Recasting Gender Roles: Subversive Identities in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

June 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home challenges both established gender roles and heteronormative identities. Gender is shown to be constructed, assigned through Western standards, and then practiced through performance. Bechdel’s graphic novel explores the destruction of feminine female/masculine male gender binaries and proposes a more fluid understanding of identity. In her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, theorist Judith Butler proposes that gender is not natural or innate, but rather a performance that is learned and repeated to “create the illusion of an innate and stable [gender] core.” Furthermore, gender is a construct, designed to benefit a patriarchal, heteronormative social structure. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel challenges the binaries that represent a “dualistic vision usually in service of some form of essentialism”[1] (Marinucci 127). Following the concept of essentialism,[2] the dominant binary “refers to the coalescence of gender, sex, and sexuality into exactly two fundamentally distinct natural kinds: men and women”[3] (Marinucci 127). Natural kinds “depicts an orderly world that divides into thoroughly informative categories inclusive of all phenomena without leftovers or crossovers”[4] (Marinucci 127).

Fun Home, then, is a novel of “crossovers”, of subversions and inversions of the performed identities. The narrator describes Alison’s Bruce’s sexual identities as “inversions of one another”. Theorist Julia Watson explains that “inversions” refers to both “the derogatory psychoanalytic term of the early century [for homosexuality] that Proust used but also as inverted versions of each other in the family”[5] (Watson 135). She argues that the narrator “presents Alison’s rejection of femininity as a compensation for her father’s lack of manliness, and his insistence on her dressing and acting ‘feminine’ as a projection of his own desire to perform femininity”[6] (Watson 135). Referencing Michael Proust, “[the term “invert”] is imprecise and insufficient, defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex”[7] (Bechdel 97). But the narrator offers another development: “But in the admittedly sample comprising my father and me, perhaps it is sufficient”[8] (Bechdel 97). Bechdel shows several scenes where Bruce tries to force Alison’s into a feminine gender role. In one scene where Bruce and Alison are both dressing up for an event, Bruce criticizes Alison’s dress, saying, “You can’t go out to dinner like that. You look like a missionary”[9] (Bechdel 98). He demands that she wear pearls; when she refuses, Bruce yells, “What’re you afraid of? Being beautiful? Put it on, goddamnit!”[10] (Bechdel 99). Although the narrator imply that the motivation is for himself, Bruce tries to force a gendered appearance in his daughter.

In a similar scene, Alison has returned from an afternoon with her male cousins and her father reproaches her for not wearing a barrete. Called “butch” by her male cousins, Alison criticizes her father as a “sissy”, a designation of the identity he forces on her. As Bruce represses Alison’s early shows of masculinity, he expresses the femininity within himself through her. In the strikingly literal mirror scene, father and daughter stand next to each other facing the mirror, Alison muses, Not only were we inverts, we were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me[11] (Bechdel 98). As Watson puts it, the narrator frames this negotiation by which she and her father displaced onto each other versions of conventional femininity and masculinity as a way of enacting their refusal of conventional heteronormative gender roles. In this version of the coming-out story, there is no simple narrative of rebellion against parental strictures by transgressive performance; rather she and her father are linked in both a contest of wills and a deep affinity of desires[12] (Watson 136). Recalling young men from her childhood, Alison identifies the ideal masculinity she craves.

Bechdel challenges cultural expectations by commandeering terms of queer identification and performing the associated identity, particularly the masculine designation “butch”. Butler posits that for some the use of such terms seems to demonstrate heterosexuality by creating heterosexual roles in homosexual relationships. However, she says “the terms queens, butches, femmes, girls, even the parodic reappropriation of dyke, queer, and fag redeploy and destabilize the categories of sex and the originally derogatory categories for homosexual identity”[13] (Butler 156). Butler suggests that the structuring presence of heterosexual constructs within gay and lesbian sexuality does not mean that those constructs determine gay and lesbian sexuality…but they can and do become the site of parodic contest and display that robs compulsory heterosexuality of its claims to naturalness and originality[14] (Butler 158). The rift between homosexuality and heterosexuality is arbitrary; to assert homosexuality as divergent from heterosexuality is to be complicit with the repression and segregation. Alison’s expression of masculinity challenges the heteronormative understanding of gender. There is one scene in Fun Home that is pivotal for the development of Alison’s lesbian identity. Bruce and Alison are lunching together at a truck stop restaurant when they see “a most unsettling sight”[15] (Bechdel 117): a butch woman steps into the diner and Alison’s gaze is drawn to her. According to Marinucci, a butch woman is a woman who “exhibit[s] a traditionally masculine personal style without identifying as trans”[16] (Marinucci 125). This moment is critical for Alison because for the first time she can recognizes the female masculinity of her own identification: “like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home – someone they’re never spoken to, but know by sight – I recognized her with a surge of joy”[17] (Bechdel 118). In another scene, an older Alison and her friend Beth play drag in Bruce’s clothes; the childish play “[feels] too good to actually be good”[18] (Bechdel 182). Alison subverts the hegemonic gender model because “in imitating gender, drag implicitly reveals the initiative structure of gender itself – as well as its contingency”. In Alison’s refusal of forced heteronormative behaviors, Bechdel “rewrites features of that narrative to insist on her cross-gender identification with the repressed desire that underlay her father’s overt heterosexual conformity”[19] (Watson 139).

Further, Alison’s recasting of her gender role proves that gender is a performance – a performance that is an imitation of other performances, inherently subversive because it shows the illusory nature of identity. Bechdel focuses on the performativity of gender. The panel where Alison resists Bruce’s policing of her appearance is set in the chapter titled “Old Father, Old Artificer”, which introduces Bruce’s “monomaniacal restoration of our old house”[20] (Bechdel 4). Alison seems to suggest that her father obsession with order and design were fueled by his repression. Bruce is described as an expert of appearances: “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”[21] (Bechdel 16). Alison’s gender performance is as meticulously constructed by him as the “perfect” home they live in, much like Bruce’s identity as “an ideal husband and father” is constructed. The success of Bruce’s identity as perfect husband and father is connected to his family’s perfectly performed identities. The narrator admits, “when things were going well, I think my father actually enjoyed having a family. Or at least, the air of authenticity we lent to his exhibit”[22] (Bechdel 13). Bruce imposes gender expectations on Alison to further mask his own closeted desires and to support and preserve the public image of respectability and heterosexual conformity. The narrator perceives her father’s adornments as “embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies”[23] (Bechdel 17). Bruce does his best to convincingly perform his role to create at least the appearance of a socially acceptable identity.

Butler argues that an individual can only have a gender by performing it: In other words, acts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means[24] (Butler 173). With Fun Home, Bechdel dissects the performativity and artifice of identity, subverting cultural expectations of gender, and exposing identity as behavior. Bruce and Alison are characters are inversions of each other, yet linked through their subversive gender identities. Alison’s story, as Watson so adeptly writes, “retrospectively offers Bruce an identity alternative to the one he has lived, based in rigid repression and fear of being branded as perverse and criminal”[25] (Watson 139). In the end, the two inversions, converge: Bruce’s end becomes Alison’s beginning.

[1] Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. (London: Zed Books, 2010). [2] “Essentialism” is the belief that considers “unique female and male natures where the difference between women and men are essences assumed to be biological, universal, and natural”. [3] Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. [4]Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. [5] Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. (Wisconsin: U. of Wisconsin Press, 2011). [6] Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. [7] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. (New York: Mariner Book, 2007). [8] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic [9] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [10] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [11] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [12] Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. [13] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (London: Routledge, 1990). [14] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. [15] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [16] Marinucci, Mimi. Feminism in Queer: The Intimate Connection between Queer and Feminist Theory. [17] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [18] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [19] Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”. [20] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [21] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [22] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [23] Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. [24] Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. [25] Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home”.

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