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Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

August 30, 2015

O’BRIEN | On Duke Freshman and Fun Home

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Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic has been on my radar a lot lately. I first learned of it after watching the Tonys over the summer, and it was subsequently on my list of Broadway plays to see (and books to read). So when I arrived at school this fall, I was excited to see that Fun Home is actually on the booklist of one of the English classes I am taking this semester. The 2006 book is a graphic novel about Bechdel’s childhood with her controlling father, and her gradual realization that she is gay — and so is he.

But Fun Home has been in the headlines this past week not because the publicity around the Broadway rendition is making people like me discover the brilliant memoir, but because some Duke freshmen are boycotting reading Fun Home for the school’s freshman summer reading project (and, I’m assuming, passing up the opportunity to see the author speak about the book at their school) on the grounds that it violates their morality.

Knowing that the book was written by the iconic cartoonist Alison Bechdel (also known for originating the Bechdel Test), was chosen as best book of the year by a multitude of publications in 2006, and has been hailed as “one of the very best graphic novels ever,” was enough to make the Duke freshmen’s self righteous moral outrage to reading Fun Home eyeroll-inducing.

But I wanted even more solid ground for my annoyance, so I read the book yesterday. And guess what, Duke freshmen? You’re missing out.

Fun Home is a beautiful memoir and story. Bechdel offers you a peek into her upbringing, and how it led to who she is today, through her eyes. She begins the book by depicting her father’s obsessive perfection, emotional distance, and controlling nature during her childhood. She shows her desire to resent him and her inability to do so completely. Throughout the novel, she interweaves descriptions of her father with her own journey of self-discovery. A particularly touching moment was when Bechdel realized she and her father were, in some ways, living vicariously through the other — he was always trying to impose feminine clothing and ideals on her, and she took pleasure in helping him pick out suits and the clothing she really wanted to wear.

She eventually came to understand that her father was suffering greatly as a closeted gay man, and reacted by living her life as openly as a lesbian woman as possible, throwing herself first into books about being gay and then the gay community. She then made a career of writing stories about lesbian women in the comic strip “Dykes To Watch Out For” — a “professional lesbian,” she called herself.

Her story is one of triumph and the way she juxtaposes this with her father’s pain and eventual death — a suicide, she suspects — is extremely moving. It shows the complexity of family ties and how you can live in the same house as someone and never truly know them. The book is also full of unexpected humor and literary allusions, and her drawings share an equal role in telling the story as her words. Once I started reading it I was totally absorbed, finishing it in just a couple hours.

So, back to the Duke freshmen: One of them, Brian Grasso, has been the most outspoken — it was his post about boycotting the reading project in the Duke class of 2019 Facebook group that brought the issue to national attention. Last week, he wrote an article in the Washington Post explaining his reasoning for opting out of the assignment. Grasso stands firm that he is not refusing to read the book because he is uncomfortable with the subject matter — namely LGBTQ issues and suicide — but because its “pornographic” content is contrary to his Christian values.

The “pornographic” content of which he speaks involves panels depicting masturbation and oral sex. On two pages. Out of 232. (I’m not sure how he knew this without looking at them). Yet instead of simply choosing to quietly skip over the pages with the panels he did not want to see, he decided to publicly boycott the entire book, and he also felt the need to thoroughly research its content in the first place, which is why I have trouble buying the “it’s just because of those two images” argument. He claims that if the book were entirely text-based, he would have no problem reading it, and that he has the same moral opposition to images of sex in pop culture and … Renaissance art.

But to call the novel “pornographic” is maddeningly reductive. Slate’s Jacob Brogan articulated perfectly why it’s flat-out wrong to refer to anything in Fun Home as porn. He explains that the difference between sex and pornography is that pornography is entirely detached from its “living, breathing context.” Brogan argues, “In effect, Grasso reduces homosexuality to a few sex acts, and then declares that showing those sex acts is unacceptable.” Bechdel’s sexual experiences in the novel are moments of life-affirmation and self discovery, yet Grasso sees them to nothing more than “titillating content.”

Central to Fun Home is Bechdel’s discussion of her father’s repression of his identity and sexuality as a closeted gay man who married a woman, and the devastating effect this had on his life. So as much as Grasso may say he’d be equally offended by images of heterosexual sex, condemning Fun Home’s frank depiction of sex has a certain irony when juxtaposed with the history of censoring and denying the experiences of women and LGBTQ people. In the novel, Bechdel explains she believes that her father took his own life because he could no longer stand living in the shadows.

Grasso begins his article by professing how challenging it is to be a Christian student at a “progressive university.” But if he read Fun Home, maybe he’d gain some perspective on how it is more difficult to be an LGBTQ person. He goes on to argue: “Cultural pluralism will lose its value if students aren’t allowed to follow their beliefs, even if they are conservative. Without genuine diversity, intellectual dialogue and growth are stifled.” He seems to think the type of “genuine diversity” that needs protecting is his viewpoint as a white, straight, Christian cis-male — you know, the demographic with the vast majority of social and political power in the country.

In order to foster “genuine diversity,” we need more female and more LGBTQ voices in art and media (and everywhere else), and by refusing to read an acclaimed work by a prominent lesbian woman about her experiences, Grasso and the other Duke freshmen boycotting the project are skipping out on the opportunity to read a rich, perspective-expanding literary work and closing themselves off to diverse viewpoints before they even get to college.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com. 

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