In a 1985 strip from Bechdel's long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For one of her characters says she'll only watch a movie if it has at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. This was termed the "Bechdel test," and it's still frequently used to evaluate whether a movie is really concerned with women's lives (many popular movies fail). Bechdel's public profile rose further in 2006 with the publication of Fun Home, which told the story of her father's life as a closeted gay man, and his eventual suicide. Her new memoir Are You My Mother? came out this week.
The term "Bechdel test" was inspired by a comic you wrote in 1985 — have you seen any improvement in representations of women in pop culture since then?
Things have definitely gotten better, but not as much as one would've hoped.
It was this radical lesbian idea a generation ago, but now it's crept into the mainstream. I'm proud to have my name associated with it. It's about trying to create women who are full-fledged subjects in a way that men have always gotten to be. And there are people now who are doing that. Lena Dunham's stuff [Girls] is great — I'm loving that show.
You anticipated my next question — what are your thoughts on Girls?
I'd been hearing about Lena Dunham for a while, because we went to the same college. But I just saw Tiny Furniture, and was blown away by it. It was just so smart and funny. She has her mother and sister in it — that was hilarious. I love how incredibly brave she is, how she just shows her naked self. In the movie, and in the two episodes I've seen of the show, she shows herself having sex, always in this very unflattering light that women have never done before. Women have never been able to do that and also be the hero.
What do you think of the criticisms that the show isn't racially diverse?
I guess that's true. But that's another hurdle, another struggle.
How did you decide to write about your family?
It took me a very, very long time to face the fact that I was going to tell that story about my dad [in Fun Home]. I'd wanted to tell it since I was 20 and I didn't start working on it until I was 40. It was impossible to tell the story when I was younger for many reasons — not just because I didn't have the skills, but because I would be revealing these big family secrets about my father's sexuality, his suicide. But then the culture changed enough that these things weren't so taboo. And I could approach my family and see if they were okay with it. They thought I was crazy, but they said yes.
I didn't feel like i had to give them the same kind of warning with [Are You My Mother?]. I didn't feel like my brothers were involved to the extent that they were in Fun Home.
When you do write about your relatives, how do you choose what is and isn't okay to write about?
I don't tell everything. There are things in this book about my mom that I don't reveal just out of normal respect. Although it's hard to talk about normal respect since I'm not really normal and not really respectful in a lot of ways.
My mother saw the book when I was working on it, and I did make some small changes she asked for. I also ran it by my ex-girlfriend Eloise, who I talk about in the book.
Did you ever feel you were taken less seriously as a female memoirist, or as a gay memoirist?
I have not felt that, but I've been working for thirty years now as a cartoonist, and for most of that time I was very much off in the shadows doing my little subcultural comic strip [Dykes to Watch Out For] about lesbians. I was never part of the mainstream comics scene or even the alternative comics scene. I sort of got involved a little in underground gay and women's comics, but mostly I lived in a parallel world of queer publishing and small presses. I thought consciously at the time that I was trying to create a reflection of myself in the culture, trying to create images of myself and my friends, because I didn't see them anywhere else. Many other people were part of that struggle, and this really profound cultural change happened. It became possible to tell very queer stories to a bigger audience.
I had no idea that Fun Home would cross over the way it did. I kind of just imagined I was writing for my Dykes to Watch Out For audience, but it has found this much wider audience.
What women in comics should we be paying attention to right now?
What are you watching on TV?
I have this crazy addiction to Sex and the City. I've pretty much watched every episode 27 times. I watch it in a loop.
What do you like about it?
It's about relationships, which of course are always fascinating, but it's so ridiculous and extreme that I can not take it seriously, and I can kind of just relax and watch.