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Selected Theory

Gender, Masculinity, and Nation

David Hale

The construction of gender and nation combined is usually referred to the nations perception as a whole, i.e. the motherland vs the fatherland, which in turn creates an image of what is perceived in that nation. In the same way as there are connections between race and gender, there can be traits transferred over to the relationship between nation and gender, and in the revolution and political developments in Persepolis, the role of gender can be seen as stylised and performed by both the main characters and by the nation of Iran.

In historical contexts, it is the male gender that has traditionally built and propagated nations for its own interests. It is the male leader that leads the armies, rules the country, and is at the height of justice and law. The image of a leader, and therefore the nation that the leader rules are closely connected, and there are expectations from the nations civilians as well as the onlookers from other nations, as to what that leader should be and represent.

“…reasons why some cultures talk about a “motherland” and attribute maternal features to the nation could be considered. The recurring figure of Marianne, a voluptuous woman who embodies France and whose breasts are important to her representation, suggest numerous cultural connections between the French nation on the one hand, and certain supposed traits of woman and the female body on the other….If France is traditionally represented by a woman, other nations are symbolized by male figures. Uncle Sam embodies the United States, as when he calls men to the military (“Uncle Sam wants you”)…” (Reeser 171-172)

In Persepolis, the masculinity of leaders and nation is put in place early on in the novel through its King, the military background and development of the Shah, as well as the masculine image of God as he speaks to Marji.

When a leader of a nation does not meet the gender expectations as perceived by those beneath the leader, then it creates anxiety about the nations gender. The father of the Shah is described as “an illiterate low-ranking officer” (Satrapi 20), but he still holds his masculinity traits as an officer in the army. It is when the British manipulate him into conceding to their demands that the masculinity trait begins to weaken. It creates an anxiety about his gender role, and can be read as an attack on the military role, which de-masculinises him. The revolution can be seen as “the desire for a new leader can be linked to a desire to remasculinize the nation.” (Reeser 173) Similarly the war with Iraq creates a military war of which is more masculine, as to keep that country’s masculine traits at the forefront of representation and perception. A weakened military will be seen as effeminate compared to the victorious military, and will therefore be seen as not as militarily strong.

The revolution itself is then as a result covered in masculinity traits. “Then there was another cadaver, an old man carried out on a stretcher. Those who didn’t follow the first one went over to the old man, shouting revolutionary slogans and calling him a hero.” (Strapi 34)

In the case of martyrdom that is being celebrated, it is a celebration of honour and courage, of which both again are masculine traits, to boost the revolutionary stance and through the gathering of crowds, create a masculine bond all fighting for one cause.

This fighting for one cause, for one nation through revolution creates a bond between men, a homosociality. It allows man to create a non-threatening link amongst themselves for a national body which they all desire. The role of woman therefore is to enforce this mutual heterosexual desire and strengthen the bond of male rivalry, and at the same time denying homosexuality. The absence of women in a violent role further empowers the group of masculinity for which it is to be perceived. During the invasion by Iraq, “girls had to make winter hoods for the soldiers, but boys had to prepare to become soldiers.” (Strapi 99). By creating a military of all men, there is a much greater representational significance as it can be “viewed as possessing qualities that some want the nation to have (prowess, military might, or courage in the case of the military).” (Reeser 175). This represents the nation and creates a imagery that it is a much stronger fighting force and creates the image of the nation as a masculine one.

Persepolis further shows the masculinity in Iran through the rebellion of women and girls, into taking on masculine traits, for example the rebellion against the guardians of the revolution, “Their job was to put us back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women” (Strapi 133). Based on this feminist adaptation to take on male traits, the nation can be described as a masculine representation.

It is through the women adapting to these masculine traits, that they are in favour of the nation that the bonded males are trying to construct through their common cause, through both revolution and war. By doing so, they create a male body which will become the leader of that nation and represent the nation and themselves, thus creating a common sense of nationalism. Reeser writes, “My conscious or expressed desire for my country to go to war (and my justification for war) may be prompted by a hidden or unexpressed masculinity that gets channelled into nationalism…the converse of this phenomenon may be true as well: I may be aware of gender but not of nationality.” (Reeser 177) Both genders of a nation therefore may or may not be aware of their role in gender, but they are both aware of their desire to construct a certain type of nation.

It is with this changing in representation and desire, that a link can be drawn between Judith Butler’s theory as gender as ‘style’, and Benedict Anderson’s version of nation as ‘style’. Anderson writes,

“Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined…it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (Anderson 6-7)

Anderson is making the case that based on what a nation perceives a community to be, the citizens will adjust and carry out whatever measures, including death, to achieve those goals and create the comradeship which bonds them all together. Butler writes,

“Becoming a gender is an impulsive yet mindful process of interpreting a cultural reality laden with sanctions, taboos and prescriptions. The choice to assume a certain kind of body, to live or wear one’s body a certain way, implies a world of already established corporeal styles. To choose a gender is to interpret received gender norms in a way that reproduces and organizes them anew. Less a radical act of creation, gender is a tacit project to renew a cultural history in one’s own corporeal terms.” (Butler 508)

This explains that gender is as open to change, as nation is, and that gender is a process and can be chosen, in a similar way to the sense of community. The gender of the nation can therefore be performed as being a very masculine or feminine nation, and in the case of Persepolis, it is the masculine nation that is being performed by all. The relation between masculinity or feminism and nation is one of identity, and so therefore man or woman will view himself or herself as one of the other to be part of that nation as a whole.

The cause of revolution in Iran, when looking at it through Persepolis, can be viewed as the imbalance of masculinity in the household. To look at the theory of sovereign masculinity, a nations ideals works through the metaphorical repetition of these ideals from leader through to household. That is to say, that the Shar as leader of the nation, would require his style of symbolizing the nation to carry down through to the male dominated household. It is when these ideals do not match and do not convey down to the household within a nation, that the imbalance starts to cause anxiety again form the civilian to the leader and starts such actions as revolution.

The masculinity theory applied to Persepolis is able to show the valued bond of community and society through the changes that take place in Iran. The central character of Marji is able to symbolize the gender performance of being masculine in a masculine nation through her protests, rebellion, and relationship with her family. Masculinity theory is also able to show why gender can influence the instability between citizen and leader through the representation that leader and nation is giving.


Works Cited:

Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis. London: Vintage, 2008. Print


Reeser, Todd. Masculinities in Theory. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 2010. Print.


Butler, Judith. “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir Wittig, and Foucault” Praxis International Issue 4. 505-516. Web 1985.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verson, 1991. Print.

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