: Pages 336-37 of Marjane Satrapi’s THE COMPLETE PERSEPOLIS.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis saga has, among its many accomplishments, a wonderfully varied panel-page layout. Instead of following the standard American comics panel layout of six or nine panels, three panels forming a tier, and three tiers to a page, Persepolis refreshingly deviates from formula, using six or nine paneled grid page besides splash pages, two panel pages, pages with different shaped panels on the same page, square panels, stacked panels, and so on. For such a monochromatic color palette, Satrapi’s graphic novels offer a plethora of panel-page type. The type of panel-page layout used on a specific page is always deliberate, aiding in conveying information or inspiring pathos. When it comes to markings on a comic page, every line, from those that appear to those that are absent, are intentional. Establishing what something is, how it functions in context, and why it exists are part of the fun of studying comics. Pages 336 and 337 of Pantheon’s first American edition of The Complete Persepolis are a positive case study in how page-panel layout effectively contributes to Persepolis‘s overarching narrative themes of duality and revolution. These two pages convey, in both content and framing, a revolution. A minor one, compared to the Iranian Revolution, but still a revolution all the same.

Dualism is an overarching textual and visual theme of the Persepolis saga. Opposing dualities, and the tensions that arise from living in and between two opposing dualities, prevail as textual themes: revolutionaries v. the Shah, revolutionaries v. the fundamentalists, Persian v. Arab culture, secularism v. sacracity, West v. Iran, treatment of men v. treatment of women, one’s bourgeoisie lifestyle v. one’s radical beliefs, assimilation v. loyalty to one’s roots, and so on and so forth. Visually, many panels contain some type (or types) of visual contrast both within the panel, when compared to other panels, or when compared to other pages and cultural images (examples include the top left panel on page 6; the middle panel on 13; the two panels on pages 102; all of the panels on page 279; the two panels on page 305; and the bottom panels of pages 153, 250, and 281 contrast with Michelangelo’s Pietà). And, of course, the most apparent duality on the page: Persepolis‘s black-and-white color scheme. Yet, just as the black ink and white page create a visual tension, contrast can also simultaneously create harmony. Page 336’s layout is a good example of this.

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A (very poor) picture of page 336.

Page 336 contains eight panels: two panels a tier, four tiers total. Each panel is the same shape and size, so that the single gutter separating the panels on each tier is attached to the one above or below it. The center of the page, therefore, consists of a single gutter, dividing the page in half. Not only is this centering visually appealing to the eye, but the page is symmetrically balanced as well. This single gutter creates a y-axis, and along this axis, the panel on the left reflects the panel on the right, and vice versa. While the scene within each panel is not geometrically reflected with the panel beside it — if that were the case, the characters of Marjane and Gila on the left side of the left panel would be on the right side of the right panel. This is not the case (nor should it be, as that would distract from the narrative of the story and break from the internal rules of the reality already established in Persepolis). Instead of geometric reflection, Satrapi reflects the panels on the left from the panels on the right in a different way. She reflects the panels contextually.

geometry_0127
Middle-school geometry made fun and relevant, thanks to Marjane Satrapi!

The page’s context is that Behzad Radi, a colleague of Marjane and Gila’s at the economics magazine they work out, is seen as a hero by the two women because he was arrested by the government for two weeks on account of drawing a bearded man having his beard climbed by another character (Satrapi 334). Radi, however, knocks himself off his own pedestal by mansplaining: he speaks for and over his wife, Mandana, every time Marjane or Gila ask her a question. The term “mansplaining” is inspired by Rebecca Solnit (who will be speaking at Hofstra the Monday we come back from break) after her 2008 essay “Men Explain Things to Me.” The internet invented the term, so it is only fitting that the internet provide us with a definition of “mansplaining,”

meme-definition-mansplaining
Corgis, on the other hand, are more than welcome to explain myself to me or anyone else. #corgsplaining

The panel-page layout is divided in an oppositional way: one panel against another. In the panels themselves, the same layout is seen, as Marjane and Gila are divided from Behzad and Mandana by the table. The table serves as a divider, or a battle line, where Marjane and Gila are annoyed with/against Behzad. The table is a physical dividing line between Behzad’s ignorance and his co-workers’ annoyance. Like the background and couches, the table is all white. The only black comes from the clothing and hair of the characters. Despite the resemblance between the characters, all in black attire, the different “teams” are established through the difference in clothing: the left team, Marjane and Gila, have short hair, short tops, and wide pants. Behzad has the same appearance, but Mandana, the suffering wife, has long hair (pulled back) and a long tunic. Mandana is more traditionally feminine in appearance. Her husband is traditional in his appearance. In this way, the viewpoint of the rival teams is reflected in their differ attire: Marjane and Gila are nontraditional in their belief that a woman can and should speak for herself, whereas Behzad (and, by extension, Mandana) represent traditional gender roles, where the husband’s word is the final word. The teams are assembled and, once Mandana fetches the tea and cakes and the food is set in a symmetric order resembling a soccer/sports field (the tea at each corner, the box of cakes in the center), the field is set for battle.

soccer-field-1
Remove the goal boxes at either end, keep the four corners, and change the center circle into a square and the soccer field mirrors the table on page 336.

The only sequential progression of time shown on the field. The tea glasses are full on the left panel on the second tier and gradually the contents decrease until there is none left on the right panel in the third tier. The next tier, the last, features a reversal. In the left panel, Mandana, instead of now being asked the questions, asks one of her own. In the right panel, Marjane and Gila, mouths agape (at Mandana speaking up, or at the being asked if they have children, or both?), are spoken over by Behzad. Instead of speaking for his wife, he now speaks for his guests to his wife. Behzad is mansplaining on behalf of Marjane and Gila. Behzad’s swollen, blackened eye, the mark of his punishment from the tyrannical government, is now closed for the first time on this page. Perhaps this is meant to illustrate how, symbolically, Behzad has a blind eye to his own chauvinism and the anger his guests feel towards him. The reversal seen on this last tier is cognitively stimulating, but also telling in terms of content. Their opinion of Behzad, who Marjane says “was my hero for twenty days” on the first panel of the next page, is permanently reversed in the eyes of his co-workers and the reader. Behzad has lost won the battle but lost the war — to himself.

Satrapi’s harmonious symmetry of the page and panels compositions is contrasted by the antagonistic context of the scene. The reader is better able to cognitively “see” the ideological battle, angered feelings, and reversal of opinion that takes place over the course of the scene. The page, content-wise, is as divided as the panels are along the y-axis: there is the before and the after. There is a change: a change of esteem. This change of esteem sparks Marjane’s revolutionary change on page 337.

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A picture of page 337. Pages 336 and 337 complement one another beyond the fact that both have had the disservice of receiving my photographic treatment.

Page 337 visually contrasts page 336. Where 336 consisted of four tiers with two panels a tier, page 337 contains three tiers with a panel per tier. This new page layout creates two horizontal gutters. The page does not contain a y-axis, but instead two gutters, divided along the x-axis.

The reader’s mind has to readjust to this new layout. Thought page 337 is also symmetrical, for the three panels are of equal shape, size, and distance apart, it contrasts with the previous page in how it is symmetrical. The panels are wider and of a longer length, and the tiers are therefore bigger in size to page 336. This creates a “widescreen” like effect, showing the larger world (and larger worldview) Marjane and Gila inhabit. Furthermore, the dominant color is not white like before, but black. The background, shadows and clothing are all black, whereas the cars and skin tone are white, with the physical landscape on the bottommost panel being outlines in white. The black background may be meant to denote that it is nighttime and that the Radis household was lit, but regardless, it still contrasts sharply with the dominating whiteness of the previous page. Further contrast is made through the change in POV. Unlike the static, same perspective used on all eight panels on page 336, 337 changes the perspective in each panel. The first panel takes place behind the women inside Gila’s car. The next panel has the reader seeing the characters from the front of the car, but outside the car, as the motion lines and shading on the car to the left of Marjane illustrates. The final panel on page 337 is again behind the women, but also behind their car: the reader is on the highway, seeing the cars and landscape of Tehran. Gila’s car is moving (again, see the motion lines of the second tier panel) and so, too, is the POV. But what are we moving towards?

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The visual contrast between pages 336 and 337 are day-and-night. The content of the two pages, however…

Marjane and Gila are contextually moving towards their homes (and away from Behzad’s provincial sexism), but Marjane, and therefore the reader, are moving cognitively as well. The reader must reorient, due to the contrasting layout and coloring between pages 336 and 337. Yet, this reorientation works to the page’s advantage as it mirrors the reorientation within Marjane. The scene’s content consists of Marjane venting her frustration at Behzadi’s hypocrisy: the hypocrisy being that he believes in freedom of expression but won’t let his wife speak on her own behalf (337). When Gila notes that this is not unique to Iranian men but, in fact, even Western men mansplain, Marjane rebuts that in Iran the law privileges men over women. Marjane (presumably, given that she is given the last speech bubble in the previous panel) goes into a lengthy speech, listing how women are legally oppressed under Iranian law. The last three sentences of Marjane’s speech in the last panel on page 337 are written in a larger font than that of page 336 or any text prior on page 337. Marjane says, “Do you realize??,” then her font increases even more at the final, climactic words: “I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE. I WANT TO LEAVE THIS COUNTRY!” (337). Marjane and the reader have reached their destination, the climax of the two pages: the declaration of revolution.

Despite visually contrasting, page 337 compliments 336 in terms of story narrative. Page 337 completes 336, being not just a continuation of the page prior but completing a revolution within Marjane. Marjane revolts from the sexism and overall oppression Iran places on her and decides to return to the West in order to live her live to her full potential. She makes the decision to leave and acts on it in the final four pages of Persepolis. She divorces Reza, gets accepted into the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg, spends her last days traveling Iran, paying her respects to her grandfather and Uncle Anoosh, and enjoying her last days with her grandmother and parents before departing from Tehran’s airport. The set-up for these final four pages are found in the visually contrasting but narratively complimenting pages of 336 and 337. Those two pages create a yin-yang: visually opposites, but creating a whole, and illustrating the cyclical revolution within Marjane. From her adolescent fascination with the West’s punk movement and materialism, to feeling so alienated in the West that she returns to Iran depressed and dejected, to her frustration with Iran and resolve to return to the West this time as a more confident and ready adult, Marjane has come full circle. The revolution on pages 336 and 337 are the last stages of the evolution Marjane has taken throughout Persepolis. Marjane has grown-up and come to her own.

Of course, there is a cost to every revolution. With the Iranian Revolution, it was the lost of lives and subsequent, with adolescent rebellion it is the lost of innocence. The last tier on page 337 illustrates what Marjane loses in emigrating from Iran The detailed landscape of the city, the mountains, and foliage foreshadows what Marjane will lose, and must, in leaving Tehran for “[f]reedom has a price” (341). Marjane will lose the physical and material world that made her: her home country and childhood home. She will lose the comfort of being an Iranian in Iran and of her family and friends. She will lose what is natural to her and her identity. Still, Marjane continues. The revolution must go on, and in Persepolis, the revolution is drawn.