The Difference in Bruce’s and Alison’s Approaches to Being Gay in Fun Home
Fun Home: a Family tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel, deals with the difficulties that a father and daughter face with sexuality/ being gay. Alison Bechdel realizes that Bruce and her are on opposite side of the Kinsey scale regarding their gender preferences. The story pursuit an understanding of how Bruce and Alison differently perceive their sexual preferences. We can wonder, how does she represent their differences in the graphic memoir ?
Fun Home begins with Alison describing her father’s personality, by narrating how he has an obsession with restoring their old house, and she highlights the fact that he has a special talent with transfigurating objects and decorations. Alison compares Bruce as, “an alchemist of appearance, a savant of surface, a deadalus of decor” (5,6). However, Alison believes that her father uses his “skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not” (4,16), and hiding himself behind his dark secret of having sex with underage boys. Therefore, the house’s decorations represent a facade to hide Bruce’s shame. His sexuality is an ongoing topic throughout the graphic novel, we understand that he has a feminine side in the first chapter when he is shown painting in a precise way. His femine side resurface on page 23, his appearance of wearing mini shorts radiates his gender expression.
The end of the first chapter ends dramatically marked by the announcement of Bruce’s death. His grave is represented by an obelisk which during egyptian times represented the living deity, the vitality and immortality of the pharaoh. Ironically, the obelisk has a phallic shape that has a link with Bruce’s sexual preference. The obelisk is important to Bruce because he used to collect them, and according to him it symbolizes life.
Bruce’s sexuality is blurry for Alison, but understanding Bruce’s sexuality begins with understanding its background. Indeed, Alison discovers through a phone call with her mom, her father’s sexuality in which she reveals, “Your father has had affairs with other men” (5,58), and explains that “he was molested by a farm hand when he was younger” (6,58). According to Alison, Bruce drew a line between reality and fiction but it was a blurry one, and his library represents the blurry line that separates reality and fiction. In the fourth chapter entitled after Proust’s novel, “In The Shadow Of Young Girls In Flower”, Bruce is pictured wearing a bikini and Alison views her father as a sissy because of his love of flowers. The blurry line drawn by Bruce shows its inability to distinguish reality from fiction, he can see the beauty in a flower but not in his own children just like Proust in his book. Although the numerous signs that determines Bruce’s sexuality, he stays closeted (1,228). This suppression might explain his abusive behavior he had when Alison and her brother were younger.
Fun Home is also the story of Alison coming of age understanding her sexuality and embracing her lesbian side. While Bruce led his life hidden from his true self, Alison quite awake was fully aware of her identity. In her early thirteen’s, Alison questioned her sexuality after reading the word lebian in a dictionary. She realized her affinity for men’s clothing before she even realized that she identifies as a lesbian.
Searching her sexuality was part of Alison’s childhood, at nineteen it was a moment of realization for her after reading a book in the library. In college, she read a series of “Word Is Out” books filled with interviews of homosexual people. She made many researches and read many books on homosexuality throughout her life. When she was finally decided to take a step further into affirming her true identity, Alison’s sent a letter to her parents where she is coming out as a lesbian (1,58), even though she considered her sexuality being more hypothetical because she hasnt gotten any experiences yet.
However, her parents’ reaction wasn’t what she had hoped for after exchanging letters with her mom. At this point in time, her mother decides to reveal to Alison the truth about her father’s sexuality over the phone. Alison feels like the bombshell dropped by her mother shaded her coming out proclamation. However, letting it out allowed Alison to become more open with both herself and others regarding her gender identity. She is then capable of discovering her sincere sexuality by being in public relationships and experience with women.
Although Alison could successfully transition into living her new life being a lesbian, she struggles to understand her father’s gender identity. When Alison was younger, Bruce forced her to enforce her feminine side as a way of suppressing his own demons concerning his shame over his sexual identity. The differences drawn between both characters truly reflects modern day issues with affirming your own sexuality. We can notice different behaviors regarding being homosexual between Alison and Bruce.
While Alison is involved and researches about her sexuality, Bruce attempted to conceal his homosexuality and keep it a secret even though he tends to have more feminine side sometimes. The story of Bruce’s shame, explains how hiding that shame can in flip create complex and self-negative behaviors. Towards the end of the book, Bruce exhibits to Alison his desires to become a female. While she is happy that they have this connection because she always wanted to be a boy, he feels ashamed. This interaction embodies the chasm between father and daughter’s approaches to gender identification.
The Relationship between Alison and Bruce in Fun Home
The memoir “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” by Alison Bechdel reminds me more of a fictional rather than “real” graphic memoir. Bruce, Alison’s dad seems like he is escaping from the world rather than in the reality due to his hidden identity, being homosexual. During Bruce’s time period, homosexuality was not acceptable. By secluding himself to the outside world, including his family was his only escape. Moreover, Alison chooses to combine the world around her with the world that she thinks that she is in. The relationship between Alison and Bruce is somewhat distant. Yet, they seem to be closer when they are discussing about literature books. Hence, this memoir is connected with literatures in every significant event that took place in this novel, including the reveal of their sexual identity.
The Image of Daedalus and Icarus
Bechdel opened up her story showing the readers how close her relationship is with her father. Bruce was doing the “airplane” game with Alison. However, she falls down soon after (Bechdel 3). She used the Greek mythology of Daedalus and Icarus to suggest that perhaps it isn ‘t only the child who can take Icarus’ position: ‘In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky’ (Bechdel 4). Daedalus was the master of the craftsman. He made two pairs of wings out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus. Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, or else it would melt the wings. Nor fly too low near the sea because it would make the wings hard to fly.
Consequently, Icarus didn’t listen to his father and flew too close to the sun where his wings melted and plummeted into the sea. This allusion made it seem like it was a metaphor for the relationship between Alison and Bruce. However, it was actually a reference stating Bruce was the one that flew too close to the sun and died. Bechdel made the opening scene seem like a positive father-daughter bond. Though, it was not the case. Daedalus tried his best to create wings for Icarus to escape; yet he still fell. Both Bruce and Daedalus wish the best for their family, but they don’t know how to properly attain it. For instance, Bruce was obsessed with decorating his old Gothic mansion. However, it seems like Bruce was trying to use this as an excuse for him to gain a sense of power over himself and his environment because of his hidden identity. Furthermore, because Bechdel has to compare Bruce to literary character hints that this is how they only are able to communicate to each other, and to get closer in their relationship.
Living Through the Daughter’s Life
Throughout this novel, Bruce appeared to want to live through his daughter’s life. For instance, Alison and Bruce’s life have always been about femininity versus masculinity, “It was a war of cross-purposes” (Bechdel 98). As Bruce was trying to expose his feminine side by using Alison as a proxy, Alison was trying to make up for the lack of masculinity her father showed. She noticed that her father’s taste is much more effeminate than her own. Thus, ties back to his obsession of beautifying the house. Conceivably because of Bruce is ashamed of his hidden identity, he uses Alison’s body as a body he will never have and enforce femininity upon her. Some of Bechdel’s illustrations display that Bruce forced Alison to wear barrettes in her hair and wears a dress. But Alison likes to keep her hair short and dress comfortably. He forced Alison to become someone she is not. At the end of the novel, Bruce revealed that he has always wanted to be a girl. Due to the facts above, it made Bruce, the character more fictional than “real”. Moreover, the time period that he lived in, homosexuality was not acceptable by the society. Therefore, living through someone else’s life was the only choice. I feel sympathetic towards Bruce because he can never become the person he has always wanted to be.
The Books Bruce and Alison Read
Furthermore, the books that Bruce reads in his lifetime shows it was fictional and much more different than Alison’s books. Some of Bruce’s reading novels were “Anna Karenina,” “A Happy Death,” “Remembrance of Things Past,” and “The Great Gatsby,” while Alison’s books were “Our Right To Love,” “Homosexualities,” “Delta of Venus,” and “the Well of Loneliness.” One major difference in Bruce’s reading novels is that they are mainly fictional, classics and the connection to the theme death. However, in Alison’s reading book, it was more about the reality and the world she is in. I think this is one of the main reasons why Alison sees her parents “most real in fictional terms” (Bechdel 67). Additionally, Alison thinks the house looks like it’s from the Addams Family, and she has a hard time relating to her parents. She even pairs Bruce to Jimmy Gatsby, with his “self-willed metamorphosis.” Alas, Alison’s parents is fictional to her, and it appears that Bruce goes into these fictional worlds to escape from his unhappy reality and hide his true identity and sexuality, whereas Alison’s books assist her to understand the world she is in. Finally, I feel that Alison’s childhood didn’t appear to be a reality to her, and the novels she read helped her come to terms with what is possibly most real to her, her sexuality.
Being Uncertain about the Reality
Throughout the memoir, the words, “I think” was mentioned several times in her diary. This conveys that she was uncertain about some of the events that happened in her life, and nothing around her seems to be sincerely “real.” For example, she refers her menstruation as “Ning” (Bechdel 169). Due to the fact that she always wanted to be a boy, she finds her menstruation to be too feminine and embarrassing. Therefore, she ignores it and converts it with letters. Though she is able to avoid her discomfort. However, at the same time, she is demolishing her reality.
Literature became the mediator of bringing Alison and Bruce’s relationship one step closer. While she admits the connection and her intimacy with her father is abnormal to others, she still seems to enjoy and appreciate it. Also, Bruce opening up to Alison about his sexuality made him seem like he’s able to accept of who he is and not be ashamed anymore. Bechdel illustrated him as he was finally trying to stop escaping from reality and trying to build a relationship between Alison and him. Alison does grieve that they “were close. But not close enough” (Bechdel 225). Nonetheless, despite the fact that they were not as close as she wanted them to be, she treasures that “he was there to catch [her] when [she] leapt” (Bechdel 232), which is shown at the end of the novel when she jumped off the diving board into Bruce’s arm.
The Thrilling Fun Home Musical by Lisa Kron
The Themes of the Play
“Welcome to our home on Maple Avenue.” With this line, the Bechdel family brought the audience of the Ensemble Theatre along for a ride through their life. The story is told through the eyes of 49 year old Alison Bechdel as she finds herself unable to move forward without first looking back. Memories of her past that come to life on stage tell the story, in graphic, honest detail of Alison Bechdel growing up as the daughter of a closeted gay father and a distant mother in a small town in Pennsylvania. With music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Award-nominated Lisa Kron, and based on the graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home, is a groundbreaking musical about death, gender identity, and discovering the truth about a family’s struggle to stay together.
Lisa Krons invision for the show took Bechdel’s memoir and restructured it for the stage. Bechdel originally structured her novel as a series of memories that almost loop around central main events. Kron’s adaptation brought the 49 year old Alison on stage in the midst of writing her novel. This has Alison observing and commenting on her younger selves throughout the play and changing her perspective on how she viewed her parents. This is not the first time Kron has played with this theme of coming to terms with what we know and do not know. In one of her earlier works, Well, Kron focuses on her family’s medical history and the neighborhood where she grew up in. She ties in themes of the unknown as well as loss and discovery into all her works. As Kron pointed out in an interview, most of her work ties directly into her life. So likewise, all her pieces drawn from this connected theme pool.
The production of Fun Home is adapted directly from Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name. So of course, the inspiration for the set dressings and design came directly from the Bechdel’s novel. For Brian c. Mehring, the resident scenic and lighting designer for Ensemble, minimalism is a principle in his usual work. Working directly from the novel and from Kron’s vision, he tones down the densely packed house depicted in Bechdel’s childhood home. He states that overcrowding the stage takes away from the core elements of a show. Mehring had this to say about the design. ‘I like the audience to fill in the blanks,’ he says. ‘I don’t like to offend and over-decorate.’ The design for the show was modeled to fit the Ensembles main stage and felt as thought it was meant to be performed on the gorgeous modified thrust. Mehring’s designs are well known to the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, and are always built with great care and craftsmanship.
For this production he designed the set with numerous antiques and an in-house turntable provided by the CCM that delivered Helens’s piano, coffins from the funeral home, and Alison’s dorm room bed in quick succession. Scenes taking place in a moving car often are just comprised of the piano bench pulled to center stage with a soft spot focused on the passengers. This sort of blocking is in tune with Mehrings ideal minimalistic structured dressing and works well with focusing the audience’s attention on the details of the intense conversations that happened on the car rides in the show. While still successful at not drawing too much attention around the stage, the minimal design of Mehrings set brings an all around antique laden, fussy mood throughout the entire performance, tying in the theme of discovery and restoration.
While being the resident scenic designer at the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati, Bian C. Mehring is also the resident lighting designer. He creates fantastic scenic and mood changes through the use of general, practical, and effect lighting on the stage. Some of the effects that stood out to me was the wonderful creation of a reclaimed, warm mood through the antique blue glass sconces that lined the walls of the house. These sconces also changed from a cool tones when in the house, to a warmer, soft light for the funeral scenes. Mehring’s clever use of black scrims as side walls on stage left and right also caught me off guard when young Alison was lit from through the wall by a small effect light during a scene where she watched a tv show on the floor. These lights were used a number of times to light various characters from different angles and were effective at creating a diverse lighting plot on stage during complex scenes. Another scene that really stands out for lighting design would be during Bruce Bechdel’s final score. In Edges of the World, Bruce vocolizes his inner struggle with his sexuality and his failing to fix everything in his life. During this scene Bruce breaks down into a full emotional rage and fall to the floor, at this point, the stage switches to black with a soft follow spot for Bruce’s face. As he nears the end of the scene the light begins to brighten and it splits into two, indicating headlights and the sound of a car horn can be heard approaching. The sound of the horn grew to a blaring tone, and then stopped, the lights go out and the scene ends with Bruce’s death. This abrupt end to a very intense scene is very effective at bringing a solemn mood throughout the audience, I could almost feel the lament for Bruce resonate from the seats around me.
The Main Character
While Bruce played a major role in the performance, the character development in Fun Home extends way beyond his obsession with his antiquities. The main character in the show is of course Alison Bechdel, but she did not act alone in this rendition of Bechdel’s graphic novel. Bechdel is portrayed by three actresses in Fun Home: McKenna James Farmer is the confident 9-10 year old Alison at the beginning of the show. Emily Fink plays the newly 19 year old college student. And Natalie Bird portrays adult Alison, acting as the story’s narrator and stepping in and out of the action throughout the play. Bird is often reading over the shoulders of her younger selves as they write down their thoughts in a diary, making comments and remembering memories of her past. All three actresses are excellent singers and compelling actors that when put together, bring a wonderful web of complexity of Alison’s character.
Having three different actors play what is essentially the same role, just played over vast periods of time, can be a tricky thing to make seem cohesive, but I do believe that the Ensemble Theatre did so in a very simple way. In the costume design of each Alison, there was an obvious connection between the designs. Each actress bears a pair of black converse, jeans, and a red shirt of varying patterns. This type of dressing bring fluidity through passing of time, and while you might not notice these costume designs while the individual actors are on stage, your mind connects these decisions and it all reads as a young girl growing up through the years.
Fun Homes total running time was a little over one hour and thirty minutes. In that time, Alison Bechdel took the audience on a ride through her troubles in life sourounding her difficult relationship with her closeted gay father, topics of depression and anxiety, and her own self discovery as a queer woman. She spoke of the known and unknown as if they were one in the same. Along with the story line, the show was executed wonderfully. The set dressing, costumes, lighting, acting, sound design, and overall script had me pulled directly into that small town in Pennsylvania. The range of emotion portrayed in the production was a thrill to be apart of. The production of Fun Home is no longer in the Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati as of September 28, but if you can find a showing of it, I highly recommend the show to people of all ages to attend.
The Theme of Mental Disorder in Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
The tragicomic Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel, is generally considered one of the most important pieces of the modern LGBTQ canon of literature. The graphic novel tells the story of Alison Bechdel’s attempt to find the truth about her father’s sexuality and what lead him to possibly commit suicide. Along the way, Bechdel finds her own sexuality. Bechdel’s choice to write about her and her father’s simultaneous journey to finding their sexuality was revolutionary at the time. Very few authors were writing openly about their own sexuality, and something even more revolutionary that Bechdel addressed was mental illness. It is unexpected so late in this story, on page 137, that Bechdel would include a lengthy section discussing her childhood Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Why include this section at all when the entire graphic novel has focused on Bechdel’s relationship with her father and their joint quest to find their respective sexualities? There are many reasons that Bechdel could have chosen to include this section, namely to accentuate the extent that she felt separated from her family, to compare how society, represented by her mother, has differing views about mental disorders and sexual orientation, and to show how reliable, or unreliable, she is as a narrator.
Feeling Separated from Her Family
One reason Bechdel discusses her mental health in Fun Home is to show the direct effect that her parents had on her mental state growing up. On page 137, Bechdel mentions that one of her compulsions is perfectly lining up her sneakers. She labels the left shoe as her father and the right shoe as her mother. She tries to line them up perfectly as to not show favoritism for one show, or parent, over the other. Another compulsion of Bechdel’s mentioned on page 137 is that she felt the need to kiss all of her stuffed animals: “No matter how tired I was after all this, I had to kiss each of my stuffed animals– and not just in a perfunctory way.” In the panel, which depicts Bechdel kissing her stuffed animals, it is clear that, among the other stuffed animals, there are three bears. Bechdel shows herself kissing an elephant while dressed in her pajamas, which really shows us just how long the process took. Bechdel admits that this is deeply rooted in the fact that her parents showed very little physical love for her: “Though it verges on the bathetic, I should point out that no one had kissed me good night in years.” (137)
Bechdel mentions earlier in the book that she once attempted to show affection towards her father, but was overcome with embarrassment after kissing her father’s hand. Evidence of this lack of emotion from her parents can also be seen on pages 19 and 20 when Bechdel kisses her father’s hand and then leaves the room from embarrassment. The bottom panels on page 19, the top panels on page 20, and the bottom panel on page 137 are all sparsely detailed panels, showing just enough detail to show where the scene takes place. The book Bechdel’s father is reading on page 20 doesn’t even have a title, unlike most other books in Fun Home. Bechdel’s lack of decoration on these panels mirrors the lack of parental love in Bechdel’s life.
The Different Views about Mental Disorders and Sexual Orientation
Another reason that Bechdel included this section in Fun Home could be to show how her family’s views of her mental illness and her sexuality varied. Bechdel’s mother very directly asked Bechdel if she felt like there was something wrong in her life. Her mother then very graciously helps Bechdel through recovery by assisting Bechdel with writing her diary. Bechdel would dictate her life to her mother night after night. We know her mother clearly made an effort to try to understand what was happening with Bechdel because Bechdel found Dr. Spock’s parenting book and read the section that exactly described her OCD. This is one of the few times that Bechdel’s mother appears in Fun Home. When Bechdel sends a letter to her parents very bluntly stating “I’m a Lesbian.” (76), her mother’s response is so lukewarm and unaccepting that Bechdel doesn’t even depict her mother in the panels on pages 58 and 59. Bechdel’s mother did not make any effort to understand her daughter simply saying “Your father has had affairs with other men” (58) in response to Bechdel’s coming out letter. Instead, she minimizes an important part of Bechdel’s life by bringing attention to something else, completely shutting down any possibility of Bechdel and her mother having an effective conversation about her sexuality.
On page 77 Bechdel is on the phone with her father who says that her mother wouldn’t even come to the phone because “she’s pretty upset.” Her mother then gave a full response a week and a half later. Bechdel comments on her mother’s response saying “As disapproval goes, I suppose it was rather mild. Still, I was devastated.” (77) The panel where Bechdel reads her mother’s response letter shows only the letter, typed on a typewriter, giving it a cold and formal appearance. As far as communication goes, a typed letter is probably the most detached way to communicate. It seems odd that the woman who once would take dications for young Bechdel’s journal would be so helpful and accepting of one part of Bechdel’s personality, her OCD, and so cold and rejecting of another part of Bechdel’s personality, her sexuality.
Questioning Her Own Narration
By far one of Bechdel’s most alarming, and important, compulsions is found in her many diary entries. It is odd that Bechdel would wait until so late in this book, which is characterized by its exact detail, to mention the fact that she kept a journal. But, Bechdel didn’t just keep a journal; she obsessively kept a journal. On page 140, we see that Bechdel began writing on February 24th, which was Ash Wednesday. Even Bechdel’s first entry is objective reading: “Dad is reading The Trumpet of the Swan. I have my tail on. We went to church. We got ashes. 7 kids were sick today.” Bechdel keeps writing journal entries throughout her life with the same sort of objectivity. On page 78, Bechdel shows a journal entry that she penned in college, 10 years after Ash Wednesday, 1970, when she began. Her diary entries from her OCD era have the words “I think” riddled through the pages. Bechdel later creates a symbol that she covers pages with to represent “I think” for the entire journal entry. Bechdel herself describes this as “a sort of epistemological crisis” (141), she believes that she cannot trust her senses and what she perceives is happening. This sets up an issue for readers.
On the one hand, readers want to believe that the narrator and author are telling a true story. On the other hand, the author herself has doubts that she is telling the story as accurately as possible. So can we believe Bechdel, even if she doesn’t believe herself? Even though Bechdel felt the need to include “I think” by every single statement she makes, part of her compulsion is writing very exact and objective descriptions of what has happened. There’s no reason for anyone, but Bechdel to believe that she isn’t telling the truth. This question about what is true and what isn’t also directly relates to one of the main plotlines of Fun Home: did Bechdel’s father commit suicide, or was his death an accident? Bechdel throughout the text is searching for the truth in her father’s death, something she was once obsessed with as a young child. It is also worth mentioning that in the entirety of Fun Home, outside of her drawings of her journal, Bechdel uses the phrase “I think” 6 times, all referring to her father.
Bechdel includes an interlude about her OCD to show how much isolation she feels from her family, to draw attention to the differing reactions to mental illness and sexuality, and to question her own valid narration. This section serves only to emphasize the amount that Bechdel felt detached from her parents, as most of her compulsions are based in some sort of love or equality ritual. Bechdel even refers to her shoes as mother and father, as well as the bears that she rotates sleeping with. This is definitive proof that at least some of her compulsions lie in her upbringing and relationship with her parents. This section also serves to highlight the differences in the reactions that her mother had to Bechdel’s mental illness and Bechdel’s coming out. Her mother reacts very similarly to the way that society acts.
As a society, we believe that mental illness and sexuality are both parts of who you are, yet it is more acceptable to treat and subdue mental illness than “treating” or “subduing” sexuality. Bechdel’s mother is perfectly happy to be a scribe for Bechdel’s journal entries, yet will not even speak to her daughter after Bechdel comes out. Lastly, Bechdel includes this section as a sort of explanation for the graphic novel itself. While Bechdel did get over her OCD, she’s still obsessed with finding the absolute truth about her father’s death. Bechdel also emphasizes that we cannot truly know the absolute truth, no matter how hard we try, which gives readers doubt that Bechdel is telling as close to absolute truth as she can. While this break in the main plot of Fun Home seems unnecessary, it serves a myriad of purposes that can only help us to better understand Bechdel’s life and her father’s death.
Concept of Contingency in Bechdel’s Fun Home
Bechdel and Contingency
At first glance, Bechdel’s novel Fun Home depicts the unhappy relationship between father and daughter. Outside of chores and working, the pair rarely spend time together and appear to be polar opposites. As Alison describes, she was the “Butch to his Nelly. Utilitarian to his Aesthete.” (Bechdel 15). Yet, closer examination of their relationship reveals a different story, in which the two are inherently dependent on one another. Despite of and because of their communication difficulties, Alison discovers her identity through her father’s death.
In order to understand contingency and their communication difficulties, it is important to first understand systems theory. In his essay Systems, Wellbery argues that communication is a function of utterance, information, and understanding. In order to perfectly convey meaning between two parties, each of these components must be conveyed by the speaker and accepted by the recipient. Because it is difficult to incorporate all three factors, contingency arises from this triangle. That is, the possibility of misinterpretation means that both parties are not fully aware of the other’s intentions. This creates the openness of meaning that is inherent in communication.
The divide between Alison and her father stems from both written and spoken communication deficiencies. Orally, this can be seen throughout Alison’s childhood. Bruce struggles with utterance, as he speaks both infrequently and harshly. The opening scene of airplane is a perfect example of this, where his only words are “The rug is filthy. Go get the vacuum cleaner.” (Bechdel 4). Although he is a seemingly perfect sender, as he says exactly what he means, he fails to take tone and context into account. Because the pair were playing airplane and suddenly stopped, Alison understands this to mean that he would no longer like to play. As a child, she can only interpret what is explicitly stated, and he failed to mention their current game. Thus, the information sent (I don’t want to play airplane with you) diverges from the utterance (the rug is dirty).
However, this divide is most evident in their conversation on the way to the theater. Alison attempts to connect with her father over their homosexuality by discussing a novel, something they both take comfort in. Bruce responds with a brief synopsis of his discovery, and all too soon the conversation ends. However brief, their conversation exposes serious flaws on both the sender and receiver side of the communication triangle. For example, on the utterance side Bruce recounts his experiences as a gay man, presumably as an attempt to connect with his daughter as she hopes. Yet, Alison understands this to be a “shamefaced recitation” (Bechdel 221). Although the readers cannot know for sure who is right, there is a clear gap between utterance and understanding due to the openness of language.
However, this gap could also be interpreted as an understanding of the non-utterance, or silence. In Zizek’s How to Read Lacan, the author notes: “What more does this statement contain that has caused you to make it?” (Zizek 19). As such, what is left out of the statement holds as much meaning. For example, Bruce fails to respond when Alison exclaims “I dressed in boys clothes! Remember?” (Bechdel 221). The lack of response as an utterance clearly communicates the end of the conversation. Yet, the understanding of this end creates another divide. Alison, for example, interprets this as a lack of interest. Her father is done reliving the past, and has no interest in connecting with his daughter over their similarities. However, perhaps Bruce interprets this differently. The pair have found something in common, thus the conversation is resolved. This gap between disinterest and resolution is still due to miscommunication, however the utterance is silence rather than spoken word.
Textually, both struggle with communication (although not necessarily with each other), as can be seen in Bruce’s suicide and this book itself. First, her father’s suicide is believed by the public to be a tragic accident. They rationalize that it is easy to be distracted while crossing the street, especially while saddened over a divorce, and as such he didn’t see the oncoming truck. Yet, Alison chooses to believe it is a suicide because of a book he left behind. In A Happy Death, Bruce highlights the passage “He discovered the cruel paradox by which we always deceive ourselves twice about the people we love- first to their advantage, then to their disadvantage” (Bechdel 28). Alison interprets this as a signal of her father’s deep unhappiness that leads to his suicide. More importantly, Alison believes he ended his life the way he lived it- in control and perfectly executed. She comments, “If he’d intended to die, there was a certain consolation in the fact that he succeeded with such aplomb” (Bechdel 29). That is, he killed himself in such a way that only those who knew him would know it was a suicide. It was perfectly masked, with the only traces being the book and his perfectionist personality.
Thus, the contingency of their relationship is centered around her father’s suicide and the writing of this book. Neither party knows what the other is going to do, yet both inherently rely on one another in a speaker/receiver relationship. Although a tragedy, her father’s death allowed Alison to explore her identity by examining his life. While alive, their relationship was weak and overall unhealthy. Yet, Alison is inherently dependent on him for the creation of her own identity, which ultimately causes their paths to differ. She is openly gay and left her hometown, while he could do neither. This autobiography is her means of exploring both herself and her father, allowing her to draw parallels and distinctions between the two.
However, it is important to note that her father’s death is what ultimately creates this contingency and therefore changes their relationship. Because the book is written retrospectively, the bias from these fonder feelings may create a divide between actual events and the memory of said events. Her efforts to create an unbiased book by using actual images still contain bias, as she chooses which to incorporate and crafts the appropriate captions. As such, her father’s death creates both Alison and Bruce’s identity, which he can no longer control. If Bruce had never died, or if it wasn’t a suicide, it is likely Alison would foster much more resentment towards her father, thus changing the entire narrative.
The Portrayal of Father/Daughter Relationship in the Fun Home
A significant aspect explored by Alison Bechdel in Fun Home is her relationship with her father, Bruce. During her childhood, there seems to be constant friction between Bechdel and Bruce and she applies the Daedalus-Icarus metaphor to depict her relationship with her father. However, when Bechdel finds out that her father is a closeted gay man, she tries to understand her open lesbian identity in relation to his identity, realizing that the mythic metaphor does not actually hold. At the centerfold of Fun Home, Bechdel places a two-page spread of a photograph of her babysitter Roy, taken by her father, which she comes across after Bruce’s death. As she tries to look at the picture through Bruce’s eyes, she feels connected to him. This pivotal moment divides the text into two parts, and allows Bechdel to revisit and re-characterize her relationship with her father in the second part after she has already characterized it in the first part. Thus, the recursive nature of Bechdel’s narrative, chronologically fragmented by the use of repetition, allows Bechdel to re-examine her relationship with her father in terms of the mythic metaphor she applies to it.
Bruce’s sudden death before Bechdel can begin exploring her relationship with him leads to her having to find means to understand his identity after his death. Bechdel finds out about her father’s sexual identity through a phone conversation with her mother while she is coming out about being lesbian. This comes as a shock to her system, but she then realizes that she shares a deeper connection with her father than she had expected as they both face a sexual identity crisis. One of the ways she explores Bruce’s identity is through photographs, in particular the photograph her father takes of Roy that she comes across after his death.
The non-chronological structure and recursive narrative of Fun Home lead Bechdel to place this moment of connection at the heart, or the center, of the text rather than at the end. It serves as a pivotal point in the book, after which her employment of the Daedalus-Icarus
myth as a metaphor for her relationship with her father is viewed with a refreshed perspective. The perspective change occurs after she realizes her connection with her father, and she thus restores his sexual identity to its proper place in her memory before re-examining their relationship. This allows her to juxtapose her interpretation of the Daedalus-Icarus myth metaphor related to her and her father before and after she learns about and understands his sexual identity. Thus, she places these panels before and after the pivotal moment respectively.
The photograph of Roy is visual and material evidence of the parallel life Bruce had been living. Emphasizing the picture’s capacity to disrupt her family, which is what Bruce feared all his life, Bechdel places the strips of negatives depicting her and her brothers playing on the beach immediately after the picture of Roy. However, the proximity of these ostensibly disparate images offers evidence to her father simultaneous inhabitance of two different worlds. The image of Roy is given much more emphasis by enlarging it into a two-fold spread as compared to the thin panel depicting the strips of negatives appearing on the next page. This depicts the fact that her father’s real life and true identity lay in the life that he was trying to cover up, his life as a closeted gay individual, not the “ideal husband and father” (17) that he appeared to be. By placing the image of Roy at the centerfold, Bechdel is acknowledging the significance of her father’s hidden identity in understanding his behavior during her childhood memories, and subsequently, her relationship with him in the past.
The various visual elements of the picture highlight its emotional significance. The frame includes Bechdel’s hand holding the picture, creating a sense that she is trying to see through her father’s eyes. Relying on the photograph’s aesthetics to find its deeper meaning, Bechdel says, ““The blurriness of the photo gives it an ethereal, painterly quality. Roy is gilded with morning seaside light. His hair is an aureole”. This description of the image in a textbox shows Bechdel viewing of the photograph as framed through her father’s sexual desire. When she finds the photograph, she seems to be able to connect with the man behind the camera and the fact that she is able to establish this connection through the photograph surprises her. She acknowledges that “the picture is beautiful” and wonders why she is “not properly outraged” as she might be if the picture was of a seventeen-year-old girl instead. She says, “Perhaps I identify too well with my father’s illicit awe” .
The connection stems from Bechdel’s realization of the fact that she and her father have an “inverted Oedipal complex”, which she discusses in the last few pages of the book. Due to this complex, she sees that “while [she] was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him, he was attempting to express something feminine through [her]”. Immediately preceding the image of Roy, Bechdel time shifts to when she was a child and describes her father’s and her shared interest in the image of a young man posing in an Esquire magazine fashion spread – she wants the suit, while her father wants the boy, and in anticipation of the scene to follow, there is another layered set of gazes as she holds the magazine and her father watches the image over her shoulder. The image of Roy inverts this structure as Bechdel draws herself holding the photograph that gives her access to what her father saw, as though she were looking over his shoulder. In both cases, she cannot separate herself from her father’s sexuality.
Bechdel’s first extended consideration of her relationship with her father, through a reference to the Daedalus-Icarus myth, appears at the very outset of Fun Home – this first consideration is the way Bechdel perceived their relationship while she was growing up. One of the first scenes depicted in Fun Home is of Bruce balancing a nine or ten year old Bechdel on his foot, in a rendition of the game “Airplane”.
Bechdel depicts herself visually as ‘tumbling’, thus depicting the Icarus legend traditionally with herself in the Icarus, the overly ambitious position. Just as Icarus is trying to get close to the sun, Bechdel is trying to experience proximity with her father; and just as Daedalus warns Icarus not to get too close, Bruce also seems closed off to Bechdel’s efforts to get close to him. She describes the position she is balancing in as uncomfortable, but “well worth the rare physical contact” she had with her father. Bechdel carries forward this metaphor and compares Bruce to Daedalus, as she describes how he is more concerned with restoring the house than with his own children. He is so caught up with his project, that he fails to acknowledge his role as a father to his children; rather, he uses them as ‘hands’ to aid in his projects – “Daedalus too, was indifferent to the human cost of his projects”. We see Bechdel’s lack of connection with her father, as she is unable to understand his obsession with his restoration project.
Bruce’s obsession with a perfect outward appearance stems from the fact that he is ashamed of his sexual identity; he tries to protect his family by making sure that the fact that he is gay remains hidden. Bechdel says, “He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not. That is to say, impeccable”. By attempting to portray his family and his home as ideal, Bruce is trying to compensate for the shame he feels, and fears that his family’s image can be ruined in society due to his being gay.
Bruce’s shame about his own sexual identity leads to him fearing the fact that his daughter is a lesbian, rather than supporting it. Thus, as he tries to force Bechdel to have “pink, flowery curtains” in her room, as if imposing femininity on her, there is friction between the two, because Bechdel does not know about her father’s closeted gay identity. Bruce is so afraid of people finding out that he is gay that he tries to make his family appear to be perfect, placing Bechdel within the stereotypical confines of being a girl. Bechdel feels as though her father is restricting her, just as Daedalus tried to restrict Icarus from flying too close to the sun for his own good.
Daedalus advises Icarus to prevent his downfall; in Fun Home, it is not immediately clear in the first reference to the myth how exactly Bruce is ‘saving’ or ‘helping’ his family by his obsession with outward appearances. However, when Bechdel circles back to the myth at the end of the text, after the pivotal point of connection, it finally falls into place. The panel depicted at the end of the text is very similar to the one depicted at the beginning; in both images Bechdel lies above her father, her arms outstretched, as though she were flying.
Bechdel ends her story with the phrase, “He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt”. She realizes that Bruce was there for her during his life much more than she thought, and thus she needs to recreate her childhood memories with this new understanding. Before the pivotal moment when Bechdel finally understands her father’s actions, she characterizes herself as Icarus and her father as Daedalus. Icarus’ failure in escaping due to his wings melting can be compared to the missed connection that Bechdel feels as a child in her relationship with Bruce.
However, she says, “In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky”. Here, Bechdel is suggesting that her relationship with her father, in retrospect, did not actually follow the path of Daedalus and Icarus’ relationship and the metaphor deteriorates as they both can occupy Icarus’ position, but unlike Icarus, they are freed from their respective ‘prisons’ successfully without drowning. She places the picture of the truck in the panel to emphasize the sudden death of her father just as they begin opening up to each other, just like the sudden death of Icarus when he is flying. However, unlike Icarus’ death, which occurs at a moment where he is feeling most liberated as he flies close to the sun, Bruce’s death is a form of liberation for him, as during his life he is limited by the fact that he cannot be open about his sexual identity. Bruce dies shortly after she tells him she is a lesbian and learns about him being gay through a phone conversation with her mother. Since she has no time to explore her relationship with him while he is alive, her only way to do so is to re-examine her existing memories of him.
Bechdel realizes that her father was in fact there for her even though she did not recognize it earlier. Just as Daedalus gave Icarus wings as an opportunity to escape, Bruce also gives Bechdel ‘wings’ by introducing her to the world of literature, so she can explore and understand her identity as a lesbian. He suggested that she read Colette, a proud lesbian’s, autobiography. A conversation that Bruce and Bechdel have in the car on the way to the theatre, that occurs after the pivotal point in the second half of the text unfolds as such:
Alison: Did you know what you were doing when you gave me that Colette book?
Bruce: What? Oh. I didn’t, really… it was just a guess… I guess there was some kind of… identification..
Bruce does ‘save’ Bechdel by giving her a voice through literature. During her time at college, she discovers herself by reading lesbian literature, which liberates her as it allow her to understand her true lesbian identity. She describes her realization of the fact that she is a lesbian as a “revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind”. We see that Bechdel does not mirror Icarus because unlike him, she uses the opportunity her father gives her well and uses literature to discover her identity. Thus, unlike Icarus, Bechdel does not fall and drown; instead, she manages to find her voice, which she realizes is linked to her father as he is the one who introduced her to it, and thus she feels connected to him.
Bechdel characterizes her story as a “tricky reverse narration” that propels her story forward. The structure of Fun Home depicts a new understanding of the past– the first half of the book, ranging from chapters 1 to 3 shows Bechdel’s recollection of memories before she finally manages to establish a connection with her father. The second half of the book, after the pivotal moment of the picture of Roy that occurs in chapter 4, depicts Bechdel’s recreation of the memories. Thus, the narration is tricky and reverse, because it takes readers through the process by which Bechdel explores her past after finding out about Bruce’s gay identity, juxtaposed with her actual reactions while she experienced her memories chronologically. Through chronological fragmentation created by the repetition and re-examination of memories, Bechdel manages to understand her relationship with Bruce, that she earlier thought was like Daedalus and Icarus, but then she realizes that they do share a deeper connection that was not shared in the mythic relationship. However, although she does manage to find a connection, it is only limited to the past memories that she can explore again with this new perspective. She will always carry the ‘what if’ to how much more her relationship with her father could have developed had he still been alive.
Construction of Identity in Fun Home
Although Alison Bechdel tells an emotional story in her graphic memoir Fun Home, she also grounds various important plot points about identity construction in mythology. In this way, she is able to articulate the complex and often contradictory relationship with her father that ultimately played a major role in the creation of her own personal identity. One of the prevailing images is that of her father as Daedalus and herself as Icarus, which is set up on the opening page of the book. Bechdel’s substitution of herself and her father for mythological characters allows her to deconstruct their respective identities through analytical, rather than an emotional lens.
On the first page of the book, the panels show three very distinct angles of the common childhood game “airplane.” These three panels act as a microcosm for the plot of the rest of the novel, as each represents the different roles each character must play in order to appease the other. In the first panel, Bechdel at first glance may appear to be disrupting her father. However, when looked at through the lens of the Daedalus / Icarus myth, the image gives the idea that Bechdel (as Icarus) is giving her father a purpose: to lift her up. In this way, Bechdel constructs his identity as a father; she plays the role of the child in need of assistance, and he fulfills the role of the caretaker in this situation. By enacting this ritual of “airplane,” which is later made clear to be one of the rare tender moments between the two, the two characters reify each other’s familial roles.
The second panel establishes a moment of perfect balance between the two characters, both physically and emotionally. The image shows a floating Bechdel, while the caption reads, “As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach” (Bechdel 3). This panel works in a way that shows the necessity of one for the other to survive. Without her father, Alison could not float; without Alison, her father would have no one to lift up. The panel also shows a view from under Alison, which clearly delineates her father’s role in raising her up. However, the delicate moment also shows the fragility of their respective identities. Besides making it difficult to separate the two, the fact that each of their identities relies so heavily on the other’s furthers the idea that their relationship is also bound to fail at a certain point. Eventually, Bechdel’s father must get tired of holding her up and she will tire of the discomfort of being perched on his legs and the unstable position they are in will collapse. This panel illustrates the moment before that inevitable failure?the moment in which Icarus and Daedalus are partnered in a symbiotic relationship where each motivates the other to succeed.
The third and final panel can be seen in two contradicting ways. At face value, it shows the ultimate moment of flight and even directly references “Icarian Games” (Bechdel 3). However, the bird’s eye view could also be used to interpret Bechdel’s position as falling from the sky, much like the end of the Icarus / Daedalus myth. In her desperation to be close with her father, Alison inadvertently ‘flies too close to the sun.’ She relies too heavily on her father in order to stabilize herself, and this results in her downfall. It is also in this frame that her father is seen letting go of her hands. Similar to the myth, Alison’s father must relinquish control of his creation and see if it will succeed on its own. However, instead of being wax wings, the creation in this story is his daughter’s identity. She can be seen as both flying and falling, which also represents the role their relationship plays in her life throughout the memoir.
Thus far, this interpretation has ignored a key character in the myth: the Minotaur. In this memoir, Bechdel’s father fills the role of the Minotaur because he is the one creating a situation from which his child needs to escape. By micromanaging her identity and forcing his own projections onto her, he creates a dangerous situation in which she is at a high risk of instability. He is the one who teachers her how to project and repress emotions, but he is also the one who tries to save her from experiencing the same identity crises that he did throughout his life. Because of this, he plays a major role in her story and makes it difficult for her to clearly express her feelings about their relationship. She cannot hail him as her hero without also acknowledging him as her villain, which is why the contradictory last panel perfectly illustrates the danger of the supposed ‘balance’ that they found in their interactions with each other.
Fun Home By Alison Bechdel: Turning A Tragic Childhood Into A Hit Musical
Combining two genres, comic and memoir, Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is now showing as a musical at Young Vic in London. This wonderful production is adapted by Lisa Kron, composed by Jeanine Tesori, and directed by Sam Gold. With the resonant music and detailed stage, Bechdel’s story comes into audiences’ view brilliantly.
In Fun Home, Bechdel describes two stages of her life. In the childhood, she lives in a small town in Pennsylvania with two younger brothers, her mother Helen who is an English teacher and her father Bruce who is a high school English teacher, a funeral director and a crazy artificer. When she goes to college, she finds out her homosexuality and meets her first girlfriend Joan. After a few months of her revelation and two weeks of her parents’ divorce, Bechdel is told that Bruce is hit by a truck and died. The story is organized around the exploration of Bruce’s death and his secret homosexuality. There is also a hidden third stage, where adult Bechdel starts memorizing her family tragedy and narrates it.
The three Alisons do great jobs to present three stages of Alison. This musical is in the form of story-telling as the adult Bechdel (Kaisa Hammarlund) stays on the stage all the time narrating the memory of her family. The scene of the young Bechdel (Brooke Haynes) playing the “airplane game” with Bruce (Zubin Varla) and unwillingness of wearing a dress to the party suggest her tomboy personality. The memorizing process is quite real as Hammarlund is holding a silver teapot when she recalls the happiness of her artifice father when he finds this beautiful article. When she goes to college, the medium Bechdel (Eleanor Kane) standing in front of the door of Gay Union awkwardly shows her hesitation and fear of confronting her homosexuality from the very beginning of her new discovery of herself. After having sex with Joan (Cherrelle Skeete), the surprise and delight on Kane’s face suggest that Bechdel embraces her lesbian sexuality completely.
Music is an art form which uses sounds to express ideas and emotions to audiences so that people can understand those feelings better. Though Fun Home which is referred as Bechdel’s family-run funeral business is about a family tragedy, there are times when Bechdel is having fun with her two younger brothers. When kids come out from the casket and sing the funny song “Welcome to the Fun Home”, audiences laugh all the time. It seems that their happiness infects the crowd successfully with the amusing music. When Varla is standing in a dark room, singing the moving song “Edges of the World” emotionally, he shows the desperation and helplessness of a man, a father, and a gay clearly. His confusion of his complex identity is revealed in the heavy and speedy music and the lyrics “Who am I now? Where do I go?” explicitly. Though when he sings “But when the sunlight hits the parlor wall”, the music becomes soften, making audiences think that he might yearn for the family, the last chord symbolizing him hit by a truck is heartbreaking.
This adaptation shows the desire of Bechdel to know her father very well as it depicts the memory of important moments of Bruce’s secret to the audiences: his velvet clothing, going out to buy newspaper late at night and the concealed joy after knowing that Bechdel is a gay. At the end of the musical when three Alisons sing “Flying Away” together, recalling three different relationships with Bruce, it shows a moment of balance perfectly.
Lacan’s Mirror Stage and Fun Home
The graphic novel Fun Home by Alison Bechdel opens with a series of panels portraying how she and her father used to play airplane. At the same time, Bechdel makes a connection between them playing airplane and the myth of Icarus and Daedalus. It is important to note that what Alison and her father are doing in this scene is role-playing. One of them has to be the support while the other one flies. It is a role-playing game, but nevertheless a game, and both of them appear very serious while playing it. Alison gets to fly, just as Icarus, while playing this game, but that is not necessarily true in their daily lives outside the airplane game. Bechdel says that “in [their] particular re-enactment of this mythic relationship, it was not [her], but [her] father who was to plummet from the sky” (Bechdel p. 4). This puts into question who of them is the father in their relationship. The mixed-up parallels between Alison, her father, Icarus, and Daedalus highlight the unclear relationship of power between Alison and her dad.
The conflicts between them were almost always caused by her father trying to solve his personal problems through her. He wants her to dress very feminine because that is something that he never got to do. He fails to acknowledge that her daughter is also going through stuff of her own. Instead of playing the role of a father, he is putting all the pressure on Alison to be his and her own father at the same time. The father gets to fly as Icarus supported by Alison as Daedalus constantly and Alison can’t keep up with that. Whenever Alison wants to open up to her father, the conversation turns toward her father’s issues. During the scene in the car (p. 220), after Alison tries to find out if her father knew she was gay all this time, his father only focuses on himself and dismisses Alison’s questions. The book that she thought he was trying to give her as a guide for self-discovery was actually a way of introducing himself. Because in the end, everything was about him. That is when Bechdel questions which of them was the father because she is doing all the parental listening (p. 221).
Bechdel concludes the novel with a scene at the pool playing with his father (p. 230-32). While the scene is going on, she narrates her own reasoning regarding paternity and her relationship with her father. It was not as simple as her being the father to her own father. Their relationship was tricky and they both, especially the father, benefited from each other to find out their own identities. Bechdel tries to uncover to the reader the nature of their relationship by juxtaposing the pool scene with both Ulysses and the legend of Icarus. She feels like her father sacrificed a lot that did not belong to him for his own sake, just as Joyce sacrificed Beach’s financial stability for Ulysses (p. 230-1). At the same time, his father was Icarus and flied too close to the sun, but “he was always there to catch [Alison] when [she] leapt” (p. 232). The novel ends with them playing in the pool together, as expressionless as when they played airplane.
This unclear relationship is further distorted by Bechdel’s act of writing a story about her father, in which she has ultimate control over how she crafts his character. Taking into consideration Lacan’s Mirror Stage, Alison’s father establishes his ego as fundamentally dependent upon external objects or others. Through books, he creates an “ideal” self of who he thinks he is or should be. As the idea he has in his head does not coincide with his experiences, he needs Alison to fill that inconsistency. He dressed Alison very femininely when she was a little girl because that is who he wanted to be. His idea self or identity is within those books and not in his person, that is why he introduces himself by giving Alison the books that have helped him form his identity or his imagos. The father’s encounter with the “other” ends up being in books and sometimes other men, that makes him unable to be himself with his own family and strains and distorts his relationship with Alison.
The parallels that Alison makes between her and her father, and Icarus and Daedalus are no longer parallels. They are a far more complicated than the initial simplistic comparison. The confusion that Bechdel creates about who is who throughout the novel reflects her own confusion regarding her relationship with her father. The fact that us as readers cannot get closure is also representative of Bechdel’s anxiety of never getting an answer herself.
Comparison: Michel Foucault’s “Repressive Hypothesis” & Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”
Michel Foucault begins his essay “We ‘Other’ Victorians” with a description of what he calls the “repressive hypothesis” (Foucault 10). This hypothesis holds that openly expressing sexuality at the beginning of the seventeenth century was considered shameless. Transitioning into the Victorian era and with the development of the Victorian bourgeoisie, sexuality began to take on an entirely different meaning. Any physical act or visual representation of sexuality with a purpose separate from procreation became considered “illegitimate,” paving the way to a generation of repressive silence (Foucault 3). In modern American culture, it can be argued that society has “liberated [itself] from those two long centuries in which the history of sexuality [has been] seen first of all as the chronicle of an increasing repression,” but to assume this position is to assume that the repressive hypothesis is accurate, and the Victorians were in fact sexually repressed (Foucault 5). Foucault challenges this stance, arguing that the Victorians were more sexually liberated than modern society generally considers them to have been. Rather, this consideration is based on a sense of sovereignty that can be gained from triumphing over a repressive force by engaging in any activity widely considered to be taboo. In Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Alison’s indulgence in lesbian literature and experience within the gay community rewards her with a sense of liberation. In considering Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis,” this could be based on Alison experiencing a sudden sense of freedom due to breaking away from the sexual repression of our Victorian ancestors. The intent of this essay is to investigate Alison’s invigorating exploration of sexual identity through language, physical expression, and satisfaction gained from a sense of community.
Foucault argues that during the Victorian period, there was a shift from considering sexuality as behaviour-based to identity-based, as a number of identity categories came to light. Partly due to this historical shift, Alison comes to terms with her sexual identity through discourse before actually engaging in sexual intimacy with another woman, experiencing “a revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind” (Bechdel 74). Alison spends a great deal of time in the library researching lesbian-friendly books such as Word is Out: Stories of Some of our Lives by Nancy Adair, and The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hill. In this passage, Alison recalls that she “first learned the word [lesbian] due to its alarming prominence in [her] dictionary” (Bechdel 74). Following this discovery, Alison begins to identify with the word and accepts its importance in the definition of her identity. According to author Timothy Murphy, “some scholars … assert that in their modern form, [gay and lesbian] identities were created in the medical and sexological discourses of the late 18th century” (Murphy 598). Therefore, the word “lesbian” did not exist in pre-Victorian discourse, whereas it is prominent in Alison’s 21st century discourse, and plays a deciding factor in her conceptualization of personal identity. Elsa, a character in one of the books represented in this passage, was born in 1898 and “never had that crossing-over crisis that people talk about these days – the feeling that you have to have some kind of an indoctrination or trauma, or a coming-out ritual” (Bechdel 74). This clearly shows the generation gap regarding discourse between the Victorian times and Alison’s modern day.
Foucault stresses modern society’s emphasis on overcoming sexual repression in order to feel liberated and powerful. In this passage of Fun Home, there are examples of Alison acting in concordance with Foucault’s repressive hypothesis. Following her identification with the word “lesbian,” Alison “screwed up [her] courage and bought” a gay-friendly book, “and soon [she] was trolling even the public library, heedless of the risks” (Bechdel 75). The risks in question are undoubtedly based around societal acceptance of homosexuality. As she continues her journey of coming out, Alison attends a meeting of the “Gay Union,” then proceeds to come out to her parents (Bechdel 75-76). Each of these instances represents an urge to fight the “repressive” societal forces persuading her against publically declaring her sexual orientation. Foucault challenges the idea of power being a “top-down” model in which those at the top hold the power, and those at the bottom are subject to it. Rather, Foucault theorizes power as a set of fluid, communal relations. Alison’s sense of power in this passage comes from community: a community of gay authors, and a community of people at “Gay Union.” Like Foucault, Bechdel is challenging the concept of a power hierarchy, proving that experience within a community of people has the ability to foster a strong sense of individual power. Following her public declarations, Alison feels “exhilarated” and in a “tremulous state” as she experiences a rewarding a sense of power and authority over her identity (Bechdel 76).
Following the stress on discourse and publicity, Bechdel begins to place emphasis on the physicality of Alison’s revelation regarding her sexual identity. She describes her experience in the library, stating that she “found a four-foot trove in the stacks which [she] quickly ravished,” a sentence with obvious sexual connotation. This wordplay is followed by physical indulgence, as “it became clear that [she] was going to have to leave [the] academic plane and enter the human fray” (Bechdel 76). Alison’s epiphany is supported by an image of her masturbating while reading Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. By transitioning from literature to physicality, Alison is taking the final steps in her journey to understanding herself and formulating her identity. From this point on, she begins experimenting physically with her partner Joan in college without worrying about the societal consequences: “Joan was a poet and a ‘matriarchist.’ I spent very little of the remaining semester outside her bed” (Bechdel 80). Such a strong physical revelation may not have been possible for Alison without first relating to lesbian discourse. Even during physical experience, she and Joan merge literature with sex, as the bed was “strewn with books, however, in what was for me a novel fusion of word and deed” (Bechdel 80). At this point, discourse becomes sexual, and sexuality becomes dependant on literature.
Alison is acting in concordance with the repressive hypothesis on a variety of different levels. She seeks identity through discourse, publicizing her sexual orientation, and engaging in physically sexual acts. Foucault defines “the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression” (Foucault 6). Although Alison is living in the midst of gay revolution, homosexuality is not fully considered socially acceptable (and still is not today). Because homosexuality is still repressed, Alison is engaging in a “deliberate transgression” by acting out in a taboo fashion. This allows her to exercise power over her identity in her own right, rather than this power being possessed by an external entity. Foucault is presenting his “repressive hypothesis” by disagreeing with it. Despite this, the concept is highly applicable to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as Bechdel has developed her character, Alison, as a representation of those people who agree with the “repressive hypothesis” by having her behave in concordance with fighting the subjugation it outlines.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home : A Family Tragicomic. New York: Mariner, 2006.
Foucault, Michel. “We ‘Other’ Victorians.” History of Sexuality. New York: Vintage Publishing, 1990. 3-13.
Murphy, Timothy. Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000.