I decided to read Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi because, besides loving her Persepolis book, I am extremely interested in the relationships women have with each other. The premise of the book is simple: after having lunch, the men in the house take naps and the women – Marjane, her mother, her grandmother and a few neighbors – get together to drink some tea and share life stories.
Perhaps the premise seems very mundane, but I have always thought that the most important stories are told when women feel safe enough in each other to share them. It probably sounds cliché, but when I have a group of girlfriends at my house and we share our latest news, it feels like building a village of trust. However, one thing I think Satrapi does very well in Embroideries is demystify how fuzzy and warm these environments are usually portrayed as: she layers the women’s relationships with each other with judgement, opinion and minor conflicts. I think there’s a danger in representing women – even feminist women – as a monolith population that always agrees with each other.
Yes, spaces like the one Satrapi illustrates in Embroideries are incredibly important but often, when talking and portraying female friendships, media either sticks to catty stereotypes or exacerbates sisterhood to an unrealistic ideal. Being a woman doesn’t automatically mean I will agree with what another woman says or thinks. Satrapi portrays these relationships as layered and complex, which is definitely helped by the graphic novel format the story is told in.
Satrapi shows how these women are moved by compassion, but also curiosity. For example, when one of the women bursts into tears, the women are eager to hear her story perhaps to console her but also to know what the gossip is. Motivations are complex like that: sometimes there’s more than one emotion flaring up and here, compassion is mixed up with the need for gossip. I can only speak for myself as a woman here, but this strikes me as such an honest depiction of moments like that between women. I care about my friends and what their stories are, but there’s curiosity within those feelings too.
Satrapi also portrays how women talk about their own bodies with each other and tackles the controversial topic of plastic surgery and keeping the body fit enough so your husband won’t leave you for someone younger. This is a harsh, problematic part of life as a woman that is rarely portrayed in all its honesty. I definitely judge women who get cosmetic surgery, but I don’t know what it’s like to completely depend on a man not leaving me to survive either. Personally I wouldn’t get cosmetic surgery but to me, Satrapi is showing how women might negotiate the world around them and buy some kind of security. It’s not ideal, but not all of our personal choices are ideal either.
The gaps between generations of women is also shown in Embroideries, like when Marjane is told by her grandmother that looking less awake will help her find lovers. It’s a piece of advice that is odd enough that all of our grandmothers might give it, or something similar to it. Marjane obviously sees the humor in her grandmother’s advice and like any young person, proceeds to ignore the (perhaps dated) directions of her grandmother. This is a gap where both generations need to negotiate (and sometimes speak out against) and this exchange perfectly encapsulates that.
Embroideries also portrays other negotiations these women must deal with: virginity, arranged marriages, pre-marital sex, conservatism that comes from other women. All of these subjects are layered with different opinions from different women, showing that female friendship groups aren’t all fuzzy and warm, but are definitely open to conversation, debate and autonomy. The graphic novel format helps articulate these complexities in a way that a written book never could.