Tag Archives: Jessica Darling

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)

Oh! Darling

“At first, I did not know it was your diary. I thought it was a very sad, handwritten book.”

Brynn (Rebel Wilson) in Bridesmaids

When you were in high school, did you ever read a book and think Finally. Someone gets it.? Well, I did.  Megan McCafferty is the author of a book series (deemed–ugh I hate this term–chick lit) featuring protagonist/narrator Jessica Darling. Or as her father nicknamed her, Notso. As in Jessica-not-so-darling. Throughout the five novels about Jess, the reader experiences her evolution from annoyed, angst-ridden high school student to successful twenty-something. Since Jess tells her story through diary entries in Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, I had the amazing experience to feel Jess’s anger, frustration and rare joy right along with her. And her life–during high school, at least–was a series of acid-tongued observations from the outside.

Like many of the Outside Girls, Jess’s story begins with her being separated from her best friend, Hope. After her brother ODs, Hope’s family decides to start over in another community. Unsurprisingly, Jess is crushed. As she explains in Sloppy Firsts,  “I told my parents not to even dare throwing me a Sweet Sixteen party. The very thought of ice-cream cake and pink crepe paper makes me want to hurl. Not to mention the fact that I can’t even imagine who would be on the guest list since I hate all of my other friends. I know my parents think I’m being ridiculous. But if the one person I want to be there can’t be there, I’d rather just stay home. And mope. Or sleep.”

This is not an admission that you are likely to witness in many teen-themed narratives. Jess is supposed to want to go to  parties, make other friends, and enjoy what is left of high school. Instead, she would rather be miserable and alone than be miserable and forced to socialize. I think the reason we can understand Jess’s intentional distance from her other friends and her biting opinions about them is because we see from her vantage point.  For example, take this selection of Jess’s peers and her predictions about them:

Scotty Glazer: from Most Athletic to Most Middle-Aged Yet Totally Immature

Bridget Milhokovich: from Best Looking to Best Bet She’ll Peak Too Soon

Manda Powers: from Biggest Flirt to Most Likely to End Up on Jerry Springer

Sara D’Abruzzi: from Class Motormouth to Future Double Agent Who Would Betray Her Country for Liposuction

Reading Jess’s thoughts about her classmates’ future allows us to be much more empathetic than we would be hearing those words aloud. She would just sound bitter and cruel. But reading her diary means gaining access to her thoughts, perceptions and reactions. Since we have only Jess’s writing to go on, we see Scotty as a jock wasting his brain and Bridget, Manda, and Sara as a highlighted/lip glossed trio straight out of hell. Jess’s writing allows us to relate to her motivation as an Outside Girl and shows her in a sympathetic light (even when she is at her most volatile).

And this is not out of the norm. While analyzing the writing patterns of students in their book Fashioning the Feminine: Girls, Popular Culture and Schooling, Pam Gilbert and Sandra Taylor found that “female writers more frequently assigned emotional states to their characters,” while male writers were defined by their verbally/physically abusive characters. One could argue that McCafferty’s books are not action-packed. And that’s not inaccurate. But it is also what makes them unique and interesting. As much as I love to see Veronica Mars and the upcoming Buffy Summers explore their outside status while kicking ass, it is also nice to encounter a more internalized story. The action in the books are our proximity to Jess’s emotions and observations of the world around her. The reader doesn’t get to inhabit Scotty, Bridget, Manda, or Sara’s head. We have to trust Jess and her version of the story. But that means we also can understand every decision that she makes.

(Image #1 courtesy of gaudyalternative.blogspot.com; #2 courtesy of ellabeereads.blogspot.com; #3 kariannalysis.com)