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Identity Construction in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

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Social psychologists have long been engaged with the question how individuals construct and understand their identities. Through theories, they have tried to explain the interdependence of humans in this process of understanding and construction. Freud explains the relationship between the true identity and the performed identity, which is adjusted to society’s norms and values, through his psychoanalysis. Henri Tajfel developed the social identity theory which argues that individuals understand themselves through group relationships and traditional gender stereotypes and expectations. These stereotypes tend to be prescriptions for how men and women are expected to behave and look.

Auster and Ohm however argue that humans no longer rely on traditional gender norms and stereotypes. They claim that the boundaries of gender have become less strict and humans are now free to associate themselves with elements from the other sex. Gauntlett agrees with this last view and argues that representation of diverse identities and sexualities in the media, can help an individual understand their identity. These stereotypes and expectations of gender and sexuality play an important role in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as it discusses Alison’s process of identity construction, and specifically how she came to terms with her and her father’s queer identity. This paper aims to link above-mentioned identity theories to the memoir to answer the questions: How are both Alison and her father’s identities constructed? And how are they interdependent in this process?

First, it is important to consider the difference between sex, gender and sexuality. Sex refers to the biologically given properties by which someone is classified as either male or female. Gender is the division made in society, according to biological sex. With gender come associated norms of typical masculine or feminine behaviour, clothing and stereotypes. Finally, sexuality refers to an individual’s sexual feelings and attraction towards either the same, the other or both sexes. All three components are deeply rooted in the human psyche and underlie an individual’s identity. Freud was one of many theorists to have looked at the human psyche and its composition. The human psyche is a key component of identity, since it determines the individual’s behaviour. And behaviour represents who an individual is.

Freud argued that the human psyche consists of three components: the Id, Ego and Superego. The Id is the instinct component which motivates behaviour. In this component elements of sexuality and self-preservation are incorporated and hence influence behaviour. Important in this component is the principle of pleasure. The wishes, i.e. impulses, constituted in the id have to be fulfilled for an individual to feel pleasure. The Ego could be seen as a mediator between the instinctive reality, the id, and the external reality, society. The ego controls the impulses so that they remain realistic within society. Finally, the superego further control’s the impulses by incorporating society’s norms and values, resulting in an impulse that is not only realistic but also acceptable and ideal. The superego is a key component in determining someone’s behaviour as it consists of both the conscience and the ideal self. McLeod argues that “if the ego gives in to the id’s demands, the superego may make the person feel bad through guilt”. Hence, an individual’s true identity can remain hidden as long as the ego and superego are aware of society’s norms and values, and use them to control the id. The basis of the human psyche, as described by Freud, relates to individual’s in-group behaviour as discussed by Tajfel in his social identity theory.

In 1969, Tajfel introduced the social identity theory which is concerned with an individual’s sense of the self within a group. It aims to explain how an individual’s attitudes and beliefs are influenced by group members. These groups, according to Tajfel, are groups within society and include family, friends, social class, etc. The social identity theory argues that an individual is reflexive. This means that humans can classify themselves in relation to social categories. They recognize certain categories by someone’s performance of it. By performance Stets and Burke mean that men and women are expected to follow distinct gender stereotypes. Someone then performs an identity, or a certain role within society. Behaviour traditionally associated with women is for instance being emotional, motherly, homely and gentle. Masculinity is traditionally associated with courage, independence and being strong. Hence, in order to be associated with a particular group in society, someone is expected to show a certain behaviour that corresponds with that of the group. The psyche, as defined by Freud, makes sure individuals conform to these societal norms by mediating between an individual’s true identity and its expected identity. Humans are therefore interdependent in the process of identity construction and understanding of the self, as they rely largely on societal norms and expectations of behaviour.

However, the social identity theory is dated, and it is argued that these set patterns of gender behaviour and characteristics are changing in modern society. Auster and Ohm argue that characteristics of masculinity and femininity changed in the 1970s. An important factor in this shift is women’s emancipation. This made that women, but also men “are found in a wider variety of positions and roles, [and] display a greater repertoire of behavioural traits”. Gauntlett argues that in the modern Western world, gender has become a mix of equal and unequal. He also states that women more often reject traditional ideas regarding their gender role and that sexual equality is widely supported.

The shift gender roles are currently undergoing make that characteristics may even overlap at some points. In his work Media, Gender and Identity published in 2002, Gauntlett stresses the importance of the media in the construction and understanding of identity. These days, the media widely represents different images of men, women and sexuality. Gaunlett argues that role models represented in the media have changed and that television soaps now represent lesbian and gay characters so the audience can “get to know” non-mainstream identities.

A growing tolerance towards the queer community is one of the many positive consequences of this representation of gay characters in the media. For newer generations, the step to coming-out or performing an identity that does not resemble traditional norms of masculinity or femininity, may therefore be less frightening than it was years ago. Gauntlett states that “modern women are not generally bothered about fitting their identity within the identity of femininity”. He argues that traditional gender norms are associated with the past and that both men and women are freer to associate themselves with a gender that crosses these traditional lines.

As mentioned before, gender and sexuality in relation to identity construction are central themes in Fun Home. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel discusses the story of her childhood, and how her growing-up has made her into the person she is today. Since the memoir, written by Bechdel, is about herself, the names Alison and Bechdel will be used interchangeably in this paper, but refer to the same person. Through the memoir, Bechdel discusses events from her childhood which were important in her process of self-exploration.

She also discusses people who were important in her journey, and puts special focus on the story of her father. The memoir can be understood as a bildungsroman as it discusses the authors’ psychological journey of self-exploration. Alison was born into the Bechdel family in the 1960s and she belongs to groups such as middle-class white Americans, teenagers, students and the queer community. Biologically she also belongs to the female sex, however growing up, she finds that she does not identify with its stereotypical norms and expectations. The next paragraphs aim to link previously discussed theories to the memoir, to investigate how both Alison and her father construct their identities and how they rely on particular exemplary sources.

The character of Alison in Fun Home clearly undergoes the process of comparing and identifying identities, as discussed in Tajfel’s social identity theory. As mentioned before, the theory states that an individual continually compares itself with categories and patterns of behaviour to establish whether they identify with it or not. Alison discusses several people and works that she reflected on in her journey of self-exploration. Her father Bruce plays an important role in the memoir as she not only tries to make meaning of her own identity, but also focuses on building his. She has to come to terms with who he is in order to understand and accept herself. Lemberg argues that she has to make these connections between her identity and her father’s “to work through the trauma that can accompany queer identity”. Bechdel thus gives her father a stage in her memoir by discussing his internal struggle, something which he has never been able to openly do. She continuously mentions his determination to restore the house to stress his multifaceted identity. While exploring her father’s history, she starts to understand certain parts of his character and things he did. Bechdel states that her father “used his skilful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they are not”. Her father was hiding his true identity and stayed closeted all his life. Hence, the intersecting storylines of both Alison and her father’s identity are important, as the building of his identity is closely linked to her personal process of identity exploration.

Apart from Alison’s dependence upon her father’s identity, she also widely relies on literature in her identity exploration. She describes how her exploration saw a boost in the time she went to college. Gauntlett discussed the importance of queer representation in the media and argued that it has changed how both men and women think about gender and sexuality. He states that modern women have learnt to reject traditional gender norms. In Fun Home, literature fills this role in that it is the main medium of queer representation for Alison. Literature representing queer characters was widely available for Alison to read. She used this information to understand and learn more about the queer community and to compare her feelings. Rohy argues that she uses “the queer archive as a technology of identity”.

Through books Alison learns about previous years, when freedom to express homosexuality was not as accepted as it is in her time and age. Literature helps her “contextualise her life in relation to historical events and social norms”. This process of comparing seems in line with the social identity theory but it exceeds the traditional boundaries of femininity and masculinity. One of the things Alison learns through these books about the history of queer life, is that her father’s position, as a young queer boy, was much different from hers. Not only was he not free to express himself, and hence to come out as gay, he did not have such wide access to queer literature either. As Auster and ohm state, boundaries of sexuality and gender started to become less restricted from the 1970s, but before that time, different norms and behaviour were expected from gender performances. Bruce grew up being surrounded by traditional norms of femininity and masculinity, and he was expected to follow the latter.

Nevertheless, Bruce, just like his daughter, uses literature in his process of identity performativity. Bauer claims that in the memoir, books are not just a means of identification, but they are also used as a form of communication between father and daughter. In addition to learning about her own identity, Alison gets to know and understand her father more and more by reading books on his recommendation. In chapter 3 Alison discusses her father’s preference for Fitzgerald’s work and argues that he must have identified with the characters. Even though he has not discussed this with Alison, she states that “the parallels are unavoidable”. Hence, both Alison and her father are interdependent in their identity construction but Alison’s exemplary social categories exceed the traditional boundaries described in Tajfel’s social identity theory.

According to Herman, Alison’s identity formation story is largely about her learning to reject standard and dominant gender stereotypical behaviour and expectations. The social identity theory implies that humans largely rely on traditional norms and expectations of gender. As a child, Alison was widely confronted with these dominant norms of gender behaviour, as her father tried to make her dress and act like a girl. The memoir shows this struggle, from graphics of her father trying to make her wear a dress to a wedding, to a situation where he makes her wear a barrette in her hair, which she continuously removes. At the time, Alison did not know this was the result of her father’s attempt to supress his true identity, but in her memoir, she states that “… he was attempting to express something feminine through me”. Her father knows that it would be socially acceptable if Alison performed this feminine behaviour instead of him. Alison, however biologically female, does not identify with these associated norms of behaviour. In turn, she tries to project her rejection of femininity onto her father.

Bechdel discusses her younger self’s interest in men’s fashion on several occasions. She states that she “had become a connoisseur of masculinity at an early age”. In watching other people perform masculine behaviour, she recognizes who she truly is. For instance, in chapter 4 of the memoir, one of the graphics shows Alison reading an Esquire and telling her father what style of clothes he should buy. Freud’s psychoanalysis states that the id’s impulses, the element that contains an individual’s sexuality and self-preservation, are being controlled by the superego, so that someone’s behaviour is in line with society’s norms and expectations. Lapsley and Stey describe this ‘filtered’ behaviour as acceptable and ideal. Nevertheless, the psychoanalysis implies that humans not always express their true impulses, their true self, since the superego transforms the impulses into ones that are accepted in society. When linked to the memoir, this theory is represented in the way both Alison and her father project their preferred behaviour upon each other. Both know certain behaviour would be more acceptable if performed by the other.

Hence, this paper aimed to prove how both Alison and her father Bruce’s (queer) identities are constructed in Fun Home. Analysis of the memoir, linked to identity theories by Freud, Tajfel, Gauntlett and Auster and Ohm, showed how both father and daughter are interdependent in the process of identity construction. Alison relies partly on her father’s history as she tries to build his identity to make a connection with her own, and to make meaning of her feelings. There are, however, differences in the way they accept and express who they are. This paper argues that this difference is a result of the generational gap between the two. Alison, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, had more possibilities to reflect on literature representing a diversity of identities and sexualities than her father growing up in the 1940s.

Initially, both characters try to conform to society’s norms by projecting their true genders upon each other, but as she gets older, Alison soon accepts her true identity and rejects traditional gender norms. Hence, Tajfel’s social identity theory could be applied to Alison’s construction process, but only if we step away from traditional gender norms. Bruce fits much better in Tajfel’s idea of identity formation, but mainly because of the society he grew up in. Therefore, where Bruce hides his true self and stays closeted all his life, Alison comes out as soon as she knows who she is and represents the modern female as discussed by Gauntlett in his work Media, Gender and Identity.

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