Persepolis: A Bettie Page Blog Review

The flu is never fun, but it gave me a chance to catch Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical animated film, PERSEPOLIS. Fare warning: it's in (stunningly composed) black and white, animated in a limited way, to match the look of the GRAPHIC NOVEL on which it is based. It's in French, and if you don't know French, y' gotta read subtitles.

The film has many layers, and can be interpreted through many different frames of concern... it is a political film, a deeply personal narrative, a coming-of-age story, a "portrait of an artist as a young girl", a story of a family, a story of culture and identity. Unlike many films, there is not a "lens" that is a more or less valid, more or less true or more or less rewarding way of appreciating the film. Most films struggle to have one context or "idea", so that alone is a reason to recommend the film.

For "the Bettie Page Blog", while geopolitical interests are important, the film is mainly interesting as a statement on underwear. Who can have visible panty lines and who can't. Okay, that's glib -- it's also about lipstick.

The film begins with Marjane as a young girl, enduring the rise of Islamic Law in what was once a very Westernized (if repressively autocratic) Iran. While the Shah isn't sanitized, the politics of sexuality comes to the fore as women's right to exert their own femininity is robbed from them... for their own good. As the blog continues to examine the often strange line between empowerment and exploitation, looking at Marjane's amazing work through a pro-sex feminist worldview, it's easy to see how the religiously-motivated state in Iran robbed women of their right to be sexual beings, then robbed them of their voice in society. All of this was done based on the concept that men, being creatures of lust and rape, could not be trusted to view women as sexual beings. So, rather than force MEN to curb their behavior, WOMEN are required to go to ever-more draconian lengths to suppress their femininity.

In a crowning scene in the film, Marjane, now at "art school" (where women in hijab must draw a figure in hijab) mentions that the men have many choices of dress, and some even accidentally display their underwear! In this moment, not only does Marjane show the hypocrisy of the law, but also undermines the guiding assumption... that women do not have an innate sense of the erotic, so they do not need "protected" from arousal.

By showing herself to be a sexual being, willing to be desired and capable of desiring, she shows how vital sexual liberation is. In most Western countries, this is taken for granted, and mostly we hear the hew and cry of those oppressive elements in our own nations, wishing sexual liberation was reigned in. It almost makes sense... until a powerful story about total sexual oppression can show how devastating that loss can be on a psyche.

This certainly isn't meant to offend devout Muslims, but it was my honest reaction to this film. I certainly don't feel that the Muslim religion has a monopoly on oppressive elements. Furthermore, people should have the freedom to practice in a way that feels meaningful to them. In this film (and in many places on the globe), however, women are being forced to observe a religious dogma... and true faith should never be forced.