Tag Archives: My So-Called Life

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)

All the real girls

“Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts.”

Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher

But what do the girls do with that pressure? Do they succumb to it? Ignore it completely? I only have my limited research and experience to go on, but I think most girls inhabit both sides.

If I was to boil down my high school experience in one sentence, it would be this: You are supposed to be your complete, individual self without straying too far from the crowd. And this brings me to today’s two featured Outside Girls: Angela Chase of My So-Called Life and Lindsay Weir of Freaks and Geeks. Both of these girls choose to leave behind best friends and join the alternative crowd. Both are protagonists of dearly-departed shows that lasted only one season. Both presented us with two of the best theme songs in TV history. And both are repeatedly described as real.

In MSCL‘s first episode, Angela Chase decides to dye her hair “Crimson Glow.” As her wistful voiceover tells the audience, “When Rayanne Graff told me my hair was holding me back, I had to listen. ‘Cause she wasn’t just talking about my hair, she was talking about my life.” This is the beginning of Angela straddling the line between her old family and friends and the excitement she finds with Rayanne, Rickie and her epic-leaner of a crush, Jordan Catalano. Angela’s authenticity is marked by her ill-fitting clothes, her blemishes and her allergy to geometry. But Michele Byers astutely notes that Angela’s realism is also marked by her “vacillations between her old life and her potential new ones…between the mainstream that is her birthright and the marginal worlds she is intrigued enough to visit.” Angela makes a choice to leave Sharon and her family behind, so she is an Outside Girl. But that doesn’t mean that she is entirely comfortable in either mode. A part of her will always want to cry into her mother’s arms when she is sad. And a part of her will always be unable to look at her mother “without wanting to stab her–repeatedly.” 

I think creator Paul Feig sums up Freaks and Geeks in the best possible way: “It’s about people who don’t tend to get the respect of the ‘normal’ world, who are individuals no matter how hard they try to fit in.” Like Angela, Lindsay makes a choice to break from the world of mathletes, teachers’ pets, and a thoroughly un-modern Millie. She joins the Freaks, who Terry Teachout characterizes as “slightly older underachievers who have banded together to smoke dope and sneer at the popular kids.” Teachout also points out that the popular kids aren’t exactly drawn to the Freaks, so “the rejection is mutual.”  Lindsay (like all the characters of F&G‘s world) is recognizable and real. Personally, I relate to Lindsay more than any other Outside Girl (and I feel connected to them all). This scene from the first episode is me in high school:

Like Lindsay, I would try to do what was right and almost always regretted it.*

And that is the magic of F&G. Lindsay’s break from her old life is provoked by her grandmother’s death. But as Jonathan Gray points out, Lindsay “is struggling not so much to fit in but to ‘fit out'” even though she “is not so keen to give up on her old friends; nor is she comfortable deriding them as a bunch of losers and stiffs.” Lindsay wavers between Freak and mathlete, without feeling at ease with either label. She is not a stereotype or a regular teen girl character; she is real.

I would argue that most adolescent girls go through a period when they simultaneously want to be themselves and want to be what others would like them to be. Angela Chase and (especially) Lindsay Weir are characters who travel to the outside but can’t help but look back.

*Personal Story Time: In tenth grade, my social studies yelled at a fellow student for a completely bogus reason. I approached Mr. Teacher after class and told him the student wasn’t to blame and that he had acted horribly. Mr. Teacher said I was right (!) and he was sorry. The next day in class he told me and the student (in front of all the attendees of World History) that I had stood up for the student-victim. And then the student looked humiliated and refused to acknowledge me for the rest of the week. Moral of the story: I feel your pain, Linds

(Image #1 courtesy of loqueellaescribe.com; #2 courtesy of lazygirls.info)