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Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic delves into Allison Bechdel’s struggling relationship with not only her father, but with herself as well. She is caught up in questions left unanswered regarding both her and her father’s sexuality. The autobiography explores and details Bechdel’s relationship with her father, and how the suppression of his own identity influenced her to explore and express her own.
Bechdel’s identity suppression begins from a young age. Her father, Bruce, has an idea of the family he wants, and the role Allison must play. Whether she fits into the artificial vision her father has constructed or not, Allison must please her father and fit the mold. “The butch to his nelly” as Allison calls it. While Bechdel has taken to displaying her father as a stereotypical gay man in the late 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s (tennis shoes, cut-off shorts, and tank tops) she recalls pushing back against her father’s desire for her to have longer hair, wear dresses, and overall appear more feminine. A power struggle of sorts, as Bechdel wants to express herself, but Bruce wants to dress her up and in the way he wishes he could’ve expressed himself. This becomes apparent throughout Bechdel’s childhood, with Bruce constantly dressing Allison up, and once even threating physical harm to her if he were to see her without her barrette. However, the need to express each other’s genders, was not just Bruce trying to express his femininity through Allison, but Allison trying to express masculinity in herself to make up for the lack of if that her father had. Allison claims “not only we were inverts, we were inversions of each other. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me. ” One such example is what Bechdel refers to as her and her father’s “shared reverence for masculine beauty”. Bechdel is flipping through a men’s fashion magazine, and eyes a suit with a vest, suggesting to her father that he should get one. However, this was not something Allison actually desired for her father, rather something she wanted for herself, much like her father wishes that he could’ve had her velvet and pearls.
One of the most pivotal moments of the novel is Bechdel’s first real encounter with representation, and the moment she begins to identify with herself. Bechdel says that she has been “lying for a long time, since I was four or five. ” It was at the age that she knew that instead of being traditionally female, she was much more like a butch female. While on a trip with her father to Philadelphia, they end up eating at a diner, where Bechdel states that they both saw “a most unsettling sight”. A truck driver, dressed in stereotypical “butch” clothing enters the diner, and four year old Allison is enthralled. She had no idea that women had men’s haircuts, or wore men’s clothes, and she was entranced with the idea. Her father, who also saw the sight, was horrified. He asks Allison if that’s what she wants to look like, and though she says no, the way her eyes are depicted as widely open, Allison obviously does not see a problem with the idea. The idea sustained Allison throughout the years, but she goes on to say, as they enter back into the hearse, that the same vision perhaps haunted her father. However, it’s not until early into her adulthood that Bechdel truly starts the transition of owning and expressing her identity. It appears that just as Bechdel seems to figure out the truth about her father’s hidden sexuality, she begins the transition from being closeted and shamed to be being open and experimental. However, the discovery of her father’s supposed sexuality also leaves her with more questions than answers. Bechdel has to understand her father and the relationship that they have. She also needs to further understand how his life and experiences being a gay man translate into her life and experiences as a lesbian.
Though similar in their identities, their expression was forced to be different. Bechdel’s father lived in a time where coming out and identifying as a gay man was considered a social taboo, and therefore had to keep it a secret. Bruce tells Allison in a letter that he’s “somewhat envious of the “new” freedom that appears on college campuses today. In the fifties is was not even considered an option…in New York you could see and mention it but elsewhere it was not seen or mentioned. ” As Bechdel begins to explore her own sexuality, she finds out more information about her father’s as well. When Allison first comes out to her parents, a note containing the words “I am a lesbian” written on a type-writer, the reactions are mixed. Her father is supportive, telling her that it’s healthy to experiment, whereas her mother is very upset. In a letter her mother writes to her, after refusing to come to the phone, she mentions that her whole life is tied to her family and work, and a “choice” like this threatens both. But if the choice is a “serious” one she could be able to live with it, though she hopes it is not.
Later, her mother reveals that Bruce has had several affairs throughout their marriage, with men. However, that begs the question if her mother is upset because her daughter is a lesbian, or is she upset because of all the secret keeping she had to do for her husband and the toll it took on her life? Books appear to be a general common theme between Bechdel and her father. They forged a sense of real connection between them, even if their real relationship was mostly the opposite of that: fictional. Bechdel used books as a means of expression throughout her college years. She took out as many books as possible on homosexuality in her school library and her local public library. Bechdel’s father even gave her the book “Colette’s Autobiography” before she had come out as a lesbian, claiming that he had some identification with her the moment that he gave it to her- this of course being the fact that they were both hiding their similar secrets. While Allison used books to affirm her identity as a lesbian, by reading mostly non-fiction books, Bruce used his books as an escape by having the preference of fiction to reality. Bechdel begins to discover just how similar they are after she stumbles across a photograph of her father dressed in a women’s bathing suit that seems to be a fraternity prank, but the pose that he is striking suggests otherwise. He is not being silly, rather “lissome, elegant”. It is not until much later in the novel when Bruce admits that when he was little wanted to be a girl. This is done in conversation on the way to the movies where her father most directly expresses his desires, and there is a clear exchange between Bechdel and her father about their sexualities. Bruce confesses to Allison that he used to dress in girls’ clothes, a confession that aligns with younger Allison’s desires to dress as a boy. She then asks her father if he remembers this, however her question is met with silence, and she is left to fill in the gaps.
Bechdel and her father both struggled to come to terms with their identities- both for their own reasons. For Bruce, it was almost a matter of life and death, and the time period just didn’t allow for it. Allison took notice of this and her father’s death, and chose to not make the same choices her father did. Bruce was forced to make the decisions he did, but Allison had the opportunity to truly identify with the way she felt- a favor for not only herself, but also for her father.
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