How does form inform our reading of texts as successfully feminist? (I am aware of my own biases in the meaning of “success,” but for the purposes of this exercise, I will define success as elliciting a response in those who engage with the material that incites emotion of some kind, in this case an emotional response that leads us to seek to support feminism). Typically feminsts forms have included poetry and literature, but these forms are somewhat tied to conceptions of women as delicate and admirers of that which is flowing, flowering, beautiful. Other options include co-opting the form of the patriarchal institutions which reinforce sexual hierarchies, such as academic work and dense theory couched in even denser language. This kind of feminism is far from accessible and has a specific class (and typically race) bias.
Laura Mulvey wrote famously of the “male gaze,” pointing to visual representation of women, specifically in film, but easily applied more broadly, and the ways in which women are depicted as seen by men, as objects of male desire, which strips women of agency and the power to show themselves as they want to be shown. Is the same true whenever women are depicted? Does the sex or gender of the one who represents change whether a text objectifies its female subject? Or does the very fact of a female author (I use the term loosely) negate any objectification that may occur? This is something I struggle with, that I think needs to be addressed in critiquing media of various kinds for its feminism or lack thereof.
Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic narrative, Persepolis, reappropriates a form traditionally reserved for men and for young boys, to describe her coming of age in revolution-era Iran. Graphic novels, comics, commix, cartoons. The subjects of these kinds of works are typically male in scope. Superheroes save the day. Slapstick humor abounds. These are not the kind of stories typically written for young girls, young women. Satrapi isn’t producing some kind of illustrated Twilight for teens. She presents a troubling depiction of her life in Iran. The traumatic shift from liberal lifestyle to a more oppressive religious regime is represented for western audiences through Satrapi’s minimalistic graphic narrative. Her characters resist fetishization through this starkness, a starkenss which is made even more so in contrast with other graphic novelists’ depitction of women. Take, for example, R. Crumb’s Ideal Woman, reproduced below.
His zaftig Amazonian woman is nothing if not a sexual creature. We are presented with her body, shaded to a state of realism, her entire being shown to us as though we are appraising her for sexual desirability. Breasts and crotch are there for us to see, at every angle. Satrapi does not give us this opportunity. Her characters are recognizably female or male, but they resist sexualization. Black and white line drawings do not allow us to see dimension or curve in her figures that would inspire sexual response. Is this desexualization of female characters productive in Satrapi’s text in terms of defying norms of the feminine form as depicted for visual consumption?
Satrapi does not allow the reader to move through her narrative as a passive gaze, she implicates us as we are forced to read the meaning of each panel as we view it. Text informs image. Image informs text. And ultimately, we are forced to take the word (and image, as it may be) of the memories of a young girl to understand her coming of age.
Hillary Chute asserts that graphic autobiographers “return to events to literally re-view them, and in so doing, they productively point to the female subject as both an object of looking ad a creating of looking and sight.” The traditional male gaze on female bodies is reappropriated as women such as Satrapi define their own terms of being seen and of seeing. Satrapi creates a world literally in her own image, and dictates how we are to see her world, and goes a step further as she puts words into our mouths
Not only does Satrapi draw her own figure and create her own empowered ideation of the world, she literally inscribes meaning on her images as text plays with image, informing how we read what she has drawn. As readers, we are not free to just view what Satrapi has placed in front of us. She tells us what we’re seeing and exactly what we’re meant to draw from those images. Here is the strength of the graphic narrative. Not only does it empower its author (regardless of age, race, gender) to present her own self, visually, it allows her to tell her readers how she wants to be read. And this, it seems, is decidedly feminist in character.