Embodiment and Identity

by Stephanie Cawley

In addition to identity being linked to clothing, both as a signifier of political ideology, and as a way to represent complex and fragmented individual identities, identity in Persepolis is linked directly to the body and to embodiment. Critics Hillary Chute and Jennifer Worth both note the fundamentally embodied nature of the form of comics. The comics author’s physical presence is detectable at every moment on the page through the hand-drawn images and handwritten text. Additionally, in autobiographical comics like Persepolis, the author’s physical body is represented repeatedly and multiple times across the page, asserting a physical, bodily presence. In Persepolis, thought and internal identity are linked to the physical body both directly and through clothing, and embodiment becomes an important method of learning and understanding for Marjane.

(Satrapi 189)

Marjane’s relationship with identity and with her body in Persepolis becomes especially significant in the second half of the text, once Marjane has arrived in Vienna. In “The Vegetable,” after detailing several eye-opening and identity-altering experiences Marjane encounters within her first few months in Vienna – isolation, racism, “the sexual revolution” – Satrapi writes, “My mental transformation was followed by my physical metamorphosis” (189). A full page spread details a variety of bodily changes Marjane experiences at puberty, featuring pairs of “before and after” images of facial features and other body parts. This proliferation of selves with slight variations suggests an unresolved, changing physical identity that correlates with Marjane’s changing internal identity. Though this physical change is involuntary, brought on by puberty, Jennifer Worth, in “Unveiling: Persepolis as Embodied Performance” argues that this “only strengthens the argument that, for Satrapi, thought is intimately tied to the body’s experience” (150).

(Satrapi 10)

The relationship between the body and internal identity does not move in only one direction, with internal identity acting on the body through clothing and other markers. But rather, bodily experiences are shown to impact identity and understanding. There are many moments early in Persepolis where Marjane is shown “embodying” various other figures. As a child, she pretends to be Che Guevara (Satrapi 10) and Fidel Castro (16) and even a torturer (45, 53) in her early efforts to understand the revolutionary activity surrounding her. These embodied experiences challenge her previous identities; God, who had been an important part of Marjane’s life, disappears on the same page where Marjane pretends to be Castro, and following the second torture sequence she confronts a mirror image of herself as a devil, suggesting a split identity. These experiences of acting out and embodying different figures are shown to have a powerful effect in the formation of Marjane’s early identity.

(Satrapi 24)

Marjane also acts out experiences that lead her to a greater understanding of the nature of violence and torture. When Marjane hears of the way that her grandfather was tortured by being “put in a cell filled with water for hours” (Satrapi 24), she takes a long bath because she says she “wanted to know what it felt like to be in a cell filled with water” (25). Marjane is visibly disturbed by this experience of embodying her grandfather’s torture, even if her own version was not actually torturous. As one of her first experiences learning about this kind of violence happening to a family member, Marjane’s embodied experience proves to be a powerful factor in shaping her emerging identity as resistant to political oppression and deeply connected to her family.

(Satrapi 175)

Marjane even attempts to embody abstract philosophical ideas in order to understand them. While in Vienna, Marjane reads The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, her mother’s favorite author, and attempts to urinate while standing up based on de Beauvoir’s claim that “if women peed standing up, their perception of life would change” (175). Although in some senses her experiment fails, her embodied experience of this philosophical idea does seem to teach Marjane about herself through her own body, at least teaching her the limits of her own self knowledge; in the next panel, she explains “as an Iranian woman, before learning to urinate like a man, I needed to learn to become a liberated and emancipated woman” (175). As Worth puts it, “Despite the naivety of this early endeavour, it is through her funny, sad and sometimes messy embodied experience that Marjane learns her most important lessons”  (149).

Throughout Persepolis the body, and especially the female body, is the site where political ideologies and identities are acted out and explored. This emphasis on embodiment gives weight to individual and personal experiences over Western examinations of Iran or the Middle East that usually work from the outside, focusing only on external appearances or ideas, rather than the subjective, embodied experiences of individuals. Also, the intersection of identity and the body asserts the real-world physical ramifications of political and philosophical ideas, and again emphasizes that the Iranian people are embodied and individual subjects, resisting the objectified and monolithic Western representation.

Works Cited

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