A Review of Sexuality and Environment in Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home”

The last page of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home is of a younger Bechdel jumping into the outstretched arms of her father in a swimming pool, a fully realized moment of connection that the two were often bereft of. The plot follows Alison Bechdel reflecting on her father’s supposed suicide, showcasing both her relationship with him and the initial exploration of her sexuality. Through her blend of prose and comic panels, Bechdel crafts an intimate account of the trajectory that two queer people’s lives took them, often exploring the role that their environment played.

Bruce Bechdel, Allison’s father, spent the majority of his life in Beech Creek, Pennsylvania, a predominantly rural and socially conservative part of America. He jumps between responsibilities as an English teacher, a husband and father of three, and managing his family’s funeral home (or “Fun” Home) all while dealing with his secret attraction to men. Alison Bechdel suggests that it was the constraining culture of Beech Creek that forced Bruce to bury down his sexuality, ultimately resulting in Bruce developing a rigid and authoritative parenting persona that led to a strained relationship with his daughter Alison.

Allison herself ends up “escaping” Beech Creek once she matriculates at Oberlin College, an environment that ends up being much friendlier to her sexual development than Beech Creek ever could. While at Oberlin, she ends up sharing her father’s love of literature, devouring several feminist and queer-centric books, notably Collette’s Earthly Paradise, in order to better gauge the nuances of her newly discovered sexual identity. The environment at Oberlin allows Alison to be more open and comfortable with her attraction to women, granting her the opportunity to cultivate it as an extension of her personality.

This contrasts with Bruce’s experience with his queer identity whereby he has to bury down his sexuality when engaging with people close to him, and thus be secretive with his sexual relationships with men. Because Bruce could never cultivate his sexual identity like Alison could, he was unable to be at peace with himself, leading to emotional/psychological strain that may have culminated in his suicide.

Fun Home subsequently indicates how for some, it is more difficult to leave a repressive environment for a more tolerant one due to extenuating responsibilities. Bruce was predominately supporting his family  and thus leaving Beech Creek would have incurred a great deal of spiritual, financial and social pain on them. Bruce’s relationships were ultimately discovered by his wife, leading to a much more fallow marriage that was held together only by his responsibilities to the family. Conversely, because Alison did not have the same responsibilities as Bruce, she could more easily leave Beech Creek for the progressive Oberlin without risking the total corrosion of her family.

It must be noted that these circumstances of self versus responsibility are more often a reflection of the communities surrounding the marginalized individual, rather than the individual themselves. One should never have to choose between being comfortable with their sexual identities and fulfilling their professional and familial responsibilities.

(featured image source flickr- Wolf Gang)

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