This past Tuesday, the Cole Assembly room was filled with Five College students and faculty who were there to hear Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist and cultural commentator, give a talk about her work. The lecture, hosted by the Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Department, the Women and Gender Center and the Queer Resource Center, was titled “Drawing Lessons: The Comics of Everyday Life.”
“I’ve always admired Alison Bechdel’s work. I think she’s doing something really innovative and really important. I think that the more students that can read her work and get to know her work will feel freed by it and amused and enlightened,” said Martha Saxton, Professor of History and Sexuality, Women’s and Gender Studies. Bechdel is best known on campus for her book “Fun Home,” required reading in Saxton’s introductory course “The Cross-Cultural Construction of Gender,” co-taught alongside Professor Khary Polk.
Some of us were expecting the kind of witty political commentary you can find in her original claim to fame, a comic strip titled “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which she described in the talk as filling the lack of queer female voice in the cartoon industry. The tensions of being both an outsider and a citizen while she drew the comic strip lent her credibility: Bechdel found that being a lesbian gave her an objectivity that would be lost with societal acceptance. However, Bechdel believes that as queer people and women gain visibility and acceptance, the necessity and presence of spaces such as women’s bookstores and gay clubs will decrease. Yet, this isn’t a negative thing in her view. According to Bechdel, since our sexual orientations no longer define us as they did before, the existence of safe spaces and sub-cultures become less meaningful. With the inroads the LGBTQ movement has made, Bechdel optimistically pointed out that we are not limited or constrained by being gay like she feels she was.
“We used to make fun of those people, who wanted to deny or minimize the fact that they were gay: ‘I’m an artist, I happen to be gay, but I’m not a gay artist.’ But now you can be just an artist.”
And, in fact, Junior Co-Chair of Pride Alliance Bonnie Drake ’17, who is taking Saxton and Polk’s course, appreciated that Bechdel, through these memoirs, “represented [herself] more as whole person.” She wrote of “gender and sexuality as a way that didn’t define her.”
As Bechdel saw the need for queer voice declining, she focused on the intersection of how the political was personal — and the personal, political. Broad political statements were so 1990s; in the 21st century Bechdel could only advise us that “I think people should be very careful of the advice they follow.” Hence, in 2008, she stopped work on “Dykes to Watch Out For,” a decades-long work she began in 1987.
This spurred her switch to graphic memoirs. “Fun Home” focused on her father and the effects his lack of masculinity and same-sex attraction created her own approach to her sexuality and gender. “Are You My Mother?,” her second memoir, related to a broad audience the private and sometimes painful relationship she had with, to our unending shock, her mother. In both of these memoirs we learn that who-she-was was not and could not be divorced from the relationships she had with her family. During the lecture, in describing her masculine appearance (pants, short hair, button-up shirt), she quipped, “my father liked boys, and my mother liked boys. So who wouldn’t want to be a boy?”
Indeed, who wouldn’t? The first thing Bechdel’s mother remembered her own mother telling her was that “boys are more important than girls.” If the personal is political and the political, personal, how we relate to our friends and family isn’t important to just us. Her novels reflect and create our social climate just as much as it helps her to come to terms with those who have shaped and damaged us.
“Now that I wrote ‘Fun Home,’” she stated, “I don’t have the memories anymore [of her father]. I only have what’s written down.”
And to have only what she has made public is a brave and powerful thing. We don’t want to imply, and believe that Bechdel isn’t implying, that visibility or political movements aren’t important. Politics hasn’t been moved to the private sphere. There is still work to be done, but by making her private sphere public, Bechdel points out that we can’t only focus on politicians’ speeches and the changing media representations. Politics is and always has been intimate. By focusing inwards and by working through, as Bechdel did, the painful times of our lives, we aren’t just performing self-care. We are performing politics.
But perhaps that is a lesson we have already learned.
Again: Bechdel reminds us to be very careful of the advice we follow. Yet, ironically, Bechdel actually offers us plenty of advice. Difference is, she gives it to us in story:
“I came out in my junior year of college,” she told us, “and I pretty much spent the rest of my college career majoring in coming out. [But now] I see people coming out younger and younger. I see them taking advantage of being in college.”
Disclaimer: The title is a reference to Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For”
If you are interested in contributing to the Queeriosity column, contact Matthew Randolph ’16 at [email protected].