Tag Archives: Alison Bechdel

Feminist Friday: The Bechdel Test

In my Communication Research and Methods class, I unwittingly utilized the Bechdel Test. For my final project, I conducted a content analysis of the conversations between the women of Bridesmaids. I was interested in the media’s depiction of female friendships and thought that the dialogue between female characters would be the best indicator of their bonds. (For those of you interested in my amateur study, here it is: my final research paper.)

While my goal was to dissect women’s relationships in film, I actually ended up conducting a category-specific Bechdel Test. For the record, Alison Bechdel–author of Fun Home and Are You My Mother?–first featured the rule of thumb in her long-running comic, Dykes to Watch Out For.

As Mo explains, there are a precious few movies that feature a.) at least two women that b.) talk to each other about c.) something other than a man. They’re three simple guidelines, but you would be shocked at how few texts meet them. And I’m not talking about meeting them throughout the entire movie; sometimes there isn’t even one scene where a couple of ladies talk about politics or books or work or their families. That’s pretty fucking scary.

Even movies that seemingly depict women coming together to rid themselves of patriarchy sometimes reveal themselves to be complete bullshit. Not to rain on everyone’s The Fault in Our Stars parade (okay, maybe I want to), but I have to disagree with non-feminist Shailene Woodley‘s stance on The Other Woman. She says, “[It] looks really good because I think it’s really neat that it shows women coming together and supporting each other and creating a sisterhood of support for one another versus hating each other for something that somebody else created.” Yes, it is so refreshing to see a movie where three blonde, white, privileged women band together to destroy an idiot guy. Especially when taking revenge by, oh, I don’t know, succeeding in life is so boring and sensible.

Even though I am biased because I think that the film looks like total garbage, I do have some evidence to back me up:  “‘The Other Woman’: When Terrible Movies Happen to Funny Actresses” by NPR’s Linda Holmes. Despite Woodley’s assertion (which we should all listen to) that this movie is all about the sisterhood, Holmes found that these three sisters aren’t doing it for themselves; the movie failed the Bechdel Test.

I can’t say it better than Holmes, so I won’t. She writes, “Yyyyyyyup. That’s right. The Other Woman is 109 minutes long, and at no time do any of these women — including Carly and her secretary, who only know each other from work — pause for a discussion, even for a moment, of anything other than a series of dudes: Mark, Kate’s brother, Carly’s father, the secretary’s husband, Carly’s other boyfriends. It is truly, no fooling, all they talk about for 109 minutes.”

Let’s all pause for a moment and weep about the current state of feminism in the media, for Cameron Diaz’s and Leslie Mann’s terrible agents, and for the fact that someone thought it would be okay to let Kate Upton act.

Now, a call to action. Please take some time and watch films or television series where there are two women. Who talk to each other. About something other than a man. We can do it!

Here are a few suggestions:

Have a productive weekend!

(Image #1 courtesy of strategylab.ca; #2 courtesy of rookiemag.com; #3 and #5 courtesy of dykestowatchoutfor.com; #4 courtesy of theotherwomanmovie.com)

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Death becomes her

“Let’s do some living after we die”

“Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones

Death changes everything. (Yes, thank you Captain Obvious.) But it’s true. When someone close to you disappears, your entire worldview transforms. Ideas that you once took for granted might seem outlandish and ridiculous after a loss. And I speak from personal experience when I say that. In fact, I would argue that there are two versions of us: the people we were pre-bereavement and the people we are now. So what kind of person are you when death is a regular part of your life? Or when death is the way you finance your life? Well, if you are Claire Fisher of Six Feet Under, you accept that darkness without letting it define you. And that’s a difficult look to pull off.

Claire’s father–of the titular Fisher and Sons funeral home–dies in the first fifteen minutes of SFU‘s pilot. Like all people who lose a loved one, this affects Claire. But that is not the catalyst for her Outside Girl status.  As someone who spent her childhood in the vicinity of emotionally-shattered people, Claire attends her own father’s funeral in a state of calm detachment. After all, she sees this stuff every day. Funerals are just another part of Claire’s regular routine, and this prevents her from grieving her father’s death publicly. As this scene would suggest, death itself is the barrier between the youngest Fisher and the rest of the world. Her peers think she is freaky because of her father’s profession and the house she grew up in. Instead of being wounded or feeling excluded, Claire decides to be amused and enjoys being outcast. Why else would she paint her car (a second-hand hearse) lime green?

Avi Shoshana and Elly Teman argue that Claire’s refusal to let constant death ruin her life is proof of the character’s embodiment of the “life-self.” This is a self that “is unchained, liberated, and sexual. It does not conform to societal dictates but follows an original path based on curiosity, adventurousness…and openness.” Claire actively enjoys being shunned by her fellow students, and this independent streak even motivates her to carve out her own identity within the family. In other words, she likes that death keeps her away from other people, but she refuses to let it numb her from happiness or passion. Unlike her mother and brother David, Claire uses the constant death around her as a reminder to live her life by her own rules. She is not bogged down by melancholia, but is itching with the need to experience everything during her short time on earth. This primal drive leads to experimentation with drugs and sex, multiple artistic endeavors, deviation from the expected path, surreal musical performances, and attempts to find connection with other misfits and outcasts.

This isn’t to say that Claire is cold or apathetic towards the loss of her father and, eventually, her elder brother Nate. We do see her mourn in several different instances. But her liveliness, her “life-self” stops her from grieving in the socially predictable way. Instead of crying quietly next to her father’s grave, Claire sobs uncontrollably two years later at her mother’s second wedding. Instead of dressing up nicely to attend her brother’s wake, she shows up late in a T-shirt. Instead of acting like everything is alright after Nate is gone, Claire feels her sadness 100 percent. She shows up to work drunk, she flips her coworkers the bird, and screams at her family and boyfriend. Think of it this way: Claire knows that death is a part of life. But damned if she isn’t going to live her life the way she sees fit before she dies.

And unlike many of her fellow Outside Girls, when Claire breaks away from the crowd, she does not go back. From the first season on, she has a natural suspicion of what other people see as normal and even desirable. When she visits a school counselor, she asks: “Is that the only option? Go to college, get a job so you can be a good consumer until you drop dead of exhaustion? I don’t want that…I just want something to matter.” Claire’s personification of the life-self means that she does not care about conformity and living the life that her parents’ imagined for her. Instead, she cares about making a mark by exploring topics she cares about. Claire flits around from art project to art project; medium to medium; boyfriend to boyfriend; passion to passion; even city to city. In many circumstances, I would categorize someone like her as flaky, immature, and indecisive. But that’s not the whole story. It’s better that Claire tries to conquer as much as she can in her life than being like her father. After all, he only really lives after he is dead.

(Image #1 courtesy of theredlist.com; #2 courtesy of malustudio2.blogspot.com; #3 courtesy of rattytime.wordpress.com; #4 courtesy of hbo.com; #5 courtesy of nevermore1408.blogspot.com)

The cat’s in the cradle and the (antique) silver spoon

“Not only were we inverts. We were inversions of one another. While I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him…he was attempting to express something feminine through me.”

-Alison Bechdel in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

A few examples of the inverted nature between Alison and her father, Bruce:

As we have previously discussed, Outside Girls often reject the ideology of their class and peers. When I think about the women I’ve written about thus far–like Lindsay, Angela, Daria, and Jessica–I think about how they also write off their parents as clueless and hopelessly unaware of what it’s like. What is “it,” you ask? Everything. In. Life.

As much as I love all these characters and the texts they come from, it’s sad that  I, as the reader, never find out whether they ever end up giving their parents the benefit of the doubt. With Fun Home, I found out. Bechdel’s memoir tells the story of her childhood growing up in a funeral home, but it is from an adult’s vantage point. Years after her coming out and her father’s suicide, Bechdel looks back and attempts to make sense of her family. This hindsight gives her a deeper understanding of the volatile, closeted Bruce and her own coming of age.

Alison and Bruce are frequently at odds with one another in the text, but there is an underlying mutual understanding and affection. Bruce recognizes Alison’s sexuality will be a site of struggle in their small town world; he’s lived with this struggle all his life. In fact, I think he knows she will be an Outside Girl before she does, and his constant criticism and insults are his way of protecting both of them. As scholar Robin Lydenberg points out, “their common struggle over gender identity puts father and daughter alternately in conflict and in cahoots.” As cruel as he can be, Bruce considers gender policing the sole way to prevent his daughter from future pain, even as it repeats patterns he must have experienced from his own parents.

Unsurprisingly, this plan does not work. It further drives apart the father and daughter and results in even more familial isolation:

As the home gets less and less fun, the Bechdels become increasingly interested in their solitary artistic pursuits. Bruce’s love of antiquing, restoring furniture and decorating is his way of curbing his desires, while Alison’s drawing is her way of surviving until she is able to leave. Likewise, her mother’s music and brothers’ respective guitar and model airplanes are the only way they are able to find pleasure in the fun(eral) home. On top of this self-induced quarantine, Alison and her family are trapped in a house that her mother describes as “a tinderbox.” Alison herself sees it as something akin to the Addams Family‘s home with its “dark, lofty ceilings, peeling wallpaper, and menacing horsehair furnishings.”

Is it any wonder that Alison chooses to walk away?*

In college, Alison finds a way to embrace her sexuality, is passionate about learning, and manages to reject the repressed, desperate parts of her childhood. And her acceptance of who she is–as something different from her family and the rest of Beech Creek, Pa.–is when she finally sees her father for who he is.

Like so many solid relationships, Bruce and Alison find a way to connect through their mutual love of literature. In fact, Alison takes a suggestion from her father to read Colette‘s autobiography. He appears to recommend it because he wants his daughter to “learn about Paris in the twenties. That whole scene,” but I’m sure the book’s lesbian presence is no coincidence. At this point, I believe Bruce accepts that Alison has chosen to live the way she wants: out of the closet and in exploration of her own sexuality and identity. As Lydenberg opines, Bechdel “is able to cross boundaries her father never dared to transgress.” Bruce recognizes that Alison’s life will be quite different from his and I think this actually gives him joy. Bruce can’t protect her from the inevitable ignorance and intolerance she will face, but he can enjoy the fact that her life as a gay women coming out in the 1970’s will be easier than his life as a gay man who dared not express himself in the 40’s and 50’s.

After her father is hit by a bread truck, Alison and her girlfriend attend his funeral in Beech Creek. As the mourners try to comfort the bereaved family, Alison thinks what she cannot say: “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here.” This is the most memorable part of the story for me. Not only does Bechdel pinpoint the raw honesty that plagues a grieving family, she highlights why she is an Outside Girl. In Beech Creek, she would suffer and could end up just like her father. But she decided to leave all of that shame and repression behind and is the happier for it. I won’t say that Bruce Bechdel was a good father. I will say that Fun Home suggests that he was miserable in his life but was relieved his daughter wouldn’t be miserable in hers. As Alison explains in the narrative’s conclusion, her father “was there to catch me when I leapt.”

*Be advised: I am not saying that Alison chose her sexuality. That is something she was born with, explored, and embraced. Alison’s choice was to extricate herself from a life and community where her sexuality  and identity would not be tolerated.

(Image #1 courtesy of funhomememoir.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of tcj.com; #3 courtesy of dykestowatchoutfor.com; #4 courtesy of cognitivedissident.org)