The Ambiguity of Cultural Identity in Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”

Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (2000) shares the writer’s portrayal of the implications of postcolonial components prevalent in Iran through her inquiries into the culture and history of the country. Satrapi’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel serves both as a glimpse into her own life and the historical evolution of Iran under external influences, hence combining the ‘micro’ with the ‘macro’ to portray the character arc of Iran itself. The purpose of this paper is to look into Satrapi’s exploration of ambiguous cultural identities in the post-revolution Iranian community through the postcolonial aspects of her autobiographical text. 


 Satrapi’s graphic novel mainly explored parts of her own childhood memories, chronicling multiple historical events such as the fall of the Pahlavi dynasty, the rise and effects of the Islamic Revolution, and the aftermath of the infamous Iran-Iraq war. Moreover, the life and times of Satrapi’s family could be identified as a “colonized” group, as the generation of Satrapi’s family was raised under the influence of western colonialism and neo-colonialism. Despite the sharia-based laws and restrictions imposed on the Iranian communities following the Islamic revolution, this particular generation finds it more difficult to adapt as their ways of living are considered more progressive and contemporary. Because of this, the conflict among the characters could be understood as a conflict between separate cultures, attempting to build its dominance both from a global and a local context.


 In “Culture, Globalization and the World-System”, Stuart Hall examined such conflicting forms of cultural representations where he argues how certain, globally profound cultures always triumph over local cultures. Hall points out that due to heavy industrialization, western juggernauts such as Great Britain were able to promote their own cultural elements across the countries it combined, but in modern times, these western powers are capable of promoting their culture as a key component of “global mass culture” through the utilization of international interdependence and homogenization. (Hall, 1994) And these characteristics of global cultural dominance are perceptible in the lives of Satrapi’s family members as well. The main protagonist Marji grew up in a modern household that combined both traditional Persian and Iranian elements along with Western influences. As a result, the rise of sharia law and degradation of existing western trends hinders her own upbringing and her own household culture due to the clash between two distinct forms of mass cultural identification: Western colonial identities and deep-rooted and religious native identities. Though Iran has never been officially colonized, various factors influenced its history and allowed these global mass cultures to shape modern Iranian society owing to the mechanisms of homogenization. Hall elaborates – “It is a homogenizing form of cultural representation, enormously absorptive of things, as it were, but the homogenization is never absolutely complete, and it does not work for completeness.” (Hall, 1994) Though Hall mostly points out homogenization as the Western dominant culture injecting its elements into other cultures to reduce diversity, the emergence of both the Western and the Arabian/Islamic cultures could be framed as conflicting forms of homogenization, and its “incompleteness”, or its absorption into its larger framework is what motivates the characters to long for accurate cultural identities. 


 In the introduction of the novel, Satrapi comments on how the former ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi decided to modernize and westernize the nation, but invasion followed due to the discovery of oil on Iranian soil. The Western powers were behind this invasion because they intended to seize control of Iran’s oil in order to profit from it. Iran became subjected to oppression from the west, and hence the modernization of Iran – as well as western homogenization – reached its peak. However, right after overthrowing the Pahlavi dynasty, the government was replaced with an Islamic republic dedicated to removing the western influences from Iran and bringing back the laws of the pre-Islamic era. According to reports by Nikki Keddie (2003), the minds behind the revolution countered the Shah’s secular depiction of rapid  Westernisation as development and so they perceived the ideology as a challenge that required eradication, mostly pertaining to sociologist Ali Shariati’s idea of Islam as the one real liberator of the third world from repressive oppression, colonialism, and neo-colonialism. However, even as they eradicate western influences and combine religious doctrines with the wider culture, they imposed religious extremism, hence mostly reviving ancient Islamization policies and presenting religious reformation, not as a consensual interfaith dialogue but as yet another weaponized version of neo-colonial ideals. This is why, as mentioned earlier, the readers could observe the modernized (and somewhat westernized) characters struggling to welcome both forms of homogenization. Moreover, this obligation is making a significant impact on Marji and the other women inhabiting Iranian society. 


 Marji and her family members undergo this conflict of cultures and values as the plot progresses. Her parents are fervent protesters of the Shah of Iran and his regimes and as a result of being exposed to her family’s political background, she takes part in rallies calling for the exile of the Shah in order to protect the rights of the people. Unfortunately, the emergence of religious fanaticism in wake of the new government radically changes their lives and the lives of the Iranian people as a whole, particularly requiring women to cover themselves while out in public and limiting social liberties. While protesting against the new regime, Marji’s uncle Anoosh is detained and eventually executed, causing Marji to lose her faith. As a result, the family is portrayed as an ideologically colonized community dominated by both sides of opposing cultural representations. 


 The conflict between cultural perspectives continues throughout the narrative. The veil, gender segregation in schools, and gender inequality are a few examples of the cultural disputes that occurred throughout the revolution. The people who supported the new regime desired to struggle against the westernized culture because they believed it diminished the uniqueness of their own cultures. Marji found herself caught between both ideologies, which she identified as unified and the same all her life. She went to a French-speaking school, flaunting her hair, playing games with friends of both sexes, and listening to western music. In addition to their way of life being imperiled, their lives were also threatened as the rift between fundamentalists and modernists began to gain greater traction. People on opposing sides of the cultural divide are pitted against each other. An illustration of this appears in the graphic novel when Marji’s mother closes every window in the house so that her neighbors cannot see them without their veils. She acts in this way out of concern for the possible consequences of their observations. Hence the notions of the “self” and the “other” prevails – where the dominant culture frames itself as the authentic self and subjects every other culture, especially the opposing counterparts, to “othering”. One of the main aspects of “othering” indicates the dominating group making an effort to absorb the lesser powerful group. According to Jacques Derrida, the total alternation of the “other” is compromised and decided by the dominating self, as the only characteristic of the “other” is its distinction from the self. (Oxford, 1995) This idea is further explored in “The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq”, (Gregory, 2004) where the conception of alteration and othering is explored in the context of geographical discourse, including Edward Said’s explanation that – 


 “To build a conceptual framework around a notion of Us-versus-Them is, in effect, to pretend that the principal consideration is epistemological and natural – our civilization is known and accepted, theirs is different and strange – whereas the framework separating us from them is belligerent, constructed, and situational.” (Gregory, 2004) 


 In the text, readers witness this issue between the fundamentalists and the modernists, where the groups treat each other as threatening alternatives, and also attempt to absorb one another in their cultural views. One of the most notable illustrations in the graphic novel as well as its film adaptation depict Marji wearing both a hijab and a denim jacket reading out the phrase – “Punk Is Not Ded”, before being interrogated by burkha-clad women who do not take her audacious outlook lightly. This scene is not only another example of “othering” and cultural assimilation, but also portrays the alienation and identity crisis that Marjane (both the character and the writer) felt throughout her life, in a single frame. However, even as the social reformation continues, Marji privately purchased heavy metal music albums from underground black markets, dressed in absurd denim jackets, listened to punk music and similar sensations such as Iron Maiden, and got herself expelled from school after publicly refuting a teacher’s claims about government atrocities. Following the Iran-Iraq war, her family discreetly protested against the newly formed government by partying and drinking alcohol despite its prohibition. Therefore Marji, along with her family members, utilizes her own alienation and dissimilarity as a token of revolt. Being concerned with her sudden aggression and political activism, Marji’s family sends her to Austria, where she finally has the freedom to enjoy the western traditions she was longing for, and in an infamous panel where one of her roommates asks about her true heritage, she identifies as a French woman, but in the ending pages, when the fully-grown Marjane arrive to Europe and a taxi driver asks her the same question, she answers that she is from Iran. Considering Said’s theory on constructed cultural and ideological frameworks, this particular scene works out as the perfect conclusion to Marji’s character arc, as she succeeds in accepting her true identity without welcoming any artificial idealism. 


 Satrapi also explored and depicted the hegemonic power of her state through the text. The concept of cultural hegemony functions based on dominant ideologies of the state or the ruling class, which misrepresents political or cultural affairs as inevitable, permanent, and advantageous to all groups and classes rather than as fabricated societal structures that primarily serve the interests of a particular group. (Columbia Encyclopedia, 1994) The author criticized the hegemonic nature of the political regimes and the hypocrisy of state-enforced societal forces that aim to utilize violence by referencing the historical background of the Iranian Revolution. The state nationalized martyrdom during the time only to encourage young men to take part in the Iranian Revolution, but subjected women of all ages to severe social norms that were defended under the label of protection. The irony of the state’s principles is demonstrated by Satrapi’s account of being harassed by both male and female inhabitants of the community due to her unconventional behavior and outlook. As Satrapi is caught up between a strong sense of connection to her Iranian background and the political and religious constraints imposed by the state, Satrapi and her family members in general struggled to define their authentic cultural identity. Her struggle with societal expectations is rooted in her conviction that both women and modernists are mistreated by the fundamentalist state whenever it controls their expressions and dictates their beliefs. (Friedman, 2013) 


 Marjane Satrapi reveals the effects of post-colonialism prevalent in her country of Iran through her autobiographical novel. The text combines personal narratives with political phenomena to provide a window into the lives of Iranians, and the clash of cultural ideologies they had to face following the revival of fundamental Islamization amidst a modernist/westernized atmosphere. Rendering the post-colonial facets of this text, the ambiguity of complex cultural identities in the post-revolution Iranian community has been brought to the forefront. The coalescence of global cultural ethics, the counterfeit “othering” of contrary ideals, and the variety of character arcs allow us not only to discover the confided mindsets of Satrapi and her vibrant peers but also the longing for an ideological truth that the country, and postcolonial mankind in general, have been searching for until this day. 

Citations –


Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.


Hall, Stuart. Culture, Globalization and the World-System: Contemporary Conditions for the Representation of Identity. Edited by Anthony D. King, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.


Keddie, Nikki. Modern Iran: Roots and Results of Revolution. Yale University Press, 2003.


The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, 1995.


Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq. Wiley, 2004.


The Columbia Encyclopedia. Fifth Edition, 1994.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Wartime Cosmopolitanism: Cosmofeminism in Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 2013.