Happy Birthday, Alison Bechdel!
September 10th, 2021 marks the beginning of award-winning writer and cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s 61st rotation around the sun. Happy Birthday, Alison! Bechdel is most known for penning the graphic memoir Fun Home, which was later adapted into a Tony-winning Broadway Musical, and her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran for 25 year in print and was later published online. But many people who have never read her work still know her name because of a moment from the Dykes to Watch Out For strip titled “The Rule” which entered the cultural zeitgeist and went on to be known as the Bechdel Test. A measure used by cultural critics and feminist the world over to measure the amount of agency a woman character has a piece of fiction. Bechdel’s debut graphic novel, Fun Home, was published in 2006 and is about her relationship with her closeted father and her own journey with her sexuality. In 2012, she explored her relationship with her other parent, her mother, through the lense of the works of psychoanalysts Alice Miller and Donald Winnicott, Virginia Woolf, and the insights of various therapists she’s seen throughout her life in her graphic memoir Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. This year Bechdel reenters the graphic novel scene after nearly a decade away with The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
Fun Home by Allison Bechdel has had an interesting history of challenges since its publication in 2006. While graphic novels and other illustrated books are common targets for challenges in public libraries and K-12 schools, and Fun Home saw it’s fair share of challenges in those spaces as well, it has had the unique privilege of also facing multiple challenges on college and university campuses.
In 2008, a challenge to Fun Home’s inclusion in an English class was made at the University of Utah. A student in the class objected to the depictions of nudity in the novel and contacted a local group called “No More Pornography” to try to remove the book from the course. Thomas Alvord, a member of “No More Pornography” said, “It’s like they’re turning their back and pretending graphics, depiction of oral sex, are not an issue,” in response to the novel’s use at the University of Utah. The head of the English department at the University of Utah, Vincent Pecora, supported the professor’s choice to include Fun Home in their course and the student was given an alternate assignment as is the university’s policy. He said, “If we try to only choose only the novels that have a moral point of view that we agree with, we might not have a whole lot of literature to teach,” in response to the challenge. He also states that he felt the college had an obligation to teach new and inventive types of literature, like graphic novels.
The most recent complaint against Fun Home to get widespread attention was in Yucaipa, California at Crafton Hills College. Tara Schultz enrolled in a class focused on graphic novels at the college, and seeing some of the titles on the syllabus she and her parents submitted a complaint to the college administration about Fun Home and four other titles (Y: The Last Man by Brian Vaughan, The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, The Doll’s House by DC Comics, and Persepolis by Marjane’s Satrapi) because she felt the content of these titles was pornographic. Their ultimate goal was to ban these books from being taught at the college or sold in the college bookstore, but they also wanted labels or warnings to be placed on these titles if they were going to continue to be taught. The Crafton Hills College president denied the Schultz family’s request to remove the books. The college initially considered implementing trigger warnings for the books, but ultimately decided not to after accusations of censorship.
Bechdel, in an interview conducted after the graphic novel’s first challenge in 2006, was asked if she felt like the challenge to the book had anything to do with the book being illustrated. She replied, “Oh, I think it had everything to do with the fact that it was illustrated. I’m sure that library’s got all kind of gay material in it. But if they’re just regular books with no cartoon illustrations, there’s not the same concern about it”. Both these challenges in higher education and Bechdel’s own comments about the challenges to her work illustrate the power of images to elicit stronger emotional reactions than text can alone. Of course, they are also a reminder of our professional obligation to protect an author’s right to depict all aspects of the human experience, including nudity and human sexuality, without those works being labeled pornography and subject to censorship.
Tayla Cardillo is the Branch Librarian of the Oak Lawn Branch Library in Cranston, RI. Before her current position she was a YA librarian. She completed her MLIS at the University of Rhode Island and her B.A. in English at Rhode Island College. Tayla has known that she wanted to be a librarian since she was 17 years old. When not doing library wizardry, she enjoys playing tabletop games and cosplaying.