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Duke's Fun Home controversy, explained

Alison Bechdel on the opening night of the Broadway adaptation of Fun Home.
Alison Bechdel on the opening night of the Broadway adaptation of Fun Home.
Walter McBride/Getty Images

Duke University, like many colleges, recommends that all incoming freshmen read the same book over the summer before they arrive. This year's choice was Fun Home, an acclaimed 2006 graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a memoir about Bechdel's family that deals with, among other subjects, her sexual orientation as well as that of her father, a closeted funeral home director. It was released to lavish praise from critics and was recently adapted into an award-winning musical.

Brian Grasso, an incoming freshman, wrote a Facebook post about why he wouldn't read it. He said that as a Christian, he objected to the book's visual depiction of sexuality. He expanded on his opinions in the Washington Post, with a post headlined "I’m a Duke freshman. Here’s why I refused to read 'Fun Home'":

After researching the book’s content and reading a portion of it, I chose to opt out of the assignment. My choice had nothing to do with the ideas presented. I’m not opposed to reading memoirs written by LGBTQ individuals or stories containing suicide. I’m not even opposed to reading Freud, Marx or Darwin. I know that I’ll have to grapple with ideas I don’t agree with, even ideas that I find immoral.

But in the Bible, Jesus forbids his followers from exposing themselves to anything pornographic.

Whether Grasso wants to read Fun Home really doesn't matter very much. The reading is recommended, not required. Students aren't graded on whether they complete it.

But his post struck a nerve because it played into a preexisting narrative that college students are hypersensitive. And it kicked off a national controversy that touches on campus censorship and the definition of pornography.

Fun Home isn't pornography

In Grasso's 700-word op-ed about why he isn't reading Fun Home, he spends 43 words explaining what he thinks the book is about. He says he chose not to read the book because it is, in his mind, pornography:

My first challenge came well before I arrived on campus, when I learned that all first years were assigned "Fun Home," a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. The book includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex.

Grasso gets a major fact wrong right off the bat. Fun Home is a memoir, not a novel. The book is about Bechdel, a well-known American cartoonist, tracing her childhood and her relationship with her closeted father. The first page of Fun Home is about Bechdel's father, a memory of her and him playing "airplane":

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

Grasso explains he "read a portion of it" and "researched the book's content," but it's unclear why he calls it a novel. And yes, it seems pedantic to squabble over Grasso's word choice, but there's a gulf of difference between a memoir (real experiences) and a novel (fiction) — just like there is a difference between pornography and what Bechdel is doing in Fun Home. And we're trusting Grasso to recognize the difference between the two.

Reducing Fun Home to pornography is a bit disingenuous. Grasso isn't wrong that there are depictions of oral sex between two women and of masturbation. But those scenes are four pages in a 240-page book. And calling these scenes pages is being kind. The masturbation Grasso describes takes up one panel (roughly a third of a page) in the book:

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

And here is the more gratuitous depiction (of the book's one and half scenes) of oral sex:

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

Bechdel is depicting her sexual awakening in these panels. If you look hard enough, I suppose you could insinuate this is pornography meant to excite. But Bechdel's semi-comedic narrative ("In true heroic fashion, I moved toward the thing I feared") is about the insecurity of coming to terms with her own sexuality and making peace with it. The following panel is a tender, dark, and hilarious moment where Bechdel compares her lover to Polyphemus, the cyclops in Homer's Odyssey, and admits dreading going home:

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

Bechdel is showing a human side to this relationship. It's not nudity for the sake of being nude — it's an intimate moment. The sex isn't the destination of this memory; it's just one part of Bechdel's bigger story. Taking these panels and making them the thrust of Fun Home is like taking three notes of a song and making a judgment on an opera. It's not a fair way to look at the book.

What Fun Home is really about

Last September, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Bechdel one of its $625,000 Genius Grants for "redefining paradigms" in memoir writing. Ultimately, the foundation believes Bechdel has found a way to present a traditional piece of art in a bold new way. This art is a retelling of Bechdel's life, and it requires her to be a storyteller, a visual artist, and, in some ways, a journalist or record-keeper.

Fun Home is the epitome of Bechdel's genius.

"It is a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own," Sean Wilsey wrote in his New York Times review of Fun Home. "Then there are the actual words … Fun Home quietly succeeds in telling a story, not only through well-crafted images but through words that are equally revealing and well chosen."

Bechdel's art and words tell the story of her hairy relationship with her father, a gay man who lived his life in the closet. There are periods of frustration and disconnect, and then a begrudging mutual understanding. And throughout the book there are moments that hit you right in the soul, but also use the form of a cartoon to change the way you read and imagine these patches of Bechdel's life:

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

This page, where Bechdel is dancing around and trying to come out to her father, could have been written as straight dialogue, but there's something richer in presenting it in sequential panels — the way your eyes are drawn to each square and the space in each square; the way your brain processes the small differences in the eighth and ninth panels; the subtle differences in the ways Bechdel draws herself; the negative space in the ninth panel; etc. — that changes the way you read this.

Bechdel also plays with the way we think about comic book art. When you see cartoons, there's a sense that you're approaching them with an implicit acknowledgment of fiction and distance. Reading a comic book about a human is very different from looking at a photograph of a human. Bechdel's memoir, of course, isn't a fictional story, and that grounds the art with emotion. What she also does is draw in archival elements like newspaper clippings, journals, and textbook pages from her life into the comic:

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

It's a jarring reminder of reality that adds texture to her story and to her art.

In 2013, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori adapted Fun Home into a musical, which went on to become a Pulitzer finalist in 2014 and won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015. It's proof that Bechdel's story transcends form. And there's magic in seeing what Bechdel drew and wrote translated into a live performance.

The musical took panels that Bechdel drew, like this one, where she sees and identifies with a queer woman at a diner…

(Alison Bechdel/Fun Home)

… and turned them into a powerful song and performance called "Ring of Keys":

The moment is as brutal as it is beautiful. Bechdel finally sees someone like her, and there's a joy when she realizes she's not alone in this world. It's a kindred soul who sustains her. But it's also a father's realization that his daughter might end up following in his footsteps, living a life that's more difficult because she's different.

It's hard to see how you could take this moment, and Bechdel's work as whole, and call it porn.

The controversy fits into arguments about censorship on campus

When a university picks one book for all its students to read, it puts its imprimatur on it. And that's led to persistent criticism, mostly from conservative groups, about the kinds of books they're choosing.

The biggest summer reading controversy was at the University of North Carolina, which in 2002 assigned a partial translation of the Quran, Approaching the Qur'án: The Early Revelations. UNC required students to write a one-page reflection on the reading or, if they chose not to read it, to write one page explaining why. Amid a conservative media outcry, one group sued UNC, arguing that it was trying to convert students to Islam.

The fight about Fun Home is tame by contrast. Despite reports that there are "widespread" protests by Duke freshmen about the book, it's hard to tell if that's true. The Duke Facebook group where the conversation started is closed. An August 21 story in the Duke Chronicle, the student newspaper, described "several" freshmen as refusing to read Fun Home and quoted three of them, including Grasso.

That's out of a class of more than 1,700. Meanwhile, Bechdel spoke to a "packed house" of students at the performing arts center on Thursday, according to two Duke professors who wrote to the student paper in response to its article on the students who boycotted.

So the debate over Fun Home doesn't appear to have consumed the Duke campus. But it does show how a minor story can spread quickly when it plays into preexisting narratives — and how Grasso's objections played into a bigger conversation that's been going on about whether college students are too sensitive.

Grasso argued that he shouldn't have to look at its images of sexuality, that Duke should respect that choice, and they should warn him in order to make it easier for him to avoid those images.

"I assume that having to view graphic images of sex for a class will be rare," Grasso wrote. "If it does happen, I will avoid any titillating content and encourage like-minded students to do the same. And I believe professors should warn me about such material, not because I might consider them offensive or discomforting, but because I consider it immoral."

If Grasso were writing as a liberal student concerned about social justice, rather than a Christian student concerned about values, there would be a widely applied, often criticized name for what he's asking for — a trigger warning.

Trigger warnings, which are meant to tell students about the contents of their reading in case it could harm their mental health, have been held up as an example of how liberal students are interfering with academic freedom.

Very few colleges, if any, have a widespread policy of using trigger warnings, but that hasn't stopped them from becoming part of a broader debate about free speech on campus. This fits in with anecdotes about student protests over colleges' choices of commencement speakers and professors who are "terrified" that their liberal students will file a complaint and put them out of a job.

A common theme of these stories is that students don't want to be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable. The Atlantic recently published a double-header of this genre, arguing that college campuses are ruining comedy and that excessive concern for students' feelings is actually destroying students' mental health.

Usually, it's liberal students who are blamed for what's criticized as excessive sensitivity to racism, misogyny, and insensitivity toward LGBTQ people. But the fight over Fun Home highlights that what's considered "political correctness," and what's considered a principled stand, often depends on whether you agree that the students' concerns are legitimate.

That's why the Duke fight has been so widespread: not because the campus controversy was really all-consuming, but because it addressed a sense that complaints about students' sensitivities are selectively applied.

Read more: Why so many Christians blame pornography for other sins like adultery