While it might not go far in assuaging Alison Bechdel's anxieties, the author's life is about to venture onto what could be its biggest stage yet. The graphic novel memoirist – who has recounted relationships with her friends in Dykes to Watch Out For, her father in Fun Home and her mother in Are You My Mother? – is about to see her work performed on Broadway. Fun Home, the musical, opens in New York this month, transforming into song the tense exchanges and sexual epiphanies that have made up Alison's life.
Despite the fact Alison is already well known – not least for inventing the Bechdel Test, in which a movie must have two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man to pass – it will be unsurprising to those familiar with Bechdel's work that such acknowledgements do not sit easily with her. When you talk to Alison, she is endearingly self-deprecating.
While political and cultural contexts may have changed over the decades that she's been drawing, there are some aspects explored in Alison's work that stay the same. Such as: attempting to understand the parents who have led lives entirely hidden from you, and through this ultimately trying to understand yourself.
In advance of Fun Home's opening, I spoke to Alison about charting those early cultural touchstones, the urge to confess and what it's like to emerge from the queer countercultural ghetto.
VICE: In Fun Home there's a section when you're in the library, looking through all the lesbian lit. What were the popular cultural representations of lesbianism that you had growing up?
Alison Bechdel: There were zero popular culture representations. I can't think of anything I saw on television or in magazines. You had to go to the library and look it up. The first gay movie I saw was The Killing of Sister George, and it was in the context of a gay film festival that my college was having. I wouldn't have seen that on television. It's also a very disturbing movie to see for your first lesbian film. Before I entered that culture, there was nothing, no images of lesbians whatsoever.
Do you think cultural reflections of lesbian lives are accurate now, or do they need to be better?
It's interesting that there are now so many images of lesbians in the media. And so many images, period, of everyone. We live in this totally image-saturated culture in a way that we just didn't not very long ago.
I'm at a conference in rural Pennsylvania right now – near where I grew up. It's a gay conference, and yesterday I went to hear some older community members in their seventies talk about what it used to be like here. They had a few photos they were showing in a slideshow. Someone in the audience said, "It was great to see that picture, do you have more?" And they said no.
I mean, not only did we not carry a camera with us at all times in the 1970s, but gay people did not want their photos taken. It was dangerous – incriminating, even – to have a picture of yourself at or in a gay place or situation. All of this has changed so much and I'm still trying to adjust to it. But to answer your question, we always need more reflections – there are never enough.
Have there been any that you've connected with more recently?
I loved Orange Is the New Black. I think that's really incredible. The lesbian characters feel really human and endearing. I'm not a real stickler for everything being perfect, though – I watch many movies that don't pass the Bechdel test, for example.
Do you think there's still a place for the Bechdel test? There's that chain of cinemas in Stockholm that are still using it.
That's really cool. I think it's clearly not a perfect test – you can have a movie that's quite feminist or has strong female characters that maybe only has one woman in it, and maybe she doesn't talk to anyone else – so it's not fail safe. I do, however, think it's a really interesting and funny metric that can give you a really good sense of whether this movie will have any relevance to you or not.
The whole thing is so bizarre to me – it was just a little feminist joke back in the 1980s, and it's sort of funny that it's been taken seriously now, 30 years later. But I think that's a nice indication of how the culture has changed. I think we have come to this place where the universal male protagonist has been de-centred enough that we can think about alternatives. That seems like a lot of progress.
Do you still keep a diary?
I do! It's on the computer now. I am compulsive about it. It's not a very interesting diary; it runs into a list of what I'm doing every day, or the last fight I had with my girlfriend. It's not a lot of philosophical musings. It's so boring, I can't even re-read.
Where does the urge to share such personal insights originate?
I guess it's sort of related to the diary-keeping instinct, this compulsion to confess things publicly. I'm really kind of a private person, in a way, yet I have this weird exhibitionistic side... it's horrifying to me, the intimate things that I've revealed, I don't quite understand it. I really enjoyed confession as a child. I love that idea of being forgiven and freed from my sins [laughs]. I haven't quite shaken that.
You missed the previous opening for your musical – will you make the Broadway opening?
Yes, I have it in my date book.
How are you feeling about it?
I feel very excited, and anxious. It's such a very strange experience, to see my childhood and my family recreated and re-enacted in this way. It's very hard to have a distance from it – it's really intense and personal. It's hard for me to even talk about it. I don't quite have language for it yet... I'm mostly really grateful; it's an amazing thing to see that so many people have put so much work into it.
Does being on such a mainstream stage affect how you feel about your own objectivity, in terms of your removal from a counterculture? If the counterculture is becoming the culture, where does that place you?
That is an excellent question, and one that I have been asking myself ever since Fun Home was published in 2006, and, shockingly, well received by a much broader audience that I'd had before.
I've been getting used to this idea of mainstream success, as opposed to my little counterculture ghetto where I was very happy. And it's been confusing. I did want to speak to a larger audience, but without losing my queer perspective or authenticity. And it's about getting older, too – I have different concerns. I feel like I'm trying to grow into it in a responsible way.
I do think, of course, that once you're inside this system you do inevitably lose some objectivity about how it all works because you have so much self-interest at stake in it. I guess it's just trying to be aware of that and trying to keep, in whatever work I'm doing, an honesty without worrying about who I'm trying to make happy.
If you were to talk to yourself at a younger age, what would you say?
I have this weird feeling that my future self was already in me, my future self was already saying: "This is all going to work out just fine." I feel like I somehow really knew that all along, if that's possible. If you can trust that voice, that's the trick.
You were awarded the MacArthur "Genius Grant" - do you feel very genius-like?
No, I don't. In fact, I have felt more idiotic since I received that fellowship than I did before. I'm still worried they're going to call me back and say they made a terrible mistake and revoke my award. But so far they haven't. As the months go on, I think I'm starting to get used to the idea. That feels like something I'm working on, accepting that.
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