What would happen if we spoke the truth?
A central tenet of writing is “write what you know”. Alison Bechdel has taken that philosophy and run with it – in doing so, she has helped to redefine the graphic novel medium.
No biography of Bechdel could do justice when compared to her own work. Largely autobiographical and searchingly, painfully honest, her graphic novels have inspired countless women to pick up their own pens.
Born in 1960, Bechdel grew up in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, in her parents’ funeral home. Despite the morbid setting, she was a buoyant and driven character: when playing, she would turn the fold-out chairs – normally used for viewings – into imaginary aeroplane seats. She even had to be forbidden from climbing into the (empty) caskets for fun.
She seemed attracted to drawing from an early age – by 16 she’d developed her natural ability enough to draw compelling fantasies for her own benefit. Her memories of the Watergate scandal which acted as a backdrop to her early teens were mostly of making unflattering sketches of Nixon. She continued sketching and drawing in her spare time throughout her teenage and college years, working to improve her technical ability.
Her relationships with each of her parents are the topics that she explores most through her printed literature, first with her father in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and then her mother in Are You My Mother?. These both added to the development of her writing in a number of key ways. Her father’s somewhat controlling love of stories, particularly the work of James Joyce, became a point of deep connection between the two of them. A closeted gay man who was prone to fits of temper and obsessive meticulousness, her father’s inclination to inspect and dissect story was a welcome positive aspect to their relationship, and it’s cleverly and intricately woven throughout Bechdel’s own work.
Bechdel’s mother helped to shape her work too. An amateur actress, she ran lines with Bechdel on her porch and in her kitchen, discussing motivation and inhabiting characters. In her mother, Bechdel found an understanding of dramatisation, of staging, and of creating characters that were both separate from, and yet a part of, herself.
Despite the artistic inclinations of both of her parents, her upbringing couldn’t be described as progressive. Bechdel’s sexuality remained largely unexplored until she reached college, where she began to pick up lesbian literature and explore feminism. This was the point where she came into her own, incorporating her joyful delving into gay culture into her sketches and cartoons.
Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.
Bechdel presents her parents’ reaction as underwhelming, to say the least. Her father, whose own sexuality was a source of secrecy and angst, by-and-large ignored it, save for the occasional cryptic remark that Bechdel would still be unravelling years later. Her mother reacted mostly with disappointment, confusion and occasional frustration. This period of her life came to a head in tragedy, when her father stepped out – through chance or design, it’s unclear which – in front of a truck.
Nonetheless, she used these experiences, positive and negative, to fuel her creativity. Her single panel strips under the title Dykes To Watch Out For became a favourite for syndication, and she became an enormously influential and inspiration figure in the gay and lesbian scene. She even found household fame when “The Bechdel Test”, an idea she attributes to a friend but which Bechdel helped to hone and publicise through a Dykes strip, hit the news as a simple method of determining whether a piece of media has any focus on or interest in female characters.
I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who two, talk to each other about, three, something besides a man. – The Bechdel Test, Dykes To Watch Out For
From here, Bechdel went from strength to strength. She became a leading light in the graphic novel format – a medium mostly celebrating the work of white, straight men – publishing Fun Home to almost universal acclaim.
Bechdel has inevitably battled her share of opposition: homophobes, misogynists and conservative traditionalists rarely have a place for championing the stories of gay women. American universities studying her work have had funding cut by Republican governments, and the right-wing press have thrown their share of flak at her – but she’s continued to defy, even winning a Macarthur Genius Grant in 2014. She’s a true inspiration for graphic novelists, for story-writers and autobiographers of all genders and sexualities.
References include Fun Home, Dykes To Watch Out For and Are You My Mother?
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