Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: a camp appreciation of selfhood and queer subjectivity

Identified as “a family tragicomic,” Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home meditates on the production of a coherent self through the medium of graphic novel. Bechdel’s own queer identity informs a looking back facilitated by the comic page and panel, where Bechel re-narrates her subjective childhood experience captured graphically in each panel through an increasingly objective adult voice. Because the narrative itself functions non-linearly and non-sequentially, continually revisiting and layering experiences on previously discussed events, the text functions as memory does — reworking moments, and continually facilitating readerly connections. As such, Fun Home is interested in (among other things) the simulacral process of recording subjective experience. Through the medium of graphic novel, itself characterized by both image and text, Fun Home broaches the issue of textuality and realism of the self, interrogating through both the materiality of the text and the material nature of its contents, the production of a self that is contingent upon representation. The comic, then, is an appropriate medium to explore the process of memoir as self-authorship and to create a coherent narrative of selfhood that is informed by memory in the first place. Thus, Fun Home explores both the text as an expression of self and the blurring of boundaries between self-performance and self-truth. Here, the image-text medium draws attention not only to the constructedness of the text itself but also to the mimetic nature of selfhood and self-representation.

It is useful to first locate this discussion of Fun Home in relation to the notion of camp sensibility first pioneered by Susan Sontag in her essay entitled “Notes on ‘Camp’.” When discussing camp in reference to queerness and queer subjectivity, Sontag argues camp is not necessarily about finding humour in the serious or the idea that something is “so-good-its-bad.” Rather, Sontag identifies camp sensibility as an esoteric appreciation of artifice, a mode of aestheticism that privileges stylization and “a vision of the world in terms of style” (Sontag 279). Implicit in this idea of camp sensibility, then, is a focus on surface representation, an effacement of naturalness in favour of the sentimental self. Thus, “to perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-As-Playing-A-Role” (Sontag 280). Similarly, Judith Butler argues that gender is performative in the sense that “gender is produced as a ritualized repetition of conventions” (Butler 144). These stylized acts over time in turn establish the appearance of an inner gendered core (Butler 144). By removing biological determination, Butler highlights the constructedness of gender identities created through an adherence to norms of gendered behaviour as discursive and ideologically potent codes of self-representation. Thus, both Butler and Sontag speak to the denaturalization of distinctions of masculinity and femininity based on biology, allowing for an understanding of authentic queer subjectivity through self-performance.

Sontag’s discussion of camp and Butler’s notion of gender performativity are particularly useful in imagining the relationship of the material comic medium to the queer contents of Fun Home. The book employs a camp sensibility to establish a tension between surface artifice as self-representation and the interior truth of self. That is to say, a camp appreciation of Fun Home must take into account the privileging of a certain kind of gaze — that of the narrator and the reader — in looking back and facilitating the queering, or exposition of queer experience, of Alison’s childhood. By facilitating a memorial looking back, the non-linear narrative of the novel posits the narrator — an adult Bechdel — and as such the reader in a privileged position of self-exposition. Here, the specific medium of image-text allows an analysis of representation, of image and surface, within a larger excavation of interior truth. Thus, as both graphic novel and memoir, Fun Home inherently privileges this narrator-reader gaze at surface image, where what is ingrained within both the medium and genre is an appreciation of artifice, artistry and self-representation similar to Sontag’s camp sensibility. As such, graphic novel seems an appropriate medium to interrogate queer subjectivity itself as distinctly performative. By facilitating a readerly and narratorial gaze that looks back, Fun Home engages with Bechdel’s queerness by tying it distinctly to the act of looking and being looked at, and to the consideration of style and surface representation as inherent tenants of gendered and queer performativity.

Consider, then, the literal pictorial representation of eyes and the act of looking within the novel itself: Bechdel creates a sense of iconic solidarity evident in multiple panels throughout the novel with images of herself as a young child partaking in the act of looking. It is as if, in these simple representations of eyes and expressions of gazing that the narrator and reader find themselves identifying, like Alison as a child, moments of identity shaping gendered and sexual experiences. A particularly potent example of this type of gazing act is evident in Bechdel’s experiences of traveling to New York City with her father, first as a child and then again as a teenager. On pages one-hundred and three and one-hundred and four of the novel, Bechdel recounts an experience of walking through the streets of New York City with Roy, their babysitter at the time. Bechdel writes, “I have a hallucinogenic memory of a throbbing welter of people in a larger circle. It must have been Washington Square Park. Maybe I was experiencing a contact high from the LSD trips no doubt swirling around us. Or perhaps it was a contact high of a different sort. It had only been a few weeks since the Stonewall riots, I realize now” (104). The accompanying panels present a distinctive emphasis on Alison looking at other people around her, who are noticeably flamboyant in dress and gesture, the clear pictorial representation of homosexuality in New York City. In a particularly interesting moment of looking, the second panel on page one-hundred and four is unique in its portrayal of the physical act of looking: the doubling of Alison’s figure looking in opposite directions indicates a quick swiveling of her head. What is clear through the accompanying narration is that in looking back, Bechdel is assigning some sort of greater significance to this frenzied visual experience as a child. In illustrating on the comic page the fantastic speed at which Alison as a child took in her surroundings, Bechdel implies through her literal wide-eyedness in the visual image and then doubly through adult-narration a certain unconscious identification with these exaggerated figures as akin to her own experience of gender as expressive or performative. This connection is facilitated not only by the cartoonic exaggeration of her eyes but in the unique representation of this flamboyant sexuality that itself is indicative of an alternative or homosexual lifestyle, a mode of representation reserved otherwise for her father throughout the graphic novel. The man that Alison turns to watch pass is delicately positioned mid-strut with arms whimsically floating in flamboyant gesture, just as many of the people in Washington Square Park are positioned as figures of the sexually liberated 1960s — smoking joints, dancing in public, in various forms of undress, or playing instruments. This experience of New York City can be juxtaposed with a later experience of New York City. Bechdel describes, “this time, at age fifteen, I saw the neighbourhood in a whole new light” (189). The panel accompanying this text is particularly interesting in that it clearly aligns the gazes of Alison and her father through mirrored depictions of wide-eyed appreciation of the unseen scene before them. Thus, by paralleling the two gazes, this panel speaks to a sense that both characters are identifying a familiarity with the figures surrounding them — Alison’s father’s gaze perhaps a sexualized one, whereas Alison’s a gaze of gendered identification, affinity and longing to be like these gay men she sees before her. In placing the reader is the position of object that is looked at from the comic book panel, this becomes an uncanny moment of seeing ourselves seeing and being seen: the panel reminds the reader of the constructedness of the gaze in terms of gendered and sexual identifications, and thus its ability to both mediate and determine our desires. Bechdel describes the scene before her as an “arresting display of cosmetized masculinity,” (190) coupling this sentiment with images that reinforce homosexuality as aligned with a stylized and campy mode of self-presentation. Here, the page features fragmented images within a sequential panel structure — the first panel in the sequence portrays a side profile of a man with coiffed facial hair and an earring, the next a close up on the hips of a man wearing jeans that feature his prominent bulge, and finally the third panel ending the sequence with an image of a young Alison puzzling over two sunglassed men strolling closely together (pg. 190). Similar to Bechdel’s admission on the opposite page — “I did not draw a conscious parallel to my own sexuality, much less to my father’s” (191) — it is clear that these moments of structured looking facilitate, at the time and more potently in hindsight, an identification of and with queer subjectivity that itself is constructed in relation to this stylized self-presentation, to a continuously affected mode of being embodied through purposely gendered behaviour. Through the pictorial representation of wide-eyedness, Bechdel portrays herself as a sponge soaking up all that she saw: “the immersion — like green dishwashing liquid bathing a cuticle — left me supple and open to possibility” (191).

Another important moment structured by the act of looking is once again posited as an interaction between Alison’s gaze and that of her father in a diner as a child. Here, Alison finds herself drawn to and staring at a bulldyke. Immediately Alison “recognized her with a surge of joy” (Bechdel 118). And yet, in the split page panels, Alison’s wide-eyed innocence is coupled with her father’s look of judgmental disapproval. Alison’s immediate sense of affinity with this image of the bulldyke makes clear a tension that exists between heterosexual self-presentation and queer self-presentation, where this panel references the heterosexual process of gendered socialization based on the sublimation of homosexual identification and desire in both sexes. It is useful to think of this moment of looking in terms of Judith Butler description of gender as a form of melancholic identification: since “the prohibition against homosexuality is culturally pervasive,” (Butler 140) heterosexual “masculinity and femininity emerge as the traces of an ungrieved and ungrievable love” (Butler 140) for the same sex other. Gender, then, is “composed of precisely what remains inarticulated in sexuality” (Butler 140). This quotation can be taken in literal relation to Alison’s father’s closetedness — his gendered identity as father is posited upon an inarticulated masculine love — and yet, for Bechdel, “the vision of the truck-driving bulldyke sustained [her] through the years… as perhaps it haunted my father” (Bechdel 149). Not only does this scene present a distinct moment of attempted heterosexual socialization, but it indicates her father’s closetedness as a hypocritical mask: her father’s own sexual self-alienation haunts him through the image of the bulldyke, his straight mask posited primarily as a “sign and symptom of a pervasive disavowal” (Butler 147) of his homosexual desire; a surface that denies interior urges. Therefore, as a critical moment in Alison’s childhood, this identification with the bulldyke is itself a moment of understanding “Being-As-Playing-A-Role” (Sontag 280); Alison sees her father’s hypocrisy in the face of a more familiar and queer mode of self representation, itself coded and stereotyped as a particular social role.

Turning away from moments of direct gazing, Fun Home utilizes the materiality of the graphic medium uniquely by embedding detailed and accurate images of pictures and letters within the narrative itself. By discussing her reactions to images in photographs, Bechdel explores the mediation of selfhood with a camp appreciation for the materiality of both the comic medium and of photography. That is to say, Fun Home speaks to desire to construct oneself and to know others through images and representation, through surfaces that point to an inner core of the self (Butler 144). The centerfold is a particularly poignant example of embedding; Bechdel positions the reader in the same perspective as herself, allowing for our reaction to match hers through the full bleed use of the entire page. Accompanied by explanatory narration, the centerfold of Roy reflects what Anne Cvetkovich discusses in terms of the archival and memorial object. According to Cvetkovich, the centerfold is an example of an object within the narrative that functions to create an archive of feelings. These meticulously copied comic representations of real photos “[serve] as a touchstone for both her father’s feelings and her own, as well as for the complexities of their relationship” (Cvetkovich 117). Expressing a critical distanced from the centerfold in her ability to appreciate its aesthetic beauty, Bechdel imparts a subjective truth to this image that seems to show the world as her father perceived it. Described as “out of focus” (Bechdel 100) such that the “blurriness of the photo gives it an ethereal, painterly quality” (Bechdel 100) this photo becomes evidential proof of her father’s truth, with Bechdel-as-narrator and the reader situated as witnesses to the duality of his nature encompassed in the homoerotic perspective of the photo. Once again, Fun Home implies a certain power in looking as an act that can, upon close reading, excavate an interiority unknown perhaps even to the subject of inquiry himself.

Finally, Bechdel represents corporeal experiences of sexuality as inextricably linked to the material process of self-representation and authorship. Bechdel recounts her first masturbatory experiences as “the oddly ratifying motion of rocking back and forth in my chair at my desk as I drew” (Bechdel 170). By directly linking the exploration of her newfound sexuality with drawing as an act of representation, Bechdel attributes an erotic power to “the new realization that I could illustrate my own fantasies” (Bechdel 170). Strikingly, Bechdel portrays this erotic power through a depiction of her concentrated gaze in the fourth panel on page one hundred and seventy. Eyes cast down, the perspective is flipped in the next panel such that the reader sees what Alison sees: the illustrated image of a male basketball player mid-dunk. Empowered through this fantasy of omnipotent illustration, Bechdel engages an early practice of self-authorship that conflates the orgasmic release of masturbatory pleasure with control over self-representation on the blank surface of the page. For Bechdel, “in the flat chests and slim hips of my surrogates, I found release from my own increasing burden of flesh” (170). Thus, Fun Home points to selfhood as a process of embodiment that is itself campy — that is to say, one’s gendered and sexual identity is constituted through a continual process of self-representation that is at once governed by artifice in its continual reproduction and necessarily embodied at the same time.

It becomes clear, then, that throughout Fun Home “the individual subject is constituted in the space of the family through looking” (Lemberg 130). Upon reflecting back, Bechdel’s familial experience becomes an interrogation of artifice and truth, with her father portrayed as a particularly tragic figure overwhelmed by the artificiality of his own identity. Bechdel describes, “his shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic dusk of aging mahogany” (20). This artificiality and shame is then translated into her father’s literal aesthetic appreciation for detail, where “the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it. Mirrors, distracting bronzes, multiple doorways” (Bechdel 20) functioned as veils that mediated fantasy and reality. What Bechdel explores through the implicit materiality of the graphic novel medium is an interrogation of artifice that begins with a suspicion at her father’s ability to “make things appear to be what they were not” (Bechdel 16). And yet, Bechdel betrays an appreciation of camp sensibility that informs homosexual self-representation through an emphasis on the gaze and the power of looking as a position that can be crippling, as with her father as a child in the diner, or powerful, through her concentrated self-authorship when drawing. As Bechdel concedes, “perhaps affectation can be so thoroughgoing, so authentic in its details, that it stops being pretense” (60). The production of self, then, is portrayed as a necessarily affected process of self-embodiment and self-presentation.

Work Cited

Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. New York: Houghton Mifflin

Company, 2006. Print.

Butler, Judith. The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Print.

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” Women’s

Studies Quarterly. 36 (2008): 111–128. Print.

Lemberg, Jennifer. “Closing the Gap in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”” Women’s

Studies Quarterly. 36 (2008): 128–140. Print.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on “Camp”.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York:

Farrar, Straus and Croux, 1966. 275–292. Print.