Setting the Scene
Fun Home is an authentic queer memoir detailing the lives of the Bechdel family, particularly the author, Alison, and her father, Bruce. A. Bechdel grows up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her closeted gay father while she comes to terms with her lesbian identity in her dysfunctional household.
First adapted in 2013, Fun Home the musical became a Broadway hit in 2015, taking home several Tony Awards and other prestigious accolades. The musical brought Bechdel’s queer story to more eyes and a broader audience, but at a cost. The musical adaptation is marketed to make a personal memoir universal, which dilutes the authenticity of Bechdel’s story (Matilla).
Authenticity vs. Profit
In her Atlantic article, “Selling Queerness: the Curious Case of Fun Home,” Kalle Oskari Mattila dives into the marketing campaign of the musical adaptation of Bechdel’s graphic memoir. She explains how the company behind the musical’s advertising, SpotCo, wanted to reach as broad of an audience as possible, so they made sure to “never ever associate specifically with the ‘plot or subject matter’” when running ads for Fun Home. They did not want to advertise the musical as “a lesbian suicide musical,” as they called it, because they did not want to alienate non-LGBT audiences. They assume that by marketing Fun Home as a feel-good, relatable story, they will draw in a larger audience and eventually create wider acceptance for queer stories.
On the other hand, Mattila argues that “by sidestepping the story’s more divisive subjects, Fun Home advertisements are potentially slowing the embrace of proudly queer voices and perspectives.” By dishonestly advertising Fun Home’s musical, marketers are rewriting Bechdel’s history and contributing to the respectability politics that surround queer history and modern-day politics.
This censorship by a third party is revisionist history that runs counter to the deliberate queer revisionist history that Bechdel offers in her memoir.
A Personal Yet Public Queer History
Fun Home is a collection of artifacts, redrawn by hand, from old journals and letters to polaroids and tape recording manuscripts. By creating her memoir around her physical representations of her family history and making it easily accessible for readers, her private queer life story becomes a piece of public queer history (Cvetkovich).
Fun Home also serves as a queer historical document by including panels placing Bechdel’s life in the context of the public queer landscape, even if she and her father weren’t active participants in the mainstream queer scene. In her article “Drawing the Archive,” Ann Cvetkovich, a queer studies specialist, expands on the connection between Bechdel’s personal family trauma between her and her father and the queer history being made around her. One of Cvetkovich’s central points is that Bechdel herself is telling queer history; she claims that “the effect of Bechdel’s archival documents is the insertion of her family story within a larger public history and one that is significantly queer” (122). Bechdel links her private trauma to public events to affirm the value of queer lives and connect personal history to public history.
Bechdel herself takes on the role of a revisionist historian in her memoir, but one that asserts her family in the context of the greater public queer history. She employs an alternate ending for her father based on what was happening historically at the time of his death. She imagines a scenario where he does not die via being hit by a truck, but instead dies from AIDS-related complications along with thousands of other gay men in the 1980s (195).
In Figure 1, her father is not the center of the image even though it describes an alternate end to his life. Instead, Bechdel drew a hand cutting from a newspaper that depicts an arm with no identifying characteristics accompanied by an article about drug advancements for AIDS patients.
In the panel, she admits that this made-up scenario is a coping mechanism for reconciling her and her father’s past by posing that she is “perhaps being histrionic, trying to displace [her] actual grief with this imaginary trauma” (195). As she explains in the next panel, fantasizing about this hypothetical scenario makes it easier for her to forgive her father as “a tragic victim of homophobia” (196). However, she implies that her family was better off losing Bruce by suicide privately rather than as part of a massive epidemic, which would have outed him as a homosexual and inserted the private trauma of their home into the public trauma of AIDS.
Continuing the Conversation
Mattila and Cvetkovich both agree that the preservation of Bechdel’s honest narrative is necessary as a way to uplift queer voices that traditionally have been censored because of negative stigma. Cvetkovich focuses on the historical significance of Fun Home and what it means to record personal experiences of intergenerational trauma in the queer community, while Mattila focuses on the modern implications of the dilution of Bechdel’s story.
Bechdel’s memoir is the opposite of the respectable queer narrative that is disproportionately projected into popular culture. Queer history is graphic. It’s full of loss and violence and lust and sex, and Bechdel’s history is no exception.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: a Family Tragicomic. A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
Cvetkovich, Ann. “Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, vol. 36 no. 1, 2008, p. 111-128. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/wsq.0.0037.Paragraph
Mattila, Kalle Oskari. “How a ‘Lesbian Suicide Musical’ Was Branded as a Feel-Good Broadway Hit.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 10 May 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/04/branding-queerness-the-curious-case-of-fun-home/479532/.
This essay was written for Writing 101, Building Stories