Lately, as I've been haunting my own house during quarantine, the presence of my ink markers has grown and grown in my peripheral vision. I have a feeling it's about time to break out the bristol board and start a new graphic piece.
This is much easier said then done, naturally.
For inspiration or validation or maybe even just plain moral support, I have turned recently back to my graphic novel collection from late high school. I have spent not an insignificant number of hours the last few days obsessing over the graphics of Marjane Satrapi, Junji Ito, Bryan Lee O'Malley, and, of course, Alison Bechdel, patron saint of my gay little heart.
Since I have discovered that it is time to light my Alison Bechdel votive candle (this is not a joke; I actually have one) and get to drawing, I think it is also worth revisiting Fun Home from a fresh, more developed analytical viewpoint, mostly just to explain to people in a way that isn't incoherent babbling how much I love Bechdel's work and why.
In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006), Alison Bechdel explores her mercurial relationship with her father throughout her life leading up to his death. The tale Bechdel tells is one underlain with sexuality, as she reflects on her development of identity as a queer woman under the meticulously kept Gothic Revival roof of her closeted father.
As represented by the persistent employment of phallic and yonic symbolism throughout the book, Bechdel reconciles the inescapability of sexuality in her life and questions the complicity of queerness both in the nature of her relationship with her father and in his death.
Before Bechdel’s own queerness is mentioned, her father’s is, first explicitly, and then alluded to more covertly as Bechdel fleshes out her family dynamic. In the first chapter, Bechdel writes of her father: “He appeared to be an ideal husband and father…But would an ideal husband and father have sex with teenage boys?” (17). This sets the proverbial stage for discussion surrounding Bruce’s sexuality. So when, in the next chapter, Bechdel describes Bruce’s fixation with obelisks, the reference takes on a more symbolic meaning as a phallic symbol, given the existing context of sexuality the audience is given preceding the reference.
Bechdel writes: “His headstone is an obelisk, a striking anachronism among the ungainly granite slabs in the new end of the cemetery. It’s also a shape that in life he was unabashedly fixated on. He had an obelisk collection, in fact, and his prize specimen was one in knee-high jade that propped open the door to his library” (29). Besides the obvious phallic shape of the object, not only is it an obelisk something that posthumously sets him apart from everyone else, a reference to his private queerness, but the placement of Bruce’s prized jade obelisk as that which opens the door suggests the establishment of a threshold through which Bruce seems to have only just passed, standing with his hands on his hips just beyond the divide of the door frame. In the same panel, Alison crouches in front of her father, feeling the side of the obelisk with an unfurled hand as her father remarks “It symbolizes life” (29). Alison’s position seems to be one of consideration as she kneels at the threshold before the phallus, her hand not fully decided to grasp it or not, as her father watches from above.
This situation is paralleled later in the chapter when Bruce calls Alison into the embalming room, where she sees her first cadaver, remarking on the body: “The strange pile of his genitals was shocking, but what really got my attention was his chest, split open to a dark red cave” (Bechdel 44). In this instance, Alison does cross the threshold, as she enters the room, and it is no mistake that her attention is drawn to the markedly more vaginal “dark red cave” than the man’s genitals. Bechdel even refers to the experience as possibly being a sort of test administered by her father, pondering: “Maybe this was the same offhanded way his own notoriously cold father had shown him his first cadaver” (44). This then poses the question, was Bruce more shocked by the man’s genitals or the dark red cave?
As reinforced by these experiences, Alison and Bruce’s experiences of sexuality are shown to be inextricably linked, as they both must stand at their own thresholds, considering whether or not to grasp the jade obelisks their lives are fraught with, demanding to be confronted.
In the fourth chapter, “In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower,” when Alison is ten-years-old she finds herself in the woods with her two brothers, and Bechdel explains another monumental moment in her sexual realization as a child. Upon finding a six-foot-long black rat snake in the woods, Alison and her brothers flee back to their father’s yardwork assistant, Bill, for aid in the situation. However, upon returning to the spot where the saw the snake, Bill with gun in hand, they realize that the snake is gone. Bechdel reflects on the situation: “On the drive home, a postlapsarian melancholy crept over me. I had failed some unspoken initiation rite, and life’s possibilities were no longer infinite” (115). It seems that, for the last time, the threshold first presented to Alison by the obelisk has been crossed, and she knows it, hence her intense melancholy.
Bechdel expresses the importance of the snake, saying: “It’s obviously a phallus, yet a more ancient and universal symbol of the feminine principle would be hard to come by…Perhaps the undifferentiation, the nonduality is the point” (116). Alison feels restricted by the singularity of sexuality as presented to her thus far in her life; she feels inundated with the phallic and bereft of representation of the yonic.
Life’s possibilities for Alison seem no longer infinite, because all she has been exposed to is the possibility of heterosexuality, and she has fled from it yelling for Bill: “Not willing to appropriate either stereotype position of normative gendered identity, Bechdel’s fable argues for undoing gender binaries, seeing the serpent as a ‘vexingly ambiguous archetype’” (“Autographic Disclosures” 41). Bechdel wonders if it was a literal snake that caused her father to jump back into the road, where he was then hit by a truck, but she also wonders if it was the snake as a phallus, or his queerness, that caused him to jump. She also wonders if it was her own queerness that incited his death, writing: “the end of his lie coincided with the beginning of my truth” (117).
After the condemning rejection of the snake as phallus, Alison, melancholy in the car, longs for representation of female sexuality, a longing which becomes manifest in the adjacent scene.
When Alison is four or five, her father takes her along on a business trip to Philadelphia. While in a diner on this trip, Alison sees a masculine woman for the first time and is instantly deeply affected by this occurrence: “like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home—someone they’ve never spoken to, but know by sight—I recognized her with a surge of joy” (Bechdel 118). In a world made to feel constricted by her father’s forcing femininity onto her, seeing a markedly unfeminine woman functioning in the world is revolutionary for Alison, who recognizes the woman as that which she has been missing: representation of female queerness.
The woman, a “truck-driving bulldyke,” represents something that Alison wants in some capacity and also that which her father vehemently denies for her. Bruce recognizes the woman as Alison does and criticizes: “Is that what you want to look like?” (Bechdel 118). As Alison grows up, learning how to answer “yes” to this question is one of her largest obstacles, considering the notions of sexuality imposed upon her by her father are what cause Alison so much confusion and struggle coming to terms with her own queerness.
The fact that Bechdel portrays this woman as a truck driver alludes to her notion of a queer identity’s role in her father’s death, considering he died because of being hit by a truck. Symbolically, this woman’s representation of unabashed ownership of queerness is what killed Bruce, whether that means his inability to accept his own sexual orientation or his daughter’s. The scene is brief, but it is monumental in the development of Alison’s identity as a lesbian and her father’s role in that identity, considering the confusion in the matter he clearly causes for Alison.
It is not long before this uncertainty pervades every aspect of Alison’s life. This uncertainty is evident in her diary entries in which she “created a shorthand version of I think, a curvy circumflex” (Bechdel 142) that eventually nearly obscures her entries with its looming presence: “the preteen notes [Alison] dutifully jots down are gradually engulfed by the emergence and persistence of a circumflex, an upside-down ‘V’ that marks moments of subjective doubt…Alison’s diary drawings, like a palimpsest, come to engulf her tentative verbal narrative” (“Autographic Disclosures” 30). This symbol is one of Sapphic implication, implying in a way the shape of female genitalia, as well as being another “inversion” in Alison’s life, considering its shape as an upside-down “V.”
In her life, this Sapphic symbol is the harbinger of uncertainty and anxiety, representing the confusion with which Alison approaches her own sexuality. In one instance, Bruce shows his children the dead body of one of their distant cousins, a boy of Alison’s age, who had died in a car crash from a broken neck. The sheet that covers the boy’s body yields at the levitation of Bruce’s hand, making its own “curvy circumflex” over the male corpse. This exposes the uncertainty that clouds this experience for Alison, as she looks upon the naked body of a boy and is unsure of what to feel, unsure of what her father wants her to feel. Her diary entries for that same weekend are “almost completely obscured” (Bechdel 148) by the symbol of her uncertainty.
The images on the reverse page clarify the inescapability of Alison’s sexuality in her life, as she lies on her bed under a sheet patterned with inverted triangles which obscures Alison’s own body. Here, Alison, both literally and figuratively, lies beneath the blanketing presence of her inverted sexuality, unable to avoid its inundating existence.
In large part, Bechdel blames her own initial confusion and shame about her sexuality on her father, whose hand figuratively suspends the sheet of uncertainty over her life, but she comes to appreciate his also being an “invert,” meaning not only queer, but opposite of her: “Where he is sissy, she is butch; where he is aesthetically fussy and baroque, she is spare and minimalist; while he wants her to wear a dress, she wants to wear his suit” (Cvetkovich 119).
After her father’s death, Bechdel is able to recognize his adamant refusal of non-heteronormative behavior and presentation as caused by the fear of being openly gay in an overwhelmingly homophobic world. Bechdel alludes to her father’s own uncertainty often in how she positions him in certain panels. When he lounges in their backyard sunbathing (Bechdel 124) and when he is writing Fitzgeraldian letters to Helen when he is away with in the military (Bechdel 62), Bechdel draws Bruce with knees bent into a triangle, making their own “curvy circumflex,” obscuring his genitalia, which, in an extension of the symbol, suggests here his own uncertainty as to his sexuality.
In the latter example, Bruce writes home to Helen in the style of Fitzgerald, attempting to confirm to himself their love, therefore his heterosexuality, but what he desires to be a metamorphosis is actually just the assumption of a ruse, as his letters that are “lush with Fitzgeraldesque sentiment” (Bechdel 63) are really only Bruce “seeing himself in various characters” (Bechdel 63). The triangular positioning of his legs in all three panels of Bruce on page 62 conveys the longing he has to desire what that yonic symbol conveys, which is further hinted at by the poses’ similarity to the fetal position, implying his desire for metamorphosis or rebirth in terms of his sexuality.
In this way, Bechdel makes visually evident her father’s self-inflicted confusion as a result of his refusal of his own sexuality, which she seems to suggest played a large role in causing her father’s death, which was, as she believes, a suicide. Even if Bruce does not, for the longest time, speak openly to his daughter about his sexuality, it is still visually represented, as Jennifer Lemberg analyzes: “What remains unspeakable in her family and unrepresented in her diary can be at least partially represented through images” (133). Here, Bruce’s sexuality is unable to be spoken about openly, and yet it is clearly represented even if only in the way Bechdel draws him to be sitting.
Several pages later, Bechdel conveys the impact her father’s fraught relationship with his sexuality has upon her. After coming out as a lesbian to her parents, Alison talks on the phone with her mother, who reveals that Bruce has had relations with other men (Bechdel 79). During her reaction to this news, Alison mirrors Bruce’s earlier position as she lays curled in a fetal position on the floor, connected once again to her mother only by a cord. Bechdel’s connection with her father is one that can be traced back to birth, but in these parallel images of the pair, Bechdel also coveys the crucial differences between the two of them.
For example, while Bruce is surrounded by fantastical literature like whatever The Haunt of Fear may be or the book on Fitzgerald The Far Side of Paradise, which Bruce and his contemporaries use to remove themselves from reality or from their own identities; when Alison must come to terms with her and her father’s sexualities, she is surrounded by books entitled Delta of Venus and Sappho was a Right-On Woman that suggest her attempts to embrace her sexuality rather than abscond into a fantasy world to escape it. Bechdel and her father may be bound together by their inverted sexualities, but the ways in which they respond to their identities are far from identical.
As shown in Bechdel’s “childhood experience of lesbian sexuality in a world regulated by heterosexual norms and ruled by the familial desire that she grow up ‘feminine’” (“Pleasures of Reading” 305), Bechdel’s rejection of femininity is a rejection of the fear her father felt at the hands of a homophobic world. Insofar as Bechdel’s recognizing her father’s queer identity as being what caused his death, her own rejection of heterosexual norms is her declaration that she will not find the same end as her father, having liberated herself from the fear of sexuality her father tried to impose upon her.
While her father suffers at the hands of his own sexuality, Bechdel chooses to transcend the pain he has bestowed upon her as a queer woman, a pain that both links and separates them as they experience life as queer individuals.
In Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, it is made clear by Bechdel’s illustrative decisions to employ many phallic and yonic symbols throughout her piece that she considers sexuality to be pivotal and unavoidable in the relationship she has with her father and in the development of her identity as a lesbian. Though it is unclear if Bechdel sees her father more in the light of sympathy or hatred, it is clear that she recognizes the ways in which she and he were inextricably linked by their shared inversions, inversions which she finds complicit in both the nature of their relationship and his death.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Mariner, 2006.
Cvetkovich, Ann. “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1/2, Spring-Summer 2008. pp. 111-28.
Lemberg, Jennifer. “Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 1/2, Spring-Summer 2008. pp. 129-40.
Watson, Julia. “Autographic Disclosures and Genealogies of Desire in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Biography, Vol. 31, Winter 2008. pp. 27-58.
Watson, Julia. “The Pleasures of Reading in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Life Writing, 02 Aug. 2012. pp. 303-14.