March 11, 2022
How does Persepolis explore the role of class in individual life outcomes and, consequently, society as a whole?
Despite being primarily autobiographical, the underlying narrative of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is intentionally buttressed by a collection of lives and experiences distinct from the author’s own. In particular, the way Islamic fundamentalism (and its chokehold on the Iranian government) affects each class within the socioeconomic spectrum is a recurring source of conflict for the main characters, the people in their lives - and even the author herself.
For the purposes of this essay, differences in inter-class experiences will be broken down into two categories: cultural and sociopolitical. The former relates to the different ways in which social classes in Persepolis identify and understand the world, while the latter relates to more rigidly-defined privilege and power dynamics. These categories are naturally interconnected as facets of the same phenomenon - cultural expression, for example, may be restricted by authority figures on the basis of class position (e.g. lower classes relying on oral tradition when they are denied literacy).
Both aspects broadly manifest as an East-vs-West dichotomy. In many developing non-Western countries, Western ideas and literature are almost exclusively the domain of the rich. They require fluency in another language and additional nontraditional education - both of which are completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford them. Thus the upper classes receive a wider variety of ideas and paradigms with which one might comprehend and approach society (and their place in it) differently, while the lower classes remain beholden to tradition (including cultural taboos or pressures). The problem with this situation is not that the lower classes are restricted by “primitive” beliefs, but rather that they are denied information and viewpoints that they might put to good use - not as replacements for their own ways of living, but rather as supplements to further empower themselves.
Ironically, the Marxist concept of class consciousness (and Marxist theory in general) is one such example of this phenomenon in motion during Marjane’s recollections. The Satrapi family members occupy themselves with demonstrations and protests (in fairness to them, they do truly believe in their causes), and raise their daughter from birth with leftist literature and theory. What makes this peculiar is that Satrapi and her namesake character make no pretense about being born into an upper-class background - her great-grandfather was an influential member of the Shah’s ruling party, their family hired a maid and went on semi-frequent vacations, and her parents could afford to send her to study overseas. Objectively speaking, they are not Marxism’s intended audience - they are the masters, not those who work under them. Marjane does become aware of the great inequalities that stem from economic class, but still continues to benefit (mostly) guiltlessly from her family’s privilege by attending school and eagerly skirting rules (e.g. asking her parents to smuggle in posters from outside). In contrast, those from the lower classes still remain exploited. The stories of Marjane’s maid Mehri and the son of another Satrapi family maid are particularly topical examples - their adherence to tradition in combination with their lack of access to education render them vulnerable to attacks that would not shake the upper classes. The former character was sent into servitude because her family could no longer provide for her and her siblings, and (as a feature of their status) did not know of any other solution. Satrapi hammers in the power dynamics of this situation by portraying the two families - Mehri’s and Marjane’s - as worlds apart. On the left of the panel lie Mehri’s parents, their short frames clothed in traditional dress and headcoverings. Further to the right are Marjane’s parents: clean-shaven, bare-headed and clearly recipients of adequate nutrition (indeed, Marjane’s mother is comically almost twice the size of Mehri’s father). Despite clearly understanding and pushing for Marxist ideology in protests and child-rearing, Marjane’s better-off parents decide to conveniently ignore it for free labor and the warm, happy pride that comes from perceived charity. Here, class and ideology become inexorably intertwined and remain so for a great portion of the book.
The latter example occurs later on in Marjane’s youth, at a time when she is only beginning to become truly cognizant of Iran’s political state of affairs. Marjane, having been raised without religious fervor or conviction, freely mocks the religious rituals that the Iranian government and educational system have imposed upon schoolchildren. These rituals are designed with a blatantly propagandistic bent - to intimately associate the nation’s military with the will of an omniscient, omnibenevolent power. It is implicit from Marjane and her schoolmates’ behavior that she assumes everybody is able to recognize the rituals’ lack of real religious significance - which quickly proves to be an indication of insufficient class awareness on her end. Marjane comes home to her mother’s maid, who is in great distress over her son being recruited into the military with what school authorities referred to as the “key to paradise”: a plastic toy key that would supposedly grant the boy entry into heaven if he died in combat. It is important to note that the description of heaven they provided to entice the boy is clearly specific to Islamic theology - Surah Ar-Rahman verses 46-76 state that the Muslim faithful will “recline on furnishings lined with rich brocade” and have access to “noble, pleasant mates” - “maidens with gorgeous eyes,” untouched by jinn (spirit) or human. Blurring the distinctions between political motives and the will of the divine lends the former extra credence to a group of people for whom religion is a source of meaning and guidance (which the maid states in her own terms - “All my life, I’ve been faithful to the religion…”). Combined with an appeal to emergent pubescent desires, these images are nothing less than exceedingly pleasing to their target demographic of lower-class boys. They indoctrinate so perfectly that the boys eventually end up wholly discarding their self-preservation instincts and willingly becoming cannon fodder for the regime. Unlike Marjane, they continue to fervently believe because they ultimately see the potential rewards of their faith as the only way out of the (class-based) hardships they face in their lives. Furthermore, it has been made extremely hard for them to critically distinguish where the teachings of their religion end and the motives of the regime begin. This situation is easily the clearest example of class-based exploitation in Persepolis: the human needs and desires (food, money, companionship) of an overburdened and unaware populace are weaponized against them as incentives to further perpetuate their oppression.
The socioeconomic aspect of inter-class experiences is far less insidious than the cultural aspect, but no less detrimental to the lower classes specifically. Different educational opportunities, in particular, were touched upon earlier - because Mehri and her family could not afford the education (and thus basic literacy) required by nearly all modern jobs, their pool of available work was limited to menial labor and domestic servitude. Both of these professions enforce pre-existing socioeconomic power structures. The lower classes are restricted to performing menial (often tiring) tasks and deferring to the upper classes, who have the means (temporal and financial) to instead occupy themselves with more abstract and “genteel” pursuits: theoretical discourse, politics, social affairs. Even if Mehri somehow became cognizant and accepting of the alternate perspectives and/or concepts discussed earlier, she would still face obstacles to her political and social participation. Protests and civil disobedience would be tantamount to suicide for someone who cannot bribe her way out of jail or ostracism - as Marjane’s family did more than once, when throwing parties and getting Marjane back into school after she was expelled for rebellious behavior. She is also forbidden from self-determination in non-political social spheres. She cannot marry above her class, as the climax of her arc demonstrates. As an illiterate woman in Iran, this is a significant roadblock to her quality of life: she cannot find work for which employers are willing to pay higher rates, and she cannot rely on another’s income. It is ensured that she is perpetually poor, not only through the will of her employers but the tyranny of societal mores.
It is interesting to note that in both cases (but particularly in the latter), the poor gravitate towards and respect external authority while the upper classes see fit to subvert it. A quote from G.K. Chesterton summarizes this tendency well:
“The poor have been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone else in there being some decent government. The poor man really has a stake in the country. The rich man hasn't; he can go away to New Guinea in a yacht. The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all. Aristocrats were always anarchists.”
Authority here encompasses both religious and wordly leadership - the word of God, and the word of the Iranian government. Satrapi herself even falls into the trap as a storyteller. Her personal narrative - which she, by nature of her own background, was socially and economically privileged enough to recount for a wider audience - renders the lower classes illiterate both inside and out of the story. Mehri could not read or write, and all proof of her existence is merely a contextualizing footnote to someone else’s. She exists to depict Marjane as someone who has been a revolutionary from birth, someone who could “recognize injustice” (when Marjane expresses unhappiness at how their family has a maid who does not eat at the same table), and nothing more. Furthermore, Satrapi does not ponder why her parents had “connections” to get her back into school after being expelled for irreverence, nor does she acknowledge that she was lucky not to be ostracized after getting a divorce.
Returning to a point raised earlier, this is also partially the result of Western concepts of individualism being mostly restricted to the upper classes. When one intellectually gives his/her freedom real significance, it becomes even easier to rely on financial means to preserve it. “To be able to party, you had to have means.” This quote clearly embodies Satrapi-through-Marjane’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards rebellion - when something is illegal, it is not truly forbidden (one “can” party) but a little expensive. Granted, she does have to face some of the consequences of this approach later on when she causes a rift between herself and her grandmother by framing an innocent man for indecency and getting him arrested. In general, Satrapi seems to be implying - consciously and unconsciously - that those who are privileged like to make games of rebellion. Her experiences with her European schoolmates seem to support this - Momo, the anarchist, alternately supports anarchism and makes grandiose statements about how suffering is meaningless. He does not have an answer when Marjane (who is technically less privileged than him, as privilege is relative) retorts with an example of someone (her uncle Anoosh) who actually did suffer for something. It is interesting that Satrapi can acknowledge that a lot of privilege is required to do bold and self-centered things (which are not inherently bad) without applying that concept to her own story on a meta level.
In Persepolis, class factors greatly into specific aspects of one’s life: their wellbeing, their freedom, and their greater voice in society. The lower classes are kept down, and their lives turned into mere fodder or tools for their masters. They are thrown away into war, or mentioned once to bolster someone else’s story. Privilege is not merely observed as quality of life or education - it is ultimately the difference between being remembered as someone who lived as an individual and being forgotten as part of the masses. Though well-meaning, Satrapi’s attempts to reveal injustice fail to defy this convention in a way that matters.