Strategically Placed: The Obscene in Fun Home

It hardly takes a genius to notice that the M&M bag in the image below is not really an M&M bag–and that Bechdel is drawing an analogy between the cathected candy and the Letters she’s reading:

filthy bechdel

It isn’t the only place where text substitutes for more explicit naughtiness, and reading is analogized with masturbation. More broadly, we might take a moment to consider where text goes in Fun Home. Bechdel places the following (which strikes me as somewhat obnoxiously euphemistic) in a textbox that obscures genital contact between her avatar and her avatar’s partner:

“Like Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops, I found myself facing a ‘being of colossal strength and ferocity, to whom the law of man and G-d meant nothing.’ In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared. Yet while Odysseus schemed desperately to escape Polyphemus’s cave, I found that I was quite content to stay here forever.” (214)

Bechdel’s self-censorship (both of potentially explicit images and of potentially explicit language) secures the book’s position on library shelves, and its over-(or under-?)literary musings seem to announce the book’s “serious” and “educational” content more than they really enhance our understanding of the story. The soft-core generalizations of lesbian sex, as on page 81 and 214-5, seem similarly imbued with a vague sense of Education, though these images, like the glosses on Ulysses and The Odyssey, are invitingly general at best and criminally simplistic at worst. For whom are these representations of sex and the Great Books beneficial? It seems difficult to avoid the sense that young lesbians constitute at least one target audience; Fun Home’s overt homosexual themes clearly reference the books that introduced Bechdel to Sapphic ways even before she had had an interpersonal sexual experience. Fun Home’s cover gleams as alluringly as the “eye-caching silver-and-hot-pink cover” of the “siren” book Fear of Flying (217). It seems apparent that Bechdel intends her comic to join the cannon of books that budding queers can check out from the library and assiduously study, and as such she wants it to be “good for a wank” (207). This explains, to my mind, the sex scenes. But what does this didactic urge end up obscuring, as surely as the text box obscures the vagina (for the benefit of underage readers whose access to the book is essential for Bechdel)? What must Bechdel sacrifice in order to proffer her work as a paradigmatic lesbian text? And are we to read these aggressive images as somewhat farcical, like the flimsy literary parallels? Perhaps the status of the comic also has to do with the almost-pornographic components. Is the effect of the visual genre to identify this sex with the literary underground, or to render it merely banal?

To my mind, any answer to these questions must contend with the queer project of undermining the utilitarian basis of sex – and, perhaps by extension, books. The quote with which I open this post concerns Bechdel’s contentment to abandon the heterosexual project of nostos. Bechdel acts as the foil to her mother, whom she describes as “Odysseus’s faithful Penelope” (215). Over an image of masturbation to The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Bechdel writes, “And like Odysseus’s men who had fallen in with the lotus-eaters, I felt no urgency to continue” (209). Over yet another image of masturbation: “And like Nausicaa’s Ulyssean counterpart, Gerty MacDowell, she [Colette] was even good for a wank” (207). In all these cases, Bechdel privileges the queer journey, the not-homecoming, over the normative return to heterosexual domestic bliss. And yet, our first image of masturbation includes the text, “My researches were stimulating but solitary. It became clear I was going to have to leave this academic plane and enter the human fray” (76). Must books always launch us back into life, always conceal a didactic undertow? Or isn’t that notion at cross-purposes with the queer philosophy of the lovers of Polyphemus and the lotus-eaters and Gerty MacDowell? Perhaps to graphically represent “lesbian sex” hinders real sexual exploration; or perhaps it proves so unsatisfying (like the glosses on Ulysses and The Odyssey) that it deliberately shoves us back in the direction of personal contact with books and bodies. I’m inclined to think we aren’t meant to take Bechdel’s saccharine reading of her own life any more seriously than her flat, comic depictions of women in bed; queer icons mustn’t become any more normative than straight ones. This is a didactic project, certainly, but of a rather perverse sort.

-H.D.

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