Fun Home: A Postcolonial Feminist Reading

by Stephanie Cawley

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a graphic memoir that explores the development of narrator Alison’s lesbian identity in counterpoint to the discovery of her father Bruce’s probable suicide and his own closeted homosexual identity. The book is highly nonlinear and recursive, returning to the same moments repeatedly and moving backward and forward in time, so that the reading experience mimics memory, with layers of information and emotional resonance accumulating over the course of the book. The book is also highly allusive, with references to and even quotations from many literary texts by authors like James Joyce, Marcel Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These references have contributed to Fun Home‘s acclaim as a “literary” graphic novel and it has earned a great deal of critical accolades within mainstream media, even being ranked number one on the Time magazine best books list for 2006. Bechdel also wrote a serial comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, from 1983 to 2008, and jokes that since she has gained this publicity she can no longer be the “underdog” because her older work has also finally begun to gain recognition—now that she’s stopped writing it (Stuck in Vermont).  Fun Home is also in talks to be adapted into a Broadway musical.

Ann Cvetkovich cautions that aligning Bechdel’s work along with works like Satrapi’s Persepolis or Spiegelman’s Maus might be seen as “potentially inappropriate, even presumptuous” (111) because of the more global political trauma depicted in the latter works, but Cvetkovich goes on to make the comparison, explaining that the “connections between memory and history, private experience and public life, and individual loss and collective trauma” (111) link these texts.

Fun Home is also similar to Persepolis in its disruption and challenge to the gender binary. While Persepolis challenges East/West binaries and also stereotypes of women, particularly Eastern women, Fun Home challenges male/female binaries and also the stereotypes of homosexuality that are part of mainstream American culture.

Gay dads Mitchell and Cameron on ABCs sitcom Modern Family (Martin and Malec)

Fun Home can be seen as part of a pattern of more frequent representations of LGBTQ identities in mainstream American culture that allow space for a wider variety and complexity of these identities to be considered acceptable. At the same time, Bechdel asserts a somewhat controversial figure to be included in this landscape, that of her father, who remained a closeted homosexual through his whole life and also was attracted to younger men. Cvetkovich explains that she sees Fun Home’s depiction of the father as “provid[ing] a welcome alternative to public discourses about LGBTQ politics that are increasingly homonormative and dedicated to family values” (111). Though she acknowledges the significance of this increase in positive representations, what Cvetkovich seems to be critiquing is the increasing emphasis in mainstream representations of homosexuality on normative heterosexual family structures (see Modern Family, The Kids Are Alright). Fun Home, by claiming the figure of Alison’s father for its history, asserts the validity of this identity that resists this mainstream representation and opens up a space for wider conceptions of LGBTQ identities.

Just as in Persepolis, complex articulations of identity in Fun Home play out across characters’ bodies. Both Alison and Bruce are shown wearing clothing belonging to the opposite gender and resisting the expectations of their own genders through clothing. In this way, both are able to create hybrid identities that threaten the gender binary, suggesting greater fluidity and in-between space against what is culturally deemed a clear division. This rejection of binaries in favor of more hybrid formulations of identity is closely related to the postcolonial feminist politics of Persepolis.

(Bechdel 209)

Similarly, Bechdel employs allusions to a range of literary texts that she establishes as metaphors for her family members’ relationships, but she also often subverts the stories in the allusions either in her own narration or through characters mis-speaking or mis-quoting. These alterations often manifest in changing genders or family relationships. In this way, Bechdel inherits dominant cultural artifacts and modifies them to be useful to her own life and identity outside of the mainstream society, much the same way that characters in Persepolis use Western pop cultural materials and beauty items to signify political resistance.

The dissolution of binaries—male and female, parent and child— also present in these appropriations speaks to the queer experience of moving against the heteronormative structures underpinning American society, where all social institutions are built off of the male-female binary and heterosexual couplings being seen as “standard.” This hybridization of literary texts and rejection of the gender binary seems related to the issues of postcolonial feminism in that both deal with the hybridization of culture and the problem of existing in societies that do not necessarily have appropriate and diverse enough social spaces to accommodate the needs of the people—for example feminists who also reject Western cultural dominance in postcolonial nations.

from Dykes to Watch Out For (Bechdel)

Bechdel explains that she created the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For as “a way to make space for [her] own self” (Stuck in Vermont), and it seems that Fun Home is a continuation of this project of making space, through comics, to express complex, subversive identities. This use of text, and of comics specifically, as a space of exploration for identities that are not represented in mainstream media—both as a trope within the text of Fun Home itself and as a description of what the book does— is part of what aligns the comic with works like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis or Art Spiegelman’s Maus and supports a reading of the comics medium as particularly appropriate for narratives of hybridity that resist oppressive cultural identities and norms.

Works Cited

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