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Fun Home is only a small part of Alison Bechdel's genius

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Photo by Alice Keeney/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Fun Home had a splendid night at the Tonys on Sunday. The musical snagged Best Musical and four more awards including a history-making win for Best Score — Jeanine Tesori and playwright Lisa Kron were the first all-female team to win a Tony in that category.

The Tony wins also capped a brilliant year for Alison Bechdel, who wrote the graphic memoir of which the musical was based on.

Last September, Bechdel was named to the 2014 class of MacArthur fellows and awarded $625,000 — the foundation's so-called "genius grant." While many know Bechdel's name because of the Bechdel Test, a guide to determine if a film features even partially realized female characters, the MacArthur Foundation recognized her for "redefining" the memoir with her works Are You My Mother? and Fun Home.

"Many young people only know my name because of the test — they don't know about my comic strip or books," Bechdel wrote in 2013.

So here is a brief primer on the genius of Alison Bechdel — the brilliant woman behind Fun Home.

Who is Alison Bechdel?

Alison Bechdel is a 54-year-old cartoonist who is known for her innovative graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?, as well as the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which began in 1983 and ended in 2008. Her work explores themes of identity, sexuality, parenthood, and family life.

Bechdel is also a genius. She's one of the 21 recipients honored with "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In its citation of her work, the MacArthur Foundation said:

With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.

What are her comics like?

Bechdel's works are introspective and personal. They are examples of how graphic novels and comic books can tackle serious themes and explore complex, chewy topics.

In 2006, she published Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her turbulent relationship with her father:


(Fun Home)

Bechdel was fearless in telling her story in Fun Home. The book interweaves timelines and characters before building to a devastating emotional climax. It's as much a story of her own coming of age and coming to terms with her homosexuality as it is a story about how her father was unable to leave the closet — instead living a life as an ostensibly straight funeral home director.


(Fun Home)

Fun Home is also a smart take on how women learn to define themselves and create their identities as they grow up in a patriarchal society — and how all of that does and doesn't differ for lesbians. And on top of all of that, it's a story of coming to terms with one's homosexuality in a world where such topics aren't often discussed openly. Fun Home is Bechdel's most significant work, and it's where those who are curious about her comics should start.

New York magazine, Time, and The New York Times praised the book, and it landed on many "best of the year" lists. In April, the musical adaptation of Fun Home, by Jeanne Tesori and Lisa Kron (though hewing closely to the book), was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. The musical adapts the book's time-hopping aspects by employing three actresses as Bechdel at various ages:

In 2012, Bechdel followed up Fun Home with Are You My Mother?, a graphic memoir about her relationship with her mother, her childhood, and the creative process of writing a memoir. The book is structured around ideas of talk therapy, and approaches memories of Bechdel's mother through the process.


(Are You My Mother?)

What makes Bechdel's work so good is how she tackles sensitive and painful subjects and allows her readers to access these subjects by translating moments in her life into something visual, honest, entertaining, and even humorous.

What about Dykes to Watch Out For?

With its 25 years of history, Bechdel's comic strip can be exhausting to catch up on, but reading the strip — and understanding how revolutionary it was in terms of presenting lesbians as nuanced characters in comics — is vital to understanding Bechdel's work as a whole. A good starting point is the collection The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. Also, many of the most significant strips are collected online.

I've heard of the Bechdel Test. She made that too, right?

Yes, Bechdel has said that's how most people know her name.

To pass the Bechdel Test, a fictional work has to have at least two named women characters who have a conversation about something other than a man. It's become one of the standard ways of identifying gender bias in pop culture. Though the standards of the Bechdel Test don't sound incredibly discriminating, when the results were tabulated in July, half of the movies that had been released in 2014 failed it.

The Bechdel Test wasn't concocted in a lab or at some research society. It was inspired by a 1985 strip Bechdel wrote for Dykes to Watch Out For:


The Rule (Bechdel)

"I have always felt ambivalent about how the Test got attached to my name and went viral," Bechdel wrote on her own website in 2013, explaining that she was inspired by a friend named Liz Wallace, who may have been inspired by Virginia Woolf.

Bechdel points out that in the fifth chapter of A Room of One's Own, Woolf has revelation about women's portrayals in literature. Woolf wrote:

Now all that, of course, has had to be left out, and thus the splendid portrait of the fictitious woman is much too simple and much too monotonous. Suppose, for instance, that men were only represented in literature as the lovers of women, and were never the friends of men, soldiers, thinkers, dreamers; how few parts in the plays of Shakespeare could be allotted to them: how literature would suffer!

Bechdel has written about how she's trying to take more ownership over the test. "[I]n recent years I've been trying to embrace the phenomenon. After all, the Test is about something I have dedicated my career to: the representation of women who are subjects and not objects."

The test isn't always perfect. A movie could ostensibly pass the test and still have sexist components, and a movie with strong female characters might fail. A good example is American Hustle, which has two major female characters, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, but only passed the test because Lawrence's character and another character talk about nail polish.

What is she going to do with that MacArthur money?

Whatever she wants. The $625,000 grant is paid over five years, and there are no strings attached.