Fun Home is a graphic memoir in which Alison Bechdel describes her childhood and early adulthood. It’s the story of her growing up, her coming of age. More specifically, Fun Home is the story of Alison’s coming of age while grappling with her lesbian gender identity and the way that identity differs from the expectations imposed on her by society. As she grows up, Alison feels a constant and growing shame that is centered around her discomfort in the world and with her own female body. When she is four or five years old at a restaurant with her father Bruce, Alison admires a butch-looking woman wearing male clothing. When Alison’s father angrily asks if that’s what Alison wants to look like, Alison becomes ashamed and lies, telling him “no.” As she goes through puberty, Alison finds her budding breasts “painful” and “itchy,” and she does her best to ignore the existence of her periods. She similarly feels ashamed when she feels attracted to a picture of a nude female pin-up model. Alison’s persistent shame and discomfort leads her to develop a variety of compulsive, OCD-like behaviors. However, when she eventually gets to college, particularly at Oberlin, which offers a very different community that is more open to different ways of being, Alison herself becomes more open both with herself and others about her gender identity. She is then able to explore her sexuality in honest, public relationships, to reclaim herself as and for herself within the wider world.
As a child, Alison’s father Bruce plays the role of society’s enforcer, attempting to make his daughter act more girlish and dress more ladylike. But what the memoir makes clear from the outset (though the child Alison does not realize it) is that her father’s strong desire for his daughter to act like a typical girl is driven not just by “conservative” principles but also by the fact that, like his daughter, Bruce’s own gender identity is “non-standard” and he has a need to vicariously express his own femininity through her. Through the juxtaposition of Bruce and Alison’s narratives, Fun Home depicts two distinctly different coming-of-age stories about people dealing with homosexuality and genderqueer identity. While both stories begin and develop the same way—with lies, shame, self-deceit, and secret bouts of self-fulfillment (like dressing up in the opposite gender’s clothing), the way Alison and Bruce deal with their gender identity in adulthood is opposite: Alison is open about hers, while Bruce keeps his secret. This results in Alison leading a more honest, self-fulfilling life, which helps her improve upon or minimize many of her compulsions, or at least allows her to deal with them in a more open and honest way (as Fun Home itself is an open and honest example of Alison’s compulsion for autobiography). Bruce, though, never escapes from his own obsessive and self-destructive tendencies, ranging from his constant and domineering decorating of the family’s old Gothic mansion, to his erratic but frequent outbursts of rage, to the string of illicit affairs he develops with some of his male high school English students, to his eventual (probable) suicide.
Fun Home doesn’t provide easy answers. While the book is clear that living a closed life that hides the reality of one’s gender identity is profoundly damaging, it is also clear that the effort to live an open life consistent with one’s internal self is also scary and fraught when such a life runs counter to the expectations of society. And the book shows how such expectations are not just widespread but everywhere, affecting even those damaged by them. For example, even as a young girl suffering under her father’s efforts to force her to be something she’s not, Alison wants her father to be something he isn’t. Alison describes herself, a tomboyish girl, as trying to compensate for something “unmanly” in her father in “a war of cross-purposes.” Further, the book grapples with the complicated intersection of gender and biological sex. After all, had Bruce not hidden his gender identity and married Alison’s mother, Alison herself would not exist. For Alison to live, Bruce had to have repressed his sexuality. Her life depended on his suffering, capturing the sometimes intractable tension between sexual nature and gender identity. The book offers no solutions to such issues, but in capturing them in their complexity it provides honesty nonetheless.
Gender Identity and Coming of Age ThemeTracker
Gender Identity and Coming of Age Quotes in Fun Home
My father’s death was a queer business—queer in every sense of that multivalent word…but most compellingly at the time, his death was bound up for me with the one definition conspicuously missing from our mammoth Webster’s.
I’d been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents’ tragedy… I had imagined my confession as an emancipation from my parents, but instead I was pulled back into their orbit.
My realization at nineteen that I was a lesbian came about in a manner consistent with my bookish upbringing. A revelation not of the flesh, but of the mind.
Proust would have intense, emotional friendships with fashionable women… but it was young, often straight, men with whom he fell in love. He would also fictionalize real people in his life by transposing their gender—the narrator’s lover Albertine, for example, is often read as a portrait of Proust’s beloved chauffeur/secretary, Alfred.
I sensed a chink in my family’s armor, an undefended gap in the circle of our wagons which cried out, it seemed to me, for some plain, two-fisted sinew.
As the man showed us around, it seemed imperative that he not know I was a girl… “John! C’mere! … Call me Albert instead of Alison.” My brother ignored me. But looking back, my stratagem strikes me as a precocious feat of Proustian transposition…
I had recently discovered some of Dad’s old clothes. Putting on the formal shirt with its studs and cufflinks was a nearly mystical pleasure, like finding myself fluent in a language I’d never been taught. It felt too good to actually be good.
It was not… a triumphal return. Home, as I had known it, was gone. Some crucial part of the structure seemed to be missing, like in dreams I would have later where termites had eaten through all the floor joists.
What if Icarus hadn’t hurtled into the sea? What if he’d inherited his father’s inventive bent? What might he have wrought? He did hurtle into the sea, of course. But in the tricky reverse narration that impels our entwined stories, he was there to catch me when I leapt.