In Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home, there is an insistent parallel between Bechdel’s life and her father’s that occasionally comes to light. The most pointed comparison occurs at the end of chapter 4, when Bechdel finds a photograph of her father at university where “He’s sunbathing on the tarpaper roof of his frat house just after he turned twenty-two” (120). The picture itself is redrawn in a way that distinguishes the photographed version of Bechdel’s father from the cartoon version of him in Fun Home. Since it is in a more realistic style than the other cartoon artwork in the book, it both stands out and is hard to compare with the more simplistic depictions of the father. Without descriptions announcing that it was a picture of her father the reader would find it difficult to tell who is in the photograph. This dissonance between the physical features in the photograph and the book is expanded through the heavy shading with crosshatched ink lines on her father’s face. Sunglasses further block his expression from view and hide his features. This moment stands out because of the break in art style, but it is Bechdel’s attempt to force a comparison between her father’s life and her own that makes the page stand out.
At the end of her description of the setting in the photograph, Bechdel asks readers, “Was the boy who took [the picture] his lover?” This question reinforces the instance Bechdel draws from her own life: another photograph that is darkly lit, with crosshatched lines. She connects this photograph directly with the previous by continuing her train of thought and stating, “As the girl who took this polaroid of me on a fire escape on my twenty-first birthday was mine?” In order to know what “mine” refers to readers must look back at her final line describing her father’s photograph, where she muses, “Was the boy who took it his lover?” The connection Bechdel draws between the two lovers—one real and one hypothetical—is one of the stronger instances of Bechdel’s own biases coming through in her work. Bechdel attempts to reinforce a connection with her life and her father’s through these two photographs. Two photographs that have eerie similarities without idle speculation about her father’s love life. Bechdel even admits that the technical aspects of the photographs are similar: “The exterior setting, the pained grin, the flexible wrists, even the angle of shadow falling across out faces…” (120). The concrete similarities of the exterior setting, angle of shadow, and twenty-first and twenty-second birthdays, however, and quickly supplanted by Bechdel’s own interpretation that seems grounded not on the image itself or on body language, but on Bechdel’s own desire for similarity. Bechdel asserts that she and her father both had a “pained grin” on their faces. While I do not doubt Bechdel’s ability to read her own body language and recollect about her experiences, Fun Home is filled with details of how she misread her parents’ emotions and actions. At one point, she even points out that, “could [our family] not be even more accurately described as a mildly autistic colony? Out selves were all we had” (139). In this home where each family member is isolated and follows their own artistic pursuits to the point of some social dysfunction, the belief that Bechdel is reading her father’s facial expression accurately or without a heavy bias of her past experiences and knowledge of him seems unlikely.
Even the framing of her discussion of the initial comparisons of the two photographs is based on the hypothetical that “the boy who took it” could have been her father’s lover. This hypothetical allows Bechdel to draw a direct comparison with “the girl who took this polaroid of me.” She does not focus on the obvious comparison point: photographs after early twenties birthdays, but instead on the imaginary and real lovers they have in common. This forced comparison at this time almost comes across as a desperate attempt to find similarities between their two sexual orientations. Yet many of the depictions of her father’s sexuality highlights its difference from her own. He is continually having brief sexual encounters with underage boys while Bechdel is having sexual relationships with women her own age. Her father hides his encounters as much as possible while Bechdel has an urge to tell her parents as quickly as possible through letter (58). While both have some aspect of queer sexuality in common due to their sexual attraction to their own gender, they also go about acting on it in entirely different ways. Bechdel even highlights their different approaches when she reflects upon how quickly she came out to them. She ponders, “Why had I told them? I hadn’t even had sex with anyone yet. Conversely, my father had been having sex for years and not telling anyone” (59). It is odd and difficult to understand Bechdel’s desperation to compare her own past experiences with gender transgression and queer identity with her father’s. Bechdel seems so intent on forcing her father’s life to fit into the mold of her own that she does not always point out the significant differences in their life experiences.
By Chip Delany
Word Count: 866