That Shade of Blue by the Schefflera
Alison Bechdel, Bechdel Test, Book Review, Comics, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, Faith, Fan Culture, Fans, Feminism, Ghostbusters, graphic novel, Harbinger Vol. 1, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Narratives, Sandman, story, Stranger Things, Valiant, Watchmen, Zephyr
The other day a friend of mine wanted to know my feelings about the new Ghostbusters film, specifically if I wanted to see it because I was a feminist. I explained in my first response that the reason I wanted to see the film was not solely because I was a feminist, but because I love the Ghostbusters franchise period. Anything that mixes working-class mentalities with science fiction have always fascinated me, and while the characters in the original film were mostly college professors their work ethic, coupled with a desire to make a little bit of money along the way, reminded me a lot of my mom and dad who operated their own business. The film was one of a handful of Robin Williams and Bill Murry VHS tapes my parents seemed to have an unlimited supply of, and Ghostbusters was fun to watch because both Mom and Dad had memories connected to the film, and when I was younger I wanted to be like them. The film was also, let’s be fair, really fun to watch(except for the scene where Sigourney Weaver gets groped by the hands in the chair before the dog pops up, that scene freaked me out).
Looking at the new Ghostbusters movie I was compelled to see the film because, the awful looking CGI aside, the film was a Ghostbusters movie and it also sported four actresses who’s work I appreciated immensely: Melissa McCarthy, Kristin Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and best of all Leslie Jones. My friend understood my qualms, but argued, at length, that the film wasn’t really helping feminism. There were still other issues like wage inequality and workplace harassment, and having a lousy movie with an all-woman cast wasn’t going to actually contribute any real solutions to the problems women face.
To this I didn’t have any objections because there wasn’t anything to object to. The only argument I could make in favor of the film having an all-female cast was not so much about economic feminism, but rather cultural feminism.
The reader at some point may have heard, or come across in something they read, of something called “The Bechdel Test.” I could write out the explanation of the test, but since I adore Alison Bechdel (obsession is probably a different and far more applicable term) and relish every opportunity to show off her work I thought I would just cite the actual comic that created the test in the first place. It’s a panel from her comic series Dykes to Watch Out For:
This ten panel comic has had a tremendous impact upon film criticism, much to the annoyance of some film experts and fan boys online. The usual attack against the Bechdel Test is that it is designed to create a gynocentric film industry that seeks to eliminate men from film, and the other is that several great films fail this test while other lousy films win it. Looking at the first criticism of the test I can only laugh due to the sheer absurdity of the premise. Looking at the second complaint I’m a little more sympathetic. The problem with the Bechdel Test is that it can quickly create an eschewed perspective that if a film fails the test that it is faulty, but looking at a few films this becomes absurd: The King’s Speech, All the President’s Men, Pulp Fiction, Duck Soup, Reservoir Dogs. All of these films share the common characteristics of having largely all male or mostly male casts, but looking at the first film it won best picture in 2010. A film like Planet Terror in direct contrast, a film which involves zombies and a Go-Go dancer with a machine gun for a leg, actually passes the Bechdel test and this is the point.
I offered up an assessment to a friend of mine who works at the library and who was helping me find some books, that the Bechdel Test is not designed, or should not be designed, to shame films or suggest certain films are crap. The test is designed to challenge the individual who tries the test against most of the films they watch to see how well women are represented in said films. The test tries to help show that often the largest problem with women in cinema is not a lack of presence, it’s a lack of real representation.
Looking back to my friend and Ghostbusters this was the argument I offered up to her as to why a film like Ghostbusters did offer a vital feminist statement. It doesn’t matter if the cast is all women, what matters is that this all women cast offers up the chance to widen the representation of women in film which is often lacking. Thinking of this I thought of a book I’ve been reading lately that offers up a similar avenue of discussion, for like film, the medium of comics sometimes lacks in accurate and honest representation of female characters, particularly in the form of real body types.
I became aware of the character of Faith when my friend Michael lobbied for a Valiant book to be the book of the week of the Graphic Novel Appreciation Society. This would eventually become a joke in the group since every week his “Happy Thing” usually has something to do with Valiant, and whenever we do a Valiant book he wears a t-shirt of one of the characters from the universe. Faith appeared in Harbinger Vol 1., a book that I enjoyed but didn’t love, and it’s a testament to her character and the writing that she remains the brightest part of that graphic novel. Valiant recently got around to giving her her own book and so I finally bought it actually exited to dig into the material.
Faith is a psiot, an individual capable to manipulated the space and natural laws around her with her mind. In the case of Faith, superhero name Zephyr, secret identity name Summer, she is able to fly, create psionic shield barriers and even push people as if manipulating the wind. Think sort of a Mrs. Fantastic from Fantastic 4, only, well, interesting and interested in Dr. Who, STAR WARS, and Star Trek. The book Faith is about her settling into a journalism job in Los Angeles, where she actually works on Click Bait reviewing reality shows and celebrity scandals, where she uncovers a plot by an ancient race of aliens who despise humanity for their bland and wanton destruction of the natural environment. Did I mention the aliens were plants? Because that’s kind of important, but not really.
Much like the graphic novel Flashpoint, which I reviewed for my own site a while back, my ultimate assessment of Faith is that, while it may not be an artistic effort in the same caliber as Watchmen or The Sandman series, it is a good story that doesn’t feel weak after reading it. The metaphor a few of my friends will use is “popcorn movie” in honor of films like Star Wars and Jaws, both films that, while they may not be in the same vein as their contemporary periods greats (Taxi Driver, Deliverance, Network, Easy Rider, etc.) they do a damn good job of entertaining the audience and occasionally giving the viewer something to think about. Faith is about being a superhero, but throughout her book her love of nerd culture is the central defining character trait she possesses.
Faith is not Batman in terms of genius, Flash in terms of super speed, or even Wonder Woman in terms of making you wish there was more of Wonder Woman in Batman Vs. Superman, instead she’s just a woman who enjoys watching science fiction shows on television and trying to be a good person. Best of all the fact that she doesn’t look like Wonder Woman or Scarlet Witch or Catwoman or Harley Quinn isn’t even discussed.
There’s one page however that offers a beautiful moment, not just for Faith personally, but for the reader experiencing her story:
Faith lost both of her parents as a child, so perhaps she’s not that different from Batman, but before they passed they shared with her their love of comics, science fiction, and general nerdity, and as the last panel demonstrates that love of stories kept their memory alive in her. Growing up my parents watched Ghost Busters and Star Wars with me, and while I would watch the movies (and memorize them to impress friends and family later) I would ask my parents what a movie was like in theatres, or if they enjoyed the movie when it came out, and so these stories would assume surrounding or satellite stories that connected more emotion and meaning to me personally.
With that in hand I look back to Ghostbusters and my friend’s comments. I didn’t get a chance to see Ghostbusters in theatres (my wife adopted a puppy and my best friend started up a YouTube channel he wanted me to help him develop) but even after the film comes out and I’m disappointed or pleasantly surprised by it, I’ll stand by my argument. A lot of young men grew up watching the Ghostbuster’s movie with their mom and dads and created nostalgia around it, but so did plenty of young women who have grown up now and would like to share the film franchise with their own little girls.
A book like Faith doesn’t solve the nuanced problems facing millions of women in the workplace, nor does it resolve the amount of sexual assault that takes place in the United States Armed Services, nor does it provide a blueprint for fixing the fact that only around 50 women in the United States congress have to represent half of the nation’s population, but begin your pardon no book could do that. What Faith does is present a real woman, without gimmick or hype, who is in fact one of us: a nerd, a dork, a geek. For girls who grew up and weren’t cheerleaders, or beauty queens, or star athletes, for girls who simply wanted to hang out, play some D&D or watch Star Trek, Faith is a real hero because she does something more important than trying to solve all the problems in the world: she just tries to be a good person and have a little fun watching Stranger Things with her boyfriend.
A hero can’t save everything or everyone, but they can, in their own way, represent us in ways so that we realize we may not need heroes. We may find out we’re the hero we always wanted to be already.
While Stranger Things isn’t actually brought up in the graphic novel, in fact Faith was written at least a year before that show came out, I could still see Faith watching it because how could you not that show is amazing. Seriously. Watch it….Why aren’t you watching it? Stephen King likes it and he’s freaking Stephen King!
"Innocence of Childhood" Myth, 1973, Adam & Eve, All the President's Men, An Ideal Husband, Archibald Cox, “Saturday Night Massacre”, Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, cicada, cicada shells, CNN, Dan Rather, Documentary, Elliot Richardson, Film, film review, Fun Home, graphic novel, Howard K. Smith, innocence vs ignorance, Literature, Lord of the Flies, National Innocence, Oscar Wilde, Political Corruption, Politics, President of the United States, Presidential legacy, reflection, Richard Nixon, Robert Bork, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Seventies, The United States Vs Richard Nixon, Ulysses S. Grant, Walter Cronkite, Watergate, William Ruckelshaus
I know this is cheap bait I do honestly wonder whether cicadas masturbate during those 17 years they’re underground. The news has been buzzing in the last few weeks, that’s a pun you see, because once again the Cicadas, or annual locusts, are emerging from the ground. At least in New England. I’ve never understood news broadcasts taking time to discuss the appearance of these insects since it seems like every year I step out onto my porch to water the plants my wife bought and then decided to not cultivate when I discover a hallowed exoskeleton clinging desperately to the column post at the corner. My mom still makes fun of me to this day for the collection of “cicada shells” I at one time kept for three years. For three years those protein ladened shells rotted in one of my mother’s Tupperware dishes until eventually she confronted me with them and I was forced to take them out back and step on them hoping they would make that marvelous crunching noise.
Alas at that point they were soft, and so my barefoot was left smeared with left-over cicada juice instead. There was an innocence on my part thinking they would remain hard and crunchy and prime for stepping on, though really it was ignorance which leads me into the second lead-in for this essay.
My sister laughs whenever one of us says the statement, “Children are Innocent.” It’s an inside joke that started when my little sister was in eighth grade and she asked me for help editing a paper over Lord of the Flies. It was a great paper, from what I remember of it, but at some point the older literature enthusiast and philosopher took over and we spent the next half hour arguing over whether or not children were “innocent.” My argument was that the word innocence that people use for describing the unique quality that children possess is really false and that children are often referred to as such because people like to idealize children. Ignorance, I argued, is a better word because when we’re kids we’re not innocent of the word, we’re just ignorant of it. As we grow we learn more and more about our reality, our species, our culture, our universe, and intelligence tends to fuck up that ignorant state when we’re able to enjoy life. My sister argued against me as best she could, and eventually left in a huff. We’re cool now, though I occasionally get death threats through the mail written in blood and phone calls where all I hear on the other end is heavy breathing.
This notion of Ignorance is important because recently I’ve begun re-reading Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic for the twelfth or thirteenth time. I’ve lost track really. My borderline obsession with the book is based on more than just my Queerness seeping into another person’s journey of self-discovery (it feels like leeching off it sometimes I swear), but in fact is due more with the intricate complexity of the book. It took Alison Bechdel seven years to actually write and illustrate the graphic novel, and reading her second work Are You My Mother? reveals her emotional and psychological state during this time period, not to mention demonstrating the creative setbacks during the actual composition.
Reading over the graphic novel again I discovered this time around that I focused first on the idea of recognition, for as I wrote in a previous essay I “recognized” Bruce as sharing a similar erotic interest, but I also considered the idea of ignorance, specifically the way Bechdel explores it in the fifth chapter entitled An Ideal Husband. The chapter relates the events of the specific summer in 1973 when Bechdel was thirteen and all at once a series of events coincided that included: the appearance of the annual cicadas, the Watergate Scandal, her first period, her father was arrested for purchasing alcohol for one of his students, and her mother was performing in a local production of The Importance of Being Ernest.
Bechdel herself notes the serendipity of these events and the potential that listing them all in context to one another can be suspect, but in all cases Bechdel indulgence often leads to brilliance:
This page is beautiful not only for the symmetry, for the top of the porch appears almost like a pediment (a triangle structure often adorning Greek monuments) but also for the balance that sets the stage ultimately for the disequilibrium that is going to come in the next weeks. It’s also interesting to note that Bechdel herself follows my little sister’s policy of innocence. She describes America as an Innocent nation, referring to the Watergate affair as the “fall from innocence” that all children, and by extension, nations are supposed to eventually go through. Bechdel would likewise lose her “innocence” during this summer as she discovers not only the joys of masturbation, but also the erotic truth of her father.
It’s fascinating to observe how sex is always the agent of chaos disrupting our lives, particularly our innocent childhood. It may just be because I found one of my father’s Playboys when I was five and thus started on a path of interest in the erotic since, but I’ve never understood why sex has always been portrayed as something corrupting when my own experience with sex and expression of sexuality has done nothing but reaffirm the idea that life is interesting and worth living. Bechdel uses sex in the chapter, referring in the beginning with the cicadas which emerge, like insects do, to breed and then quickly die off. From this she moves to the scandal of Oscar Wilde.
If the reader is unfamiliar with the life of Oscar Wilde he was a Victorian playwright who, on the very night his most successful play The Importance of Being Ernest opened, was accused of sodomy, a charge at that time which could lead to imprisonment and in some instances death. Wilde fought the accusation in court but lost the case. Wilde’s sexuality along with Cicadas along with Bechdel’s own erotic exploration, and finally the glaring act of her father all combine to reaffirm the idea that sex creates a fall from innocence but if the reader pays attention all of these realizations come from learning.
The conflict with referring to lack of knowledge of sexuality as innocence is incoherent. It doesn’t accurately convey the idea that we learn and thus purge ourselves of ignorance. Innocence implies a character trait while ignorance implies simply unknowing. The best rhetorical example of this is the mass narrative of the Garden of Eden. The story that is often peddled in Sunday school classrooms and bad Veggie Tales Cassette tapes, is that when god made Adam and Eve (Not Adam and Steve unfortunately) he made them innocent, but warned them of the tree of knowledge. Eve was tempted by the serpent, who was really Satan, who then convinced Adam to take a bite. Once they bit into the apple they became aware of their nakedness and covered themselves, for this they were banned from the Garden forever. This narrative is one I’m painfully familiar with since I grew up in the Episcopal church and went to a Private Christian school, but something that has always bothered me about the narrative is the word innocence. Adam and Eve learned of nakedness by eating the apple, and by removing the ignorance of their state they were forever altered. I suppose this could just be a tomato/tomato potato/potato semantics argument, but I’ve always felt that Adam and Eve got a bum rap by being labeled innocent rather than ignorant.
Both of these examples is why I’m troubled by the idea of Innocence, particularly when referring to the Watergate scandal.
The reason for this concern is because I’m a Watergate nerd. I own a first edition hardback copy of All the President’s Men, and at least seven thick tomes dedicated either to Nixon, the Press’s reaction to the events, or simply the public reaction to Watergate. It may just be because my parents grew up during the seventies, but there’s something about the time period that has always fascinated me and not just because it Rock’s golden age. Before you cringe remember it gave rise to Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, The Ramones, and Aerosmith along all within a ten year period. Watergate is the political impression left upon that decade, so much so that it permanently added a word to the lexicon. Whenever something is called “X-Gate” it always implies that someone has been caught in a gross action that violates that person’s and by extension organization’s image. It doesn’t help that so many books, films, novels, and essays have been written about the event.
One of the best examples is the film All the President’s Men, which follows Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigate the break-in. The film is dense in its detail but entertaining and has one of the best lines in American cinema:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
While this film captures the moment of the Watergate scandal so well, another excellent program provides a wider cultural perspective. The Seventies is a documentary series I discovered at 1 A.M. while possibly drunk, as so many of my great discoveries tend to go, and one episode in particular entitled The United States Vs Richard Nixon covers the entire scandal from beginning to end.
American politics is an entirely different animal than it was in the 1970s because at the time of the crisis people believed what they heard from the news. Men like Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, and Howard K. Smith were not just characters on your television set, they were reporters actively engaging and regularly investigating the actions of politicians because otherwise how would people know what was going on in their world. Today’s soft journalism, where character is preferred over quality and bias is the first agenda, could never really tackle an affair like Watergate because the break-in and investigation would be sold as a polarizing media event rather than a legitimate political scandal. My concern here isn’t to criticize contemporary journalism, but rather to observe the larger importance of Watergate as the moment in which America lost its ignorance of its own state as a nation.
History is often misused as a moniker for the past, but in reality history is just the discourse about the facts of the past. It’s important to recognize this distinction as I remind the reader that corruption in politics is as old as human civilization. Nixon was not the first world leader, or even American President, to be caught in a corruption scandal (Look up the illustrious carear of one Ulysses S. Grant) but the news organizations being better able to reach their audience directly thanks to television, the public had no choice but to understand the gravity of the implications. The “Saturday Night Massacre” is probably the best example of this.
On October 20, 1973 Nixon ordered the acting Attorney General to fire Archibald Cox, the lead investigator of the Watergate break-in. Elliot Richardson refuses and reigns immediately. The same night Assistant Attorney General William Ruckelshaus is promoted and ordered to fire Cox. He also refuses and is fired immediately. Finally, Solicitor General Robert Bork is promoted active Attorney General and fires Cox…in one night. If that sounds like the set-up for a Marx Brothers film I’m sad to disappoint but the reader can actually find news footage from the period and see for themselves that the Saturday Night Massacre was not just the set-up for a wonderful political satire, but in fact was hard truth.
Well so what? says the reader. What does any of this have to do with innocence, ignorance, and Fun Home? More importantly what does the difference between innocence and ignorance have to do with my day to day life?
This is a fair question since the Watergate scandal so rarely appears in the mundane affairs of life. Paying for your gas with a debit or credit card doesn’t make you consider what would have happened if Congress hadn’t subpoenaed the tapes. Nor does having your hair cut make you wonder whether or not the scandal would have reached such a public head had Bernstein and Woodward not been assigned the story at The Washington Post. I would also advise you not to hire Waters Gate, the all drag barber-shop quartet that sings the history of the event set to show tunes.
The larger significance is found within the rhetoric of innocence. America was not an innocent country by the time the Watergate scandal had appeared in the public’s consciousness, for it had its own long blacklist of offenses**, but what kept these corruptions from sinking too deep into the nation’s mentality was most likely the closeness of it. Television brought the scandals of Washington D.C. into their homes and so as Nixon avoided the investigation, and then eventually tried to quash it, Americans began to recognize that they were learning more and more that they’re nation was not perfect. They began to recognize that they could not trust their President, and even America could suffer from corrupt leadership. Most importantly, by losing the ignorance of what Nixon had done, Americans lost something of their idealism. Even Presidents could be crooks.
As for Bechdel’s memoir, Fun Home from the very beginning of the book is about recognizing and learning about her father’s erotic truth and how it helped shape her life. Bruce, near the beginning of the chapter invites one of his students to join him for a beer, and it’s implied that he might have engaged in sex with the young man. Bechdel wouldn’t realize this until some years later, but it’s clear by her using Watergate as a context how she has compartmentalized this reality of her father.
Fathers, like Presidents, are odd creatures that try their best to guide the country and push it into the right directions. The conflict is when we’re young we tend to idealize our fathers, but as we age we learn about their characters and this knowledge tends to kill the perfect image we had of them.
Learning does not always generate happiness because when we learn we alter our original reality. Watergate has forever altered the American landscape by reminding its citizens that every office is open and vulnerable to corruption. Bechdel in The Ideal Husband observes how the summer of 73 left her no longer ignorant of sexuality, both her own as well as her fathers, and while this did leave a lasting negative impression of her father, it did not destroy herself.
Innocence is a character trait that’s unrealistic because as a species we learn and grow from mistakes. America has recovered from the Watergate scandal, just as Bechdel has recovered from her own loss of ignorance. The trick is not to mourn that loss of the former self, but rather to emerge stronger from it.
If I can use an obvious metaphor here, the healthy approach is to leave the exoskeleton behind, and like a cicada, or annual locusts if you prefer, fly off to a new state of being. The problem with clinging to the idea that your former self was innocent is that over time that becomes a corruptive state. If things don’t change it means they’re static, it means they’re dead, and so like my collection of old cicada shells many that try desperately to cling to this state wind up hollowed shells hoping desperately to find that substance which they once held so completely.
They also wind up covered sticky bug-juice which makes it rather difficult to get someone to go out with you to a movie. Just sayin.
I’ve included here a picture I took a year ago. My dog huckleberry had to pee before bed and so I stood out on the back porch while he did his business. I must have been looking around because I turned and spotted a cicada on the wall drying its wings out. Its shell was a few feet below it. It didn’t move as I approached and after taking a few shots I marveled at the brilliant shade of blue-green in its drying wings.
To further the point that America was not an “innocent” nation remember a few events and institutions:
The Salem Witch Trials.
Slavery of African Americans.
The Trail of Tears.
Reconstruction in general.
Henry Kissinger again.
The abuse of Jeannette Pickering Rankin after she was the only person to vote against the declaration of war in 1944.
The systematic abuse of the irish in the 1800s and Hispanic immigrants today.
The CIA making deals with Opium farmers during the Vietnam war
Andrew Johnson’s Impeachment.
The New York Riots.
Henry Kissinger’s face.
Just to name a few.
***Writer’s FINAL Note**
The Seventies is currently aailable for streaming on Netflix. Fun home: A Family Tragicomic is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Alison Bechdel, Apollyon, Bisexuality, Christian, Comics, Coming out, Coming out Narratives, crossed legs, Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, fathers, Fun Home, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone, Gender Expectations, graphic novel, Homosexuality, John Bunyan, Literature, Martin P. Levine, masculinity, Matthew Shepard, metacognition, On Writing, Pilgrim's Progress, reflection, religious allegory, Ryan Renyolds, Sexuality, That's Gay, The Green Mile, The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess, The World According to Garp, Ulysses
I recognized Bruce the moment I picked the book off the shelf, even though I had never met him before in my life. It’s a sentiment I’ve read before in many of the testimonies by homosexual, pansexual bisexual, transgender, and everything in-between people in the amassing Queer Theory library within my own library and I think that idea of “recognition” is vital for Queer people. My recognizing Bruce Bechdel however wasn’t because he “looked gay”…okay, it wasn’t ONLY because he “looked gay,” but rather because he, like me, sat with his legs crossed.
The reader might immediately object, wondering what the fluffy duck that has to do with anything? Before I continue I like that expression and I’m totally stealing it.
When I was a kid, and I do mean kid, I was rather effeminate. That may be too strong a word to characterize my behavior because, boys are especially precious and exhibit some level of hyperbolic behavior but looking back I was a rather effeminate boy. Part of this might have been because I always preferred hanging out with girls rather than boys. The girls were nice, wanted to play Pokémon like I did, they didn’t laugh at me when I cried, they didn’t play sports which I hated, they had interesting things to talk about, and, Freud’s latency period be damned, I thought most of them were really cute and it was more fun having them chase me that kicking a ball across a field. Whether it was my extended interaction with them, or just genetic conditioning on my part, I often sat with one leg crossed over the other with my arms crossed over and balanced on the knee while my back slumped forward. If that position sounds familiar it’s because it is often the position that female models in magazines assume, and that hot girl in your third period history class sits in that drives you crazy because you know you could ask her out and you think she wants you too but you’re too much of a coward to and next period you find out the Baseball teams manager did…so yeah. Good times.
The legs crossed over the other was one of my go-to stances growing up, and when I was standing I often placed my hands on my hips and puffed out my chest. Both of these positions apparently were signs of femininity and some asshole-clown-fuck once picked on me enough about it that it was dropped until I graduated from high school. My shitty childhood aside, this example from my own life is rather revealing of a great number of boys who failed the “look of manhood.” Masculinity is often a performance, and a phallic performance at that for the way that “Men” sit is the uncrossed, open legged stance in which your body penetrates as much space as humanly possible.
Since it’s the start of the summer months, and I’ve recently graduated with my Master’s, I thought I would enjoy a nice period of just reading, playing Fallout 4 non-stop, and digging into some old writing projects. At the top of the pile of books I formed was a book that caught me, like Fun Home, from the cover alone. Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone tracks the history of Gay men in the 1970s before and then after the rise of the AIDS crisis. Martin P. Levine, who lived the lifestyle and also subsequently died of AIDS, tries to understand what were the codes of Masculinity that lead to the debacle of the disease and early in the book he observes how boys learn the codes of masculinity alongside sexuality. Levine says,
At the same time, boys also begin to learn what it means to be a man. This role also takes a variety of forms; there are multiple definitions of masculinity based on other social factors such as age, race, ethnicity, region of the country (Stearns 1979). The culturally dominant construction is male gender role stereotype, which includes a wide variety of traits and behaviors. Sociologist Janet Saltzman Chafetz listed seven areas of characteristics of traditional masculinity: (1) Physical—virile, athletic, strong, brave. Sloppy, worry less about appearance and aging; (2) Functional—breadwinner, provider; (3) Sexual—sexually aggressive, experienced. Single status acceptable; male “caught” by spouse; (4) Emotional—unemotional, stoic, don’t cry; (5) Intellectual—logical, intellectual, rational, objective, scientific, practical, mechanical; public awareness, activity, contributes to society; dogmatic; (6) Interpersonal—leader, dominating; and (7) Other Personal Characteristics—aggressive, success-oriented, ambitious; proud, egotistical, ambitious, moral, trustworthy, decisive, competitive, uninhibited, adventurous (see Chafetz 1974, 35-36). (12-13).
This is a rather long list, and looking over the qualities of masculinity I recognize some that I do embody, and others that I don’t or never have. Still it’s a stereotype for a reason. I’ve written before about the conflicted nature I’ve had with the idea of manhood, and while I’ve never questioned my gender identity I have often wondered about whether I have passed the rites of manhood. Part of it may have been my effeminate nature, but other parts of it might have had something to do with the stirrings of my sexuality. Which brings me to John Bunyan. No not the lumberjack that was Paul. Played by Oliver Platt in Tall Tales. I’m referring to the 17th century Baptist writer and theological scholar.
It’s an odd moment, and even in retrospect I don’t know where it came from. In my sophomore year of high school my teacher always had two books assigned, one to read for regular class discussions, but also another for outside reading to be done by a set date. One of the books was The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream, often just called Pilgrim’s Progess. The story is a religious allegory (story where everything builds towards a didactic moral lesson and everything in it is usually symbolic) and is told in two parts. My class only had to read the first half which is the story of a man named Christian who has fallen from the Grace of god and goes on a long journey in order to find Heaven and Paradise and while he searches he encounters angels and demons of all sorts. One of said creatures is Apollyon, whose name literally means “Destroyer,” who has fish scales, a lion’s head, a second mouth on his stomach, and fights Christian in the Valley of Humiliation in hopes of returning him to the village to live his life out in dutiful service. For the record, as far as I know, Bunyan was not on drugs when he wrote this book though I imagine the people who turned Alice’s Adentures in Wonderland into a stoner’s paradise would get a nice kick out of this odd book. The reader may be getting frustrated with me by now but I’ve come to the important point.
I was in my home reading the book and this specific scene. My sister was sitting across from me doing homework while classical music was playing. I don’t know where my parents were, I think they were in the back watching television. I was in the middle of the fight with Apollyon when I had a thought that flooded my entire body and had come, seemingly out of nowhere: “Oh my god I’m gay.”
My body trembled. I felt like throwing up. I ran to the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. The next half hour is a blur because I talked to the figure in the mirror assuring him that I wasn’t gay. I liked girls. They had boobs and boobs were great. I wasn’t gay. I was not. Once he had been convinced of this truth I smiled to myself and left the bathroom completely forgetting about the thought.
In hindsight I had been both right and wrong.
To this day I don’t really have any explanation for this sudden conviction of homosexuality. Perhaps the image of Christian, a man desperate to hold onto his faith fighting an inverted monster was a convenient metaphor for myself, but at that time I was dealing more with budding atheism than my bisexuality. Perhaps my teenage brain imagined these two beings fighting one another, and the image of two male torsos pressed against one another in Grecian style combat created some stirring of desire which reared its ugly head up. Or, and this is entirely possible, I was just a confused teenager who didn’t know what I wanted.
This sensation would never return in such violent and intrusive quality, but it did occasionally appear over the course of my development. I would take more than just a casual notice of men in magazines or on the internet, and occasional dirty movies that I would pretend desperately hadn’t happened but Browsing histories don’t lie. It was always there and I had no real name or title for it.
I suppose that’s why recognizing Bruce on the cover of Fun Home there was once again a dormant stirring. I didn’t just want to buy the book, I needed to read it and find the man on the cover. I wish I could say I had heard of Alison Bechdel and her work in Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, but I was pushed by another force. I wanted to learn and study the behavior of men who desired other men sexually because I hadn’t yet realized I was one of those men. I tucked the book into my pile, and when my family had returned home I opened the book and began to read. The only other time I have devoured a book with such veracity was The Green Mile, and like that experience which made me recognize that I had to be a writer, Bechdel’s book instilled in me the idea that human sexuality, as well as my own, was something vital to the discourse and would forever after be part of my existence.
Reading the book I felt sorry for Bruce, but honestly there was more pity and concern aimed at his family who had to deal with his compulsive desire for perfection. Bechdel shows her reader numerous instances of her father’s at times erratic behavior whether it be during dinner where she compares him to the Minotaur:
Or else the numerous fights that took place between her parents:
Allison would describe her father as a towering malevolent presence:
And even Bruce himself would, in his own way acknowledge his faults:
The reader may at this point ask whether or nor Bruce Bechdel is really a sympathetic figure? Given the way he allowed his mania for perfection and closeted sexuality to come at the expense of his family can anyone really look at the man and see him as a good man? To this, I don’t have any clear response.
I’ve read Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic about three times a year every year for the last three years, and each time I read the book I’m struck by the character of Bruce, specifically the conflict of his “erotic truth.” Bechdel employs these words in the last section of the book to imply the idea of person’s sexuality and that Bruce’s conflict was ultimately rooted in the fact that he was conflicted with his own erotic truth. She doesn’t say outright that Bruce is gay, for he might have been bisexual or pansexual, and without his outright testimony we’ll never really know. For my own part this idea of “erotic truth” became something incredibly important for me. I didn’t want to be something I wasn’t, more importantly I didn’t want my marriage to suffer. I told my wife I was bisexual, and she was happy for me but reminded me that unless Ryan Reynolds demonstrated any interest nothing was going to happen, which I’m perfectly fine with. (*in hushed whisper* Mr. Reynolds if you’re out there call me.)
This essay is not my usual objective approach to looking at a work of literature, but recently my friend Tom who leads our Graphic Novel Book Club announced that the new book for this week would be Fun Home, and seeing as how much this book has meant for my personal development I was thrilled and, as usual, forced into a bit of metacognitive reflection.
Fun Home is a book that, much like Ulysses, The World According to Garp, and On Writing, has left me so entirely affected that to consider my life without it now is unthinkable. Much the way Bechdel presents the moments in her life in relation to books so do I, and considering it’s place in my life the story of Fun Home is the story of my coming out. “Coming Out” stories have the potential to become cliché over time, but nevertheless queer authors, writers, artists, actors, statesmen, journalists, memoirists, and biographers have the duty of performing this right.
The “Coming Out” story is not just public declaration for the sake of acknowledgment by the masses, it also serves the purpose of recognition. Bechdel describes her own realization after reading The Word Is Out, a book which was a collection of interview with self-identifying queer people. This idea of “erotic truth” is important because ultimately is we cannot be honest with ourselves about our honest nature, sexually, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and everything else then we’re not really living. Bruce lived a life of quiet desperation, and while his family wasn’t ruined by the experience they did suffer at times the wrath of a man who might have served everyone better had he the gumption to be honest.
Of course there are extenuating circumstances and the man did the best he could with what he had, but finishing the book after reading it for the first time I was struck by yet another of my seemingly endless thoughts: I don’t want that to be me. I’ve now spent the last two years studying sex, gender, and everything in between and I’ll continue to do so because that’s my erotic truth. Fun Home, and Bruce with his prissy stance, kicked my ass out the door that would lead me to where I am now.
Recognition is everything. When we recognize the people we instinctively know as our own, whether they be men, women, or even fish-scaled demons with lion’s heads, then we start community and the process that leads to a fully functioning self, and, sometimes, access to people who suggest good books to read.
I’ve included below a link to a web series I’m a fan off that covers the way “coming out” is often presented in media and television. That’s Gay is a series that was always, alongside Modern Lady, the best part of Infomania for me and I hope you enjoy it too.
I’ve also included a link to a comic essay by Bechdel called Coming Out that I would really encourage you to read, you can begin to see the inklings of the work that would eventually become Fun Home as well as numerous scenes that would later actually be included in the book
“That’s Gay”-Brian Safi
“Coming Out” by Alison Bechdel
*Writer’s Second Note**
For the record Ryan Renoylds is not my go-to man crush, nor, believe it or not, is Benedict Cumberbatch. Now if Matthew Lewis were to…to…to…
Sorry, I seem to have lost my train of thought.
Alison Bechdel, Bisexuality, Creative Writing, Dionysus, Female Poets, Female Sexuality, Fun Home, Homosexuality, Leaves of Grass, Literary Canon, Literature, Male Sexuality, May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Novel, Poetry, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Walt Whitman, Writing
My wife admits often, sometimes to my annoyance, that she rarely enjoys reading fiction that was written by a man because she has yet to see a male author accurately write from a woman’s perspective.*** This will become important later.
Now there are moments when reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic feels more like reading a reading list than an actual narrative. Each section of the book derives its subtitle from the title or line in a work by a famous author (James Joyce, Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Kenneth Graham, Oscar Wilde, and James Joyce again in that order) and each of these chapters follows a theme contained in these works. But it doesn’t stop there, because along with this subgrouping found scattered throughout the pages are images of books bearing titles that reveal a sub-sub-theme that relates to the major theme of the chapter while also demonstrating the tone and sub-sub-theme of the individual cell. Taking all of this into account it’s no wonder that Bechdel won the McCarthur Genius grant because only a genius could keep up with that line of logic. Or else she knows a leprechaun who granted a very complex wish.
Take for instance a section from the first chapter of the novel. Bechdel is establishing the differences in character traits between herself and her father
If you would please (I said please, that means you have to do it) focus on the first panel and the book Bruce is reading. Now right off the bat most people would, once they realize the book is about Bechdel’s father being a closeted homosexual or bisexual (we’ll never really know), dismiss his reading as luring gaze upon the male form, but this just isn’t the case once the context of the book is revealed. The book Bruce is reading is The Nude by Kenneth Clark which was a series of lectures published into a book about the concept of “the nude” in art and sculpture from the period of early mankind up to the modern era. Bechdel is able to balance the surface details of implication with hard reality keeping the idea of themes and subthemes constant throughout her work. This book makes an appearance later in the novel when Bruce and Alison have discovered a common ground on interest: the masculine form. Once again there is the subtext of homoerotic fixation for Bruce, but at the same time Alison is able to play on the context that both gravitate towards masculinity in some form or fashion.
The point of this exercise is not however to expand upon Alison Bechdel’s brilliance, I’ve done that in at least three essays already and the restraining order against me allows only three kiss-ass articles a year, the real purpose of this examination was to serve as a long lead-in to a novel that I doubt many people have even heard of. You see in the last chapter of Fun Home Alison begins a personal journey of her sexuality by reading a great many books on the topics of queer theory, sexuality studies, and of course various novels and poetry collections by gay authors. There was always one book that stood out during my reading because it was the longest title of a novel I believe I have ever read:
May Sarton is an author I never would have been able to discover on my own had it not been for the endless reading list that is Fun Home, so Miss Bechdel if you’re reading this, and I know you’re not, thank you. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is more than just the longest damn title of a novel in human existence, it is the also one of the fifty books that May Sarton published over the course of her lifetime.
In terms of plot there really isn’t much to the novel. Hilary Stevens is a seventy year old poet who’s living out her remaining years in an isolated cottage in New England. A young man by the name of Mar, a local boy who performs occasional chores for her, appears at her door in a confused rage. Mar has had his first sexual experience with another man and it has ended miserably leaving him frustrated, infuriated, and desiring to take it out on someone, in this case Hilary who he knows happens to be, at least, bisexual. Hilary talks to him, trying to impart some advice but there’s only so much you can do for a young man except listen and nod your head. After this the novel shifts to an interview that has been scheduled weeks before and Hilary wonders if she could duck out of it. A man named Peter, who has interviewed countless authors and has become famous for his ability to get many of them to open up, is joined by a young woman named Jenny. They arrive and the rest of the novel is a conversation between these three dealing with poetry, art, and how women and men are perceived differently in their approach to it. Once it’s finished the novel ends with Hilary and Mar by the beach discussing art and creativity.
It’s at this point my reader may ask: is that it? I mean, seriously, is that it? That sounds boring as fucking fuck why should I give a shit? To which I reply: Language sir! Fucking children read this blog!
The simplicity of the plot may not reveal much initial inspiration, but Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing offers up questions concerning the differences in human expression when it comes to gender. Throughout the novel there is the conflict of sexuality, for Hilary in her life gravitated towards women but married a man she did not love as much as she should have, and the very beginning of the novel begins with a young man dealing with his sexuality and the conflicted joy and frustration it has brought him. Mar has finally slept a man, but his partner immediately rejects him. Sarton writes:
There in a motel it had all happened, for Mar the first intoxicating experience of touch, of discovering inch by inch another body like his own, discovering it with awe, with tenderness, or being able to feel in the marrow of his bones his own sensation touching another in just the same way, above all of finding a climactic outlet at last for all the pent-up flood of feeling he had had to contain for so long. “I was alive!” He shouted in his rage. “I felt no guilt do you understand?”
“Do your what it’s like?” he asked in a hard voice.
“It felt holy. I felt I had just been born.” Hilary caught the rasp in the hard voice like weeping. “Next morning Rufus wouldn’t speak to me. He doesn’t answer my letters. He’s through.”
“It was too much for him” (30).
I’m sure for many homosexual people this passage may speak to some aspect of their own experience: either the rejection from a partner frightened by the reality of their sexuality or else the sublime joy of finally indulging in a passion that had seemed only a fantasy. That’s not to suggest that because a person is gay they will have a shitty first time, that’s just not true, being gay has nothing to do with it.
The opening passage with Mar at first appears to play little to any real significance to the rest of the novel which is the inevitable interview, but a quote later on reveals this assumption to be incorrect. Mar returns and Hilary and the pair discuss some poetry Mar has written, and when he suggests she simply had him do it as “poultice” or catharsis she snaps back:
“No you fool!” She was exasperated by the misunderstanding, so radical and so unexpected. “It’s because I feel your talent, real and gritty and uncompromising, a masculine talent, that I came to see just now that I could do you harm, not good, that I could be the short-circuit for you in the long run. Everything I said about you and Rufus, I meant. If this thing about Rufus broke through into the place of poetry for you, so much the better. If this was your path inwards, so much the better. If one unhappy homosexual experience taught you what you might become, all to the good. But if one dirty night with a sailor who stole your wallet makes you think this is your real life, Mar, you’re going to be in the fruitless Hell. You have to go on as a man, not a boy, don’t you see?” (218-19).
While I was reading Mrs. Stevens I was often fixated on a particular thought that in turn eventually developed into a mantra until the very last page: Is this really a novel? It’s an honest question. The story of an elderly woman remembering a lesbian love affair in her youth that seems to be the only happy love affair in her life before she grew up, married a man she didn’t really seem to love, all the while writing books of poetry and novels that make her famous, would sound like a fascinating read, however this is not the text the reader receives. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing delivers its presentation in its very title for throughout the work the reader is sung a song of philosophy concerning aesthetics and expression. The memories Hilary has of her love affair with her governess are interspersed between dialogues concerning the nature of poetry.
Now I know poetry in this Postmodern age (people always say modern not realizing we’re in a new period now. I say now even we’ve been in the Postmodern period since at least 1940) the word poetry is a dirty word. Poetry is either something smart people write using only vowels and publish in The New Yorker, or else it’s something college students write for a poetry slam in order to impress that hot chick from Chem 1301 who looks like Zoey Deschanel, or worse, it’s something hipsters write about in Starbucks in between their purchasing of Che Guevara t-shirts on their laptop. Poetry has, for the most part, lost its public credibility because poetry asks more from a reader than this generation of minds seems willing to give.
Poetry is music set to words. It is a combination of rhythm, image, and symbol. Words are carefully selected for the emotional, intellectual, and philosophical implication before they are then reassessed based on their auditory cues. Reading a poem is not just about reading pretty words, it’s about gleaming over the music set to words and attempting to decipher meaning. To which case most people would respond, “fuck that” and download a few episodes of Scandal on Netflix. Poetry doesn’t really seem to fit the mold of our current existence.
This situation makes a book like Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing at first appear irrelevant, but then all the more poignant. Sarton’s novel, I’m gonna call it that despite my reservations, is a novel of questions. It asks the reader to consider the established quo, namely, why is it that a man is far more likely to achieve greatness and renown as a poet than a woman?
“But we are so terribly afraid of feeling,” Jenny uttered on the wave of assent.
“Still,” Mrs. Stevens barely acknowledged the statement. “The problem remains. Why can’t there be a female Dylan Thomas, for instance? Can you answer me that? She turned rather aggressively towards Peter.
Catching the ball, he held it a moment in his hands. But it was Jenny who answered.
“The Dionysian woman would be mad!” (149).
If I count the number of female poets that I have immediate knowledge of, there are three: Emily Dickenson, Elizabeth Barret Browning, and Christina Rossetti. That’s it, at least that’s what my initial reflection is. When laid against my experience with male poets…I can’t even begin because that would entail more pages than currently exist on the internet. That’s hyperbole but you get the idea. Now it’s possible that this predicament is just the result of patriarchy influencing my education, and I won’t deny that. The drawback of being a literature major in the United States is the reinforcement of the canon which favors old dead white dudes, as opposed to the rest of humanity. This ongoing male centered Eurocentrism, the tendency to look upon European culture as innately superior to any other culture, is as annoying as it is depressing.
If a woman wants to abandon her mind temporarily to her passion, then she’s just being crazy, or Dionysian*(see below for explanation), however when a man surrenders his reason for the purpose of drinking in his passion then he’s exercising his craft. To put it another way if a woman decides to drink and celebrate, enjoys sex, or expresses her feelings then she’s just being a PMSing emotional nutjob like the rest of her sex is, however when a man gets drunk, makes dick jokes, enjoys sex, and then writes of his experience and the emotions that led him to the writing of that poem, well then he would be Walt Whitman.**
The problem society seems to have with a woman writing poetry is ever always wrapped up in her sexuality. The fact that Hilary Stevens seems to be a lesbian, but has had a relationship with a man continues to dog her throughout the novel, and therein lies the importance of Sarton’s text. The approach a woman makes when writing will be entirely different than a man, not superior nor inferior, but different. Creative writing relies upon a person’s experience, but also, to some extent their sex.
I haven’t really dug into Sarton’s novel as much as I should have in this essay and I apologize. Allow me just a few more points and then you can return to Gaston Memes
I do believe that my wife is correct in one regard, see I told you we’d get back to her, the way men approach creativity often seems possessed by an aggressive force and perhaps that’s why it’s been easy to negate the creative achievements of women. But to continue to do so will only further that perception that there is a real difference between the genders, and reconciliation is impossible.
I have seen people freeze when they hear I am a writer—that, or they pour out their life story and tell you it is a gift and you can use it for your next novel! Or—even worse—they imagine you are so eager for experience that they can make a pass and get away with it…You are never, never treated just as a woman….” (79).
I would never have read this passage if it wasn’t for Bechdel’s graphic novel, and it would never have led me to the conclusion that it’s not just immortality that divides the men and women who have become great writers, the audience has a part to play as well.
Dionysian is a reference to the Greek god Dionysus, also known as Bacchus to the Romans. His mother was a mortal but his father was Zeus. God of Wine, Revelry, and debauchery, he was unable to remain with the other gods of Olympus because Hera was playing that shit. As such he traveled the world surrounded by a group of wild women and a satyrs who always possessed erections. Dionysus, for the record, is more or less the god of tits and wine that Tyrion from Game of Thrones is always looking for but alas, never finds.
What Whitman was a poet and the author of Leaves of Grass, a compilation of various poems dealing with his emotional state, homosocial/homoerotic attachments to other men, and the general drunken stupor that lead him to be one of the most important poets this nation has ever produced. He’s also a lousy kisser and cheap little tart who has yet to call back. I swear you let a man into your heart or into your…well, not important. He’s a poet.
The Author’s wife would like it to be made clear that she does not appreciate her husband mentioning her in the beginning and end of this essay. She would also like it to be known that she passed on the opportunity to marry that Swedish model named Johann who had abs as well as his own private jet. Did she mention that he owned a snake, because he did. The author’s wife was saying something but is now staring dreamily off into space while the author grumbles and opens a beer.
Alison Bechdel, Are You My Mother?, boy's club, Comics, Essay, Feminism, foundation of reality, Fun Home, graphic novel, Homosexuality, Janelle Asselin, Literature, Marjane Satrapi, memoir, Persepolis, psychology, rape threats, Sexual politics, Totalitarianism, women in comics
When beginning this essay I wanted to understand the history of the phrase “boy’s club,” for when one attempts to consider the modern day system of Comics culture that is generally the first, and most inaccurate impression(for the record women account for at least 50% of the reading population of comics). While not actually finding a satisfying history or etymological background I was offered one definition that seems to satisfy my desire for closure:
old boys’club: an informal system by which money and power are retained by wealthy white men through incestuous business relationships. It is not necessarily purposeful or malicious, but the Old Boy’s Network can prevent women and minorities from being truly successful in the business world. It entails establishing business relationships on high-priced golf courses, at exclusive country clubs, in the executive sky-boxes at sporting events, through private fraternities or social clubs, et cetera. These are arenas from which women and minorities are traditionally excluded and thus are not privy to the truly serious business transactions or conversations.
While this definition is rooted principally in a modern economic custom, so custom it seems to border on cultural cliché, I do not believe that this should automatically be ignored for other considerations such as comics. As of this writing there are few women genuinely working in the creative, by this I mean actually producing the art objects, field of the comics industry. While there may be some women in the industry who have garnered attention, and here I should note the excellent writers Gail Simone who is tackling that great beast Red Sonya and Amanda Conner who worked on the Before Watchmen series as writer and artist of the Silk Spectre run, few are currently afforded opportunities to work in many mainstream comics industries. Women are producing many wonderful comics series, however many of these efforts remain in the independent variety, and this has resulted in a “boy’s club” mentality that often creates brutish and vulgar behavior. I shall not go into great detail of the plight certain women have faced by the industry of comics or their fans, which I am sometimes both proud and ashamed to admit I am a part of, however I will note on certain patterns of behavior. Many women who attempt to break into the field of comics are often met with rejection, simply for not possessing a penis. There is a perception that a woman could not possibly be interested or contribute anything worthwhile to the medium, while on the fan level there have been, at the worst example, instances of rape threats should a woman even suggest a character’s outfit or body plan is ridiculous or unrealistic. This is disheartening to me both as a feminist, as well as a fan of comics in general.
I’ve included here a segment of an essay published on the website xojane by Janelle Asselin who received rape threats after criticizing the cover of the most recent run of the series Teen Titans,
Some comments were short and direct. Others read like bad fan fiction with the exception that everyone in them was being raped. Some weren’t about rape, but wanted to let me know that I was the worst.
My reaction to the rape threats wasn’t immediately fear. It was more of a Zen-like calm and a sort of “Oh, okay, here I am at that point now” moment. I deleted many of the less creative before it even occurred to me that I might be able to track them down (I’m working on tracking down the rest now). I mentioned the rape threats in passing on Twitter. A few comics pros reacted with surprise, and I started thinking about the whole process and the way men were talking about me and to me.
My post about the harassment has carried further than I imagined it would, as it is an ever-present part of my experience in comics that the women I know get rape threats. I’m one of thousands of women getting threatened with rape online. But for some reason my story resonated with comics pros and fans.
I think this points to what a powder keg comics has become regarding issues of gender and inclusiveness. Many, many people are fed up with the fact that women can’t state an opinion without getting threatened with rape. If you’re not threatened with rape, you’re told you’re not qualified, you’re not good enough, you’re not welcome here.
I’ve included a link to the website where this essay was published should you be interested in the full story, and if you would care to see the actual threats. I refuse to retype them out of principle.
However, before I paint the picture of the powerless female, peeking through the door knob in desperate hopes of overhearing the great lessons unavailable to them, and yes that is a symbolic allusion to Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, I should like to discuss two women who are altering this cultural perception and carving out a new medium for “female expression:” Alison Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi.
I’ll begin with the latter.
The Graphic Novel Persepolis arrived just as its audience was ready for it. Appearing in 2003, just two years after the Twin Towers had scarred themselves into our societal consciousness, the book at first seemed an excellent opportunity for westerners to latch onto the drunk cultural hype that Muslims were bitter, tyrannical, wack-jobs fallen prey to a false god and oppressing all those beneath them. Any who have read Satrapi’s memoir, appreciate immediately that she does not paint every citizen of her country so. While her work is a beautiful portrait to the individual will facing the pressures of a totalitarian system, and while extreme Islam is portrayed as coupled to the dictatorship of her home country of Iran intimately, Satrapi denies the western reader the chance to paint all members of Islam as the Snidely Whiplash villain. I can hope, simply out of a sense of vanity, there are a few readers who understand that reference (if you don’t Google him). Satrapi’s graphic novel is a memoir tracing her development from young girl into a young woman, all the while placing said development in her home country of Iran during the revolution that forever altered the country during the 1970s. As Satrapi ages, her young character becomes more and more aware of the stifling environment being created by the religious based dictatorship that has assumed control over the country. The first volume of her work carries her up to her late teens ending with Satrapi being sent to Europe by her parents, who fear too much for her. Satrapi shows herself to have been, not only a rebel of sorts, but the worst kind of rebel: one who is not afraid to ask questions. Satrapi ages and grows in Europe; almost dying of Pneumonia after a heartbreak. Sitting all night on a bench in the public park may have had something to do with it. Eventually she does return to Iran to be with her family.
The veil, usually a hijab, however Satrapi does note certain of the more “conservative” women wear the full chador or even Burka, takes the center of Iranian consciousness, for ultimately her memoir attempts to discuss the idea of oppression and the way it manifests in dictatorships. Growing up with, what Iranian society would consider “liberal” parents, Satrapi’s instincts against the veil are clear. Over time, and once her emotional development has progressed to an established ego (that is not condescension just another fancy word for self), Satrapi manages to recognize that the veil, while being advertized as a religious symbol acts as nothing more than a political bullying mechanism established by the administration. Religion possesses enough totalitarian sentiment in its rhetoric and for this reason political movements shall often cite them and mimic aspects of it to bolster its own claim, less of course it simply cut out the middleman and simply blend the two. Satrapi observes:
The ego of any human being requires some certain amount of vanity and care for outward appearance, for that demonstrates that they are expressing some level of thought. When the ego is stripped of choice and that free will has been replaced by fear, then the human being becomes stunted. Satrapi observes of Iran that the country becomes unlivable to the point that eventually she returns to Europe at the end of the graphic novel. The country’s fanatic pseudo-religious pursuits, pathetically disguised as political ambitions, outweigh their concern for economic growth, care for infrastructure, or sound political relations with other countries. The war between Iraq and Iran results in numerous atrocities that she captures poignantly but I would prefer at this point to discuss torture.
Satrapi’s parents welcome two former political prisoners who suffered such treatment under the Shah’s government:
This graphic presentation of physical torture is shocking, or at least it should be to any rational human being, and Satrapi’s style does aid the reader in sparing the more graphic elements while still retaining the real emotional power of the acts. However, while volumes have been filled already with the detestable physical acts human beings may inflict upon each other, Satrapi demonstrates a far more heinous form of it:
Again we see the use of the veil as a political mechanism designed to keep the order of society, as well as the despotic vision of it in line. The threat of sexual violence is employed as a means of psychologically controlling women, and has been since the dawn of time. Satrapi’s overall message however is achieved near the end of the first volume in a beautiful scene between herself and her grandmother:
Persepolis, despite the portrait of the book I am painting, remains focused upon the author at all times. While Satrapi may deviate here and there to mention or examine the effect of some social consequence to her country, she never pushes so far away that we lose track of what these actions mean to her development as a woman and as an individual. It remains in my mind one of the greatest efforts to understand the self in relation to chaos and to arrive at a sense of ego in the face of overwhelming tyranny.
Originally I introduced this work in relation to Faggots by Larry Kramer as a demonstration that gay fiction may be in the midst of a paradigm shift, as gay individuals become more and more secure both with their sexuality as well as their social sense of self. Like Persepolis, Fun Home, as well as it’s follow up piece Are You My Mother?, is a memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel that follows her development as a woman while at the same time observing the influence of her father who was a closeted gay man. Before this memoir, Bechdel’s work was the popular, though you probably won’t find it in the Funny Papers next to Peanuts or Funky Winkerbean, series Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. A casual reading of the series demonstrates Bechdel’s style as an artist had been building up to this point. Unlike Persepolis, Bechdel’s work attempts a little realism while retaining, that unfortunate and highly annoying adjective, “cartoony” look. Any who would immediately dismiss Bechdel’s attempt would be cheating themselves the opportunity to witness one of the most outstanding proseists of our contemporary times. Allow me to sample just the writing from the first two pages:
“Like many fathers, mine could be occasionally prevailed on for a spot of “airplane.” As he launched me, my full weight would fall on the pivot point between his feet and my stomach. It was a discomfort well worth the physical contact, and certainly worth the moment of perfect balance when I soared above him. In the circus, acrobatics where one person lies on the floor balancing another are called “Icarian games.” Considering the fate of Icarus after he flouted his father’s advice and flew so close to the sun his wings melted, perhaps some dark humor is intended. In our particular reenactment of this mythic relationship, it was not me but my father who was to plummet from the sky. But before he did so, he managed to get quite a lot done. His greatest achievement, arguably, was his monomaniacal restoration of our old house.”
What strikes me the most about Bechdel’s work is that she gives her reader credit. The reader’s called to automatically assume knowledge of the story of Icarus, as well as to appreciate her form as her sentences flow from the mundane to psychologically probing territories before returning back into the mundane. As of this writing I have encountered few contemporary authors with such “chops.” Bechdel’s prose however cannot be taken by itself to truly appreciate the unique experience that is reading the graphic novel. Observe the first two pages in their original form:
Throughout Fun Home Bechdel attempts to examine herself psychologically while at the same time unravel both the chaotic mess that was her childhood, though I’m sure Bechdel herself would find this insulting and so perhaps the word “conundrum” would be more appropriate, and also her father’s conflicted sexuality. We observe the in the language, both physical and prose, a marvelous subtlety that borders on Joycean ability. Bechdel is not simply retelling her life, she is unwinding it to observe as many small details as possible to determine which events played the biggest part in her development and psyche. It would not be too far to employ such psychological jargon, for the sequel piece Are You My Mother? borders on a master’s thesis in the subject of psychoanalysis. Observe one panel and this becomes clear:
Bechdel’s work tackles sexuality, without the need for dramatic understanding of it. The benefit of participating in the twenty-first century in western culture, though this is not always the case, as a homosexual is that your humanity, full humanity, does not need to be accounted for. Homosexuality is treated within the graphic novel with utmost importance, for it is the key revelatory moment of her life, but rather than allow that to be the entire definition of her character we see how neurosis and OCD played an intricate part in her development:
The turbulent, and I hope I am not being too presumptuous here, home life eventually manifests in a pattern of behavior that leaves Bechdel questioning every aspect of reality. On some level it may be fair to suggest that the father is to blame, that his closeted sexuality contributes to an unhealthy familial situation that causes such behavior, but as this falls within the realm of biography analysis must be treated lightly. Ultimately upon the conclusion of Fun Home what seems most troubling is that Bechdel seems to assign herself the title of parent. Rather than enter into a domestic situation where there was love and warmth available for, what many would consider, healthy development, she begins to question the role and position of parental authority as well as the bedrock of reality. I have suggested previously in an oral presentation that fathers and mothers, and please do not find me sexist for saying such, provide an alternative bedrock for their children. Men in society tend to define themselves by their careers and contributions, not that women do not, but for men this seems to assume far greater weight to the point of obsession. As such, men raise their children so that they may understand what society expects from them and what it will provide them, namely nothing. Women, on the other, create emotional space from which the child may learn proper social interaction as well as expression. That is not to suggest women are purely emotional creatures, there is far too much evidence to suggest otherwise, however as women tend to be more open and accepting of their emotions, in a home environment it is necessary to foster and instruct their children on the proper expression of emotion whether it promoting crying following an injury or heartbreak, or revealing the necessity of understanding during a squabble. As one reads it becomes clear that neither parent attempts to foster such a bedrock leaving Bechdel in, as the great bard once so eloquently put, “quite a pickle.”
The memoir has often been a tool of expression for women for it has often been the most easily accessible medium to enter into and dominate. One need merely consider the number produced by them and one sees this is true: The Diary of Anne Frank-Anne Frank, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings-Maya Angelou, Out of Africa-Karen Blixen, Reading Lolita in Tehran-Azar Nafisi, Girl, Interrupted-Susanna Kaysen, The Story of My Life-Hellen Keller, A Writer’s Diary-Virginia Wolfe, I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie-Pamela de Barres, etc. The field of literature is often perceived as being the sphere of women; however as a student of literature I can contest that easily, and quickly. True there are numerous women that enter into the field of literary analysis, however in a majority of the novels, short stories, essays, novellas, and plays read and studied, one, and perhaps two if lucky, will be written by women. And so it seems we find yet another “Boy’s Club.” The “memoir” I believe has shifted and adapted to accommodate a new breed of women who are not aesthetically satisfied by the prose medium.
Fun Home, Are You My Mother?, and Persepolis demonstrate an effort on the part of women to combat the misogyny of the comics industry and create a space for themselves. Both works have received that culturally significant, apparently, #1 on the New York Sunday Times accolade, and as of this writing both works have received praise as some of the best memoirs of the last ten years without the qualification that they fall within the “comics” medium. As a fan of comics, and as a feminist, these works give me hope for the future, for it promises an opportunity for women to be able, not only to express their creative impulses, but to do so in a space free from external threat or spiritual harm.
One can only wonder how long until the paper message of “No Boy’s Allowed” is left taped to the doors of offices and studios, and men begin to recognize they will, at long last, need to prove they’re valuable to society, and not just because they can draw a rockin pair of tits.
I’ve included the link to Asselin’s essay here if the reader should be interested
"fuck-fest", Alison Bechdel, Annie Proulx, Barbara Love, Brokeback Mountain, Crisco, culture, dehumanization, Essay, Faggots, felching, Fun Home, Gay, Gay Sex, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, Humor, Larry Kramer, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Male Sexuality, Oscar Wilde, Othering, Politics, Queer, Queer Theory, racism, Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, Satire, Scott Esk, Sense of Self, sex, sexual idealism, Sexual identity, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Sidney Abbot, Social-sexual satire, The Other
Fred Lemish states a summation of his character in what is by far one of the most brilliant, borderline pornographic, and uproarious social-sexual satires in human history when he thinks to himself:
I’m not gay. I’m not a fairy. I’m not a fruit. I’m not queer. A little crazy maybe. And I’m not a faggot. I’m a Homosexual Man. I’m me. Pretty Classy.
By today’s standards this statement is not pressingly significant. In an age where gay pride parades have assumed the same social element as St. Patrick’s Day and Fourth of July processions and the ever echoing axiom, “I’m here, I’m queer, get used to it” feels old hat, such a comment seems to mean very little. And yet so important. I will admit that this passage from Larry Kramer’s novel Faggots is not an astounding one to open this essay, however, should one actually read the entirety of the work and eventually read this passage, Fred Lemish’s statement is not only powerful, it is one of the few sentiments not reeking of semen, piss, shit, Crisco, spit, or what other bodily fluid may be produced during the non-stop fuck-fest that is the plot. Few contemporary authors achieve the sexual power that Faggots conveys. In one page twenty men may participate in a circle jerk while others are being physically dominated with leather belts while multiple cocks slide in and out of assholes and the “slurping” is the heavenly opera that creates the background harmony to the hedonistic splendor…and that is merely one page. Contemporary works attempting to pass themselves off as erotic (I will lightly mention Fifty shades of whatever-else publishers scrape the bottom of the bucket for) will approach Faggots and fail miserably in flames for the untapped sexual powerhouse of the work is so great one can become numb from the experience.
…Is there indeed a God who would understand such as:
“Baby I want you to piss all over me!”
Fred Lemish had never urinated on anything before, except perhaps some country grass late at night when he was drunk and no one was looking.
“Or let me piss on you!”
This Fred Lemish never allowed.
Fred stood there helplessly. Why was he inert in requiring action? The guy wasn’t bad looking. Should Fred enter of walk away?
“Or fuck my friend and I’ll suck your come out of his asshole.”
This suggestion Fred recognized as felching. Was he interested in joining a felcher?
“Or I could tie you up. Or you could tie us up. Or either one of us. Or anything else your cock desires!”
The man certainly offered a range of choices. Should Fred? Shouldn’t Fred?
“Are you into shit?”
This exchange introduces the hero of the novel and also introduces us to the satire of homosexual paradigms that governed the late 1970s. Should we consider the actual homosexual community at the time we are observing a liberated, albeit self depreciating race of human beings that had yet to realize its full humanity. Indeed, one of the total effects of Kramer’s novel is to give us the impression of the male homosexual mindset at this time. Before the brave souls at Stonewall fought back against social dictatorship, and the rise of the homosexual political movements that helped gain most of the civil liberties (not nearly enough but the fight continues) gays enjoy today actually occurred, there was perception of self that lingered on in the gay man’s memory. Before these movements and socially defining moments, homosexuality was a disease. Those considered homosexuals were perceived as being less than human or else insane. Any interested in indigestion of the intellect should research the appalling “treatments” to the disorder of homosexuality which included electroshock therapy and chemical or physical castration. As such, the weight of self (I don’t trust the word identity, it possess too many philosophical implications) was burdened by the idea if one was a homosexual there was something inherently wrong about them. This of course does not even begin to consider the religious implications. The fear of homosexuality was often manifested in the charge of sodomy, a charge leveled to any and all sexual acts that did not eventually lead to fertilization. One realizes a conflict if it’s a Saturday night and you’d like a good blowjob, but let’s stay focused. One of most obvious examples of scape-goating was the charge of Oscar Wilde who suffered two years hard physical labor which in the end ultimately ended his life pre-maturely. (Wilde served his time and eventually chose exile in France where he died at the age of 46, a broken man and destitute; the empire looks after its own indeed). The trial of Oscar Wilde is just one of numerous examples of “queer-baiting” throughout human history. It remains the best known example, for many who were discovered before and after him have suffered far worse than a prison sentence. In short, the gay man discovering his sexual self would have most likely encountered a feeling of absolute terror coupled with revulsion.
But it has butts! Like so many butts!
Butts, my unusually dimwitted contester, is the least of your worries. There is, as there almost always seems to be, a greater social problem in the plot of Faggots, the tendency to create the “other.” Recently another essay of mine was published on the website Comicosity thanks to one of my friends who contributes regularly on the site and is currently building a nice career by publishing supplementary material of analysis of various comics and graphic novels. The article I submitted, and which he graciously hosted on his page (thank you Michael again), dealt with the graphic novel Batman Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, and it was the attempt of the essay to demonstrate the way in which the story followed the traditional trope path of “the journey.” I bring this up, because within the journey there is a concept of “the Other World,” and any student of English, psychology, history, or anthropology is perhaps aware of the indications of “the other.” For those who don’t, it is a culture paradigm that dictates the way our cultural understanding operates. There is an “us,” in which the subtotal achievements of our society work together to create a sense of camaraderie (and unfortunately tribal unity), and there is a “them” or “other” which may or may not stand opposed to our interests and way of life. More importantly, the “other” is simply different and often de-humanized to justify “our” behavior when it tends, and it often does, to become violent or anti-social. This “other” concept has been employed effectively over the course of human history to dictate behavior into a particular direction. The Rwandan genocide of the Hutu people, the attempted extermination of the Jews (throughout history, Nazi’s didn’t invent Anti-semitism though they did play their hand in that ongoing game), Eugenics, the entire institution of slavery, the imperialist system of Africa, India, China, South America, and North America,the anti-Muslim sentiment that dominated this country following the September 11th attacks, the Internment camps of Japanese-American citizens following the attack of Pearl Harbour, the cultural imperialist and near genocide of Native Americans, nearly every Christian denomination subscribes to their paradigm insinuating and suggesting damnation for those outside the “know,” and in fact the student of humanity quickly discovers that the concept of the “other” is an undying institution for our public consciousness. As long as there is an alternative party to our society, there will be an “other.” Take note of Boo Boo Bronstein’s reaction to his own self discovery, “I’m going to be a faggot! I’m going to be a faggot!”
The dehumanizing slur employed with self discovery is what is most damning in the text, further demonstrating Kramer’s sharp wit. Rather than defining oneself as a homosexual, Boo Boo (don’t worry I’ll get to the names in a minute) adopts for his title a word rooted in an attempt to deny him any chance at participating in human society. Now the word “fag,” some would immediately protest, has become a word employed by homosexuals themselves as a form of identity much as intellectuals adopted the title for themselves in France during the Enlightenment or Suffragettes in the early twentieth century (inspiring a charming and unforgettable song in Mary Poppins that you may remember assuming you have a soul). What is wrong in assuming such a title for oneself? Kramer’s text demonstrates that power had yet to be assigned to that term. By today’s standards referring to oneself as a “fag” has little social meaning other than homosexual, however, as demonstrated through the long eloquent “fuck-fest” of the novel, it becomes clear that a “fag” is a sexually obsessed, self depreciating, borderline psychotic, druggie that is too concerned with satisfying physical needs than emotional or intellectual ones. Rather than try to build themselves as contributing and productive members of society, the faggots instead choose to fuck until they cannot walk. In which case The Gnome merely has to find you a bump and you may return to your rimming.
It’s no wonder Kramer’s text caused such a controversy when it was released. Not only from straight “purists” disgusted by all the ass-play, but from the homosexual community itself. At the time of publication, the sexual revolution was drawing to a close and homosexuals were coming into a kind of social-identity. Though of course AIDS (or Gay Cancer as it was originally and idiotically assigned in a moment of medical haste) was not but three years away which would create yet another homophobic hysteria in the populace. Many gays became outraged by the presentation of themselves as sex-obsessed heartless humanoids who possessed no other ambition other than orgasms. So intense was feeling around the book that Kramer’s novel was banned even in the one openly gay bookstore in New York where it was released. Today, fortunately, the book remains and is actually studied in universities open minded enough to have a gender and sexuality program. It is encouraging to read testimony of professors who teach, even if it is only snippets of the text, and receive shocked reactions from students. Kramer’s sharp bite at his own community can be felt across the generations. Such is the mark of an astounding author. And such is the mark of great satire.
I promised I would touch on the names, but before we continue on it seems important to demonstrate further how the idea of label becomes important to the homosexual, even today. This leads to me a supplementary work, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. I purchased the short novella because I have, over the years, accumulated a gathering of friends and acquaintances who’s sexual habits and open-mindedness has forced me to confront my own sexual demons and ignorance. Where once there was a locked door bolted shut with rusted nails and paranoia that prevented further introspection, there is now an open closet door. Somewhat. I am not homosexual but becoming aroused or interested in others of the same sex for non-intellectual reasons no longer terrifies me as implication. I wanted to know what all the damn fuss was about. To this day I have never seen the film, and in some ways I do not want to. The writing is brilliant enough. Proulx’s pen works a magic of prose that I never tried of while reading through the whole of the text. Allow me a moment of weakness as I sample a passage for you.
Dawn came glassy orange, stained from below by a gelatinous band of pale green. The sooty bulk of the mountain paled slowly until it was the same color as the smoke from Ennis’s breakfast fire.
The reader is given prose that is as sweet on the tongue as honey, and perhaps the great feat of Brokeback Mountain is that we see two human beings falling in love surrounded by a combination of words that makes us drunk. But enough fawning. Brokeback afforded a new generation of readers and, as is often the case, audiences, a glimpse at the new social identity of homosexuals. The tragedy being there was still the Boo Boo reaction. The characters of Ennis and Jack begin what originally is the basis of any relationship, a purely physical affair, until it eventually deepens into love. Proulx then works what is perhaps the most over employed and, by this writing, hammed up trope an author can attempt: the forbidden love affair. Following the literary standard of Courtly Love, stolen from the tomes of Medieval poetry, the forbidden love affair can only operate effectively in the instances when the reader is: young and newly discovering the power of love, there is an element in the text outside of the romance that helps progress the plot (much like adrenaline being pumped into a dying heart), or else the reader possess little actual care for motivation and simply wishes to enact fantasy through the text. Proulx takes the second option. With the coming years Brokeback Mountain is unlikely to be remembered as a powerful literary document (were it not for the prose I doubt it would survive at all), but nevertheless it is an effective human document because it does not “ham-up” the forbidden romance, instead it attempts to tackle it directly.
“I doubt there’s nothing now we can do,” said Ennis. “What I’m sayin, Jack, I built a life up in them years. Love my little girls. Alma? It ain’t her fault. You got your baby and wife, in Texas. You and me can’t hardly be decent together if what happened back there”—he jerked his head in the direction of the apartment—“grabs us on like that. We do that in the wrong place we’ll be dead. There’s no reins on this one. It scares the piss out of me.”
Rather than build a dramatic romance, Proulx examines the reality of contemporary homosexual society outside of an urban environment. Which is damn frightening. Homosexuals have been subjected to “queer bashing” and even instances of psychological and physical torture. Being gay or a “fag” as enemies are so often to say in the midst of repugnant laughter, is no longer a mental disorder, but the lingering fragments of the “other” continues to dominate. Proulx then uses this tendency of society to create the “other” to reveal the conflict of modern gay men. Throughout the text Ennis and Jack carefully avoid the word “gay.” During the passages describing the initial, and note the only detailed account of their physical actions, we see a resistance even to touch upon this.
As it did go. They never talked about sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises but saying not a goddamn word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.”
Proulx succeeds in capturing something powerful in the mindset of contemporary homosexuality, the desire to define oneself before others may define you. Kramer’s novel follows along the same sentiment.
“Everyone is so silly. Everyone wants too much. Being gay isn’t fun anymore.”
It can be troublesome identifying yourself with a particular group or following. My regular conflict is declaring myself an atheist when the word skeptic is taking on more and more relevance. If I am an atheist I must hold myself to the standards of men such as Percy Shelly, Christopher Hitchens, and Carl Sagan which, some good ol boy said it best before me, are pretty damn big shoes to fill. I consider it an honor to share the same intellectual sentiment as men such as this. However for every intelligent and rational minded atheist, there is always an asshole. I will not mention names, suffice to say certain pompous and self promoting behavior seems detestable and sends me clamoring to the title of skeptic instead. Such is the case with homosexuality. Being gay, “isn’t fun,” because the society in which you operate defines you and your behavior before you can even begin to understand what being gay actually is.
This concept of the “other” is not an outdated institution as I demonstrated with the long (even by my standards) list of historical facts, that can be easily checked by scanning your local history books. Even today the concept of “others” is employed for odious justifications. The most recent example appears in the case of Scott Esk, a prospective representative from Oklahoma (why must they always be from the south, it’s becoming embarrassing) who has listed among his political ambitions to make divorce in his state more difficult, abolish gun licenses, disregard necessary organizations such as the EPA or FDA, punish abortionists for “murder,” but the most odious of this man’s claims is his consideration that homosexuals should be executed. Citing Leviticus, one grows tired of constantly rolling one’s eyes after hearing that phrase; Mr. Esk believes that he would be “totally within the right to do it.” It becomes clear as one reads about simple minded idiots like this, one who somehow finds supporters as pathetically minded as them, that the idea of the “other” for the homosexual community is alive and strong. Within America today there exists a cultural battle in which those who feel their way of life is being threatened quickly escalate their rhetoric into dim and brutish behavior because they lack the mental ability to frame logical sentences. Now should their opponents be praised however as great masters of prose. We have all suffered through facebook battles between individuals who apparently are so uneducated that they honestly believe you is spelled “u.” In our society today, there is a struggle between alternative perceptions of what this country’s moral and political values should be. While most of us would be content to allow this fight to remain in the hands of the extremists on either side butting heads until both are worn away or too disoriented to cause any further damage, those who are willing to enjoy the liberties attained from the political system should be on guard from such lunacy. Esk is unlikely to actually attain a position as a representative, but should he be, it would be an implication that we have allowed ourselves to turn a blind eye to the malicious hunger to create “others” and profit from their persecution.
This of course leads us to yet another essential text: Sappho was a Right-On Woman a Liberated View of Lesbianism. A philosophical and social manifesto, this work by Sidney Abbot and Barbara Love, catalogs the psychology and sexual politics of what it meant to be a lesbian in 1972. Should one read the text it becomes clear women did not come out on top higher than men.
Living in an environment that is hostile or indifferent, Lesbians find themselves floundering for validation. They feel alien, uprooted—no longer able to count on acceptance from anyone or in any place. They feel they don’t count, don’t exist, in a system whose social institutions and resources do not include them. […] Sooner or Later, the lesbian begins to see her carefully constructed and valued seclusion as forced upon her. Isolation drains her will, her convictions of the rightness of her love, even her passion and feeling.
Abbot and Love’s manifesto carefully outlines the philosophical conundrum of being a creature outside of society’s grace. As we read, we discover that homosexuality was a game of drama in which a part must be played and never broken. Should a woman come forward, revealing her true self she would be met often with rejection from society indicating a loss of job, lack of familial support, and general exile from supposed friends.
Where does this leave us? It would appear then that being a “fag” or an “other” is an unfortunate condition to find oneself in, particularly should you desire something more out of life. Rather than a perception of the self that leaves only self loathing and hedonistic distraction, all of us as human beings desire at our most inner core, to feel some kind of connection to other human beings. The graphic novel Fun Home, apart from being one of the most well written literary documents and memoirs I have expierienced, garners the same recommendation I have previously made for the novel Animal Farm. It is not a question of should one read Fun Home, but when. The graphic novel operates as an autobiography tracking Alison Bechdel’s life from her early days as a child growing up to her current age, all the while unraveling the façade of her father’s closeted sexuality. Bechdel is gay and the main theme working throughout the text is parental connection and support. Her father being a closeted gay man(or at least bisexual), and a femme to boot, can be seen working against his sexual impulses (rather poorly) thereby creating a disharmony within the familial unit. Bechdel follows her own sexual discovery until eventually coming out. The graphic novel ends with a powerful mutual conversation in which both parties understand one another and the author recognizes the gift her father ultimately gave her.
What is remarkable about the graphic novel, apart from the intricate psychological and literary power of the writing that would make Tolstoy weep and Freud smile(yes Freud smiling, it isn’t that hard to believe is it?), is that the sexuality expressed is not self loathing, for the most part. Like many gay people, Bechdel does retract somewhat at first from the knowledge of herself, but upon the realization, she is unapologetic. The presentation of homosexuality is not self loathing or maniacl, it just is. This is not to suggest that Bechdel does not struggle with her sexuality, for that conflict runs throughout the entire text, and continues in the sequel to the book Are You My Mother?, but that struggle never pushes her sense of self to the point that she feels less than human.
I promised I would touch upon the names in Faggots and so it seems appropriate to end this essay with them. Kramer’s Faggots floored me. Reading the text would require long breaks for one can only encounter so much sensual stimulation for so long. The characters in the text however, despite their eccentricity and erratic activities, never push themselves so far that they completely lose their humanity, even if they perceive themselves as somehow less than human. Who could forget a text with characters like Randy Dildough, Bruce Sex-toys, BLT, Leather Louie, The Gnome, Canadian Leon, Billy Bonner, Boo Boo Bronstein, Midnight Cowboy, Feffer, and our troubled Hero Fred Lemish. The latter soul, who is the central figure of the novel, attempts throughout the text to find love, as the saying goes, in all the wrong places. In Turkish bathouses, in a bar called the Toilet Bowl, and finally on Fire Island where the faggots of the greater New York Area converge for a massive love-in. The effort of Fred Lemish ultimately fails, yet despite the failure Fred achieves a kind of satisfaction.
I’m a Homosexual Man. I’m me. Pretty Classy.
Despite the rampant fucking, Faggots is a crucial novel for any interested in the study of human culture. It transcends the homosexual self and attempts to understand why “the other” is assigned and accepted, both to outsiders, as well as to the group it is assigned. Kramer’s work shocked and offended the homosexual community upon its release, but there were those who understood the effort and praised the work. Stained with shit, and piss, and semen, spit, and Crisco, and sweat, and, yes Philadelphia, even love, Faggots is Kramer’s love letter to his own community. And what’s the point of love if you can’t have a little fun along the way.