“Fun Home” Is Bringing Butch Lesbians Into The Mainstream
The popular success of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir turned musical is a pivotal — and bittersweet — moment for lesbian culture.
I read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home for the first time after my girlfriend gave it to me.
Here, you’ll love this. I know you will.
But my discovery could just as easily have been the result of some late night googling of “lesbian books” as a curious teenager tired of boy-induced heartache; it could have involved scouring into the carefully curated gay section of an independent bookstore; it could have been a gift from a mentor, or a friend. Whatever the case, finding Fun Home — for me, for so many of the other queer women I know — has been intentional. Almost ceremoniously so. The intentions have either been our own, or those of other queers who knew us and loved us. Fun Home is something sought; something bestowed; something tended; something really fucking special.
At the time it was first published in 2006, the book deservedly won a slew of awards and topped best-seller lists. Despite its literary success, and a readership that has expanded far wider than the typical indie queer comic, I always considered it first and foremost a story by, for, and about queers. It belonged to us.
Earlier this month, at the Tony Awards ceremony, Fun Home’s Broadway adaptation scored five awards, including the coveted Best Musical, but I still hadn’t seen the show yet — not in its earlier iteration at The Public or during its current run at Circle in the Square. Fun Home the musical is the story of Bechdel drawing Fun Home the book; the oldest of three Alison characters spends much of the hundred-minute show pacing around her desk, or watching from the wings, as her memories incarnate surround her in song. Now, bathed in Tonys success, Bechdel’s personal reckonings of her childhood — as Beth Malone playing oldest Alison summarizes, “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town / and he was gay and I was gay / and he killed himself / and I became a lesbian cartoonist” — are being seen, and heard, and felt, and loved, by more people than we ever could have imagined.
This is what I’ve long since advocated for, personally and professionally — center-stage LGBT representation in popular media that defies tired tropes. Better yet, Fun Home features a lesbian protagonist who isn’t limited to her coming out narrative; overall, the show (like its source material) is about Bechdel’s fraught relationship with her father. It’s about memory, and loss, and connection, and growing up.
But even as I brimmed with joy in the days after the Tonys, thrilled that this gorgeous story is being celebrated and seen, a small part of me wondered if throwing a beloved piece of queer culture into the mainstream would cheapen it somehow.
I thought about this especially after reading an interview with Bechdel, when she put words to what had been my unnameable worry. “I feel wistful for the sense of being special,” she told the New York Times last month. “When gay people were rejected, there was this camaraderie and this sense of community that I don’t feel anymore. I miss that.”
She added that, despite her wistfulness, she would never want to “go back politically,” of course — who would? Countrywide support is at an all-time high, and will surely continue to climb in light of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of marriage equality; it’s a good time in American history to be queer (all the more reason to be focusing contemporary LGBT efforts on uplifting transgender people, particularly trans women of color).
Even still — as we hurtle toward mainstream acceptance, what does queer culture stand to lose?
Though it’s an enormous question, when it comes to this one particular piece of queer culture, all I could do was see for myself.
On a Thursday night, I milled outside Circle in the Square with a sippy cup of chardonnay from the theater’s bar. There were, as expected, plenty of queer people in attendance: cosmopolitan New Yorkers; high school students with bad baby gay haircuts; old couples who walked to their seats leaning close, as if one half couldn’t stand without the other. But there were, as expected, plenty of other people too: the Broadway die-hards, swapping stories of past shows; tourists; parents and their children. Everyone excited. Everyone with something different to be excited for.
From the first few moments of the show, Beth Malone as oldest Alison, leaning against her drawing desk with pen in hand, left me breathless. Her performance of butch lesbianism is a triumph. Mainstream representations of masculine women are rare enough, let alone on Broadway (is there anyone else besides that one-liner punchline of a dyke in The Producers?). Whenever butch lesbians do come along, they’re often lacking — like Melora Hardin’s Tammy from the otherwise outstanding Amazon series Transparent, whose forced macho swagger always managed to make me uncomfortable. Malone’s butchness, on the contrary, was remarkable. The wide stance, the loose shoulders, the pitching slightly forward as she walked, the ease with which she wore the standby lesbian uniform of a T-shirt and loose-fitting jeans — I saw in her every movement the motions of the masculine women I’ve loved, who occupy space unthinkingly, taking up room, all strong and gentle limbs.
Beyond the beauty in the way Malone uses her body is the way she uses dry humor to do due diligence to Bechdel’s “family tragicomic” — a paradoxical categorization that the show tackles with grace. There’s hilarity in middle Alison singing that she’s “changing her major to sex with Joan,” the first woman she’s ever slept with; and then there’s heartache when, after her professed sexual awakening, her mother refuses to come to the phone when she calls home from college.
I saw myself in middle Alison’s tumultuous joys and sadnesses. As she romped around her room in tighty-whities, trying not to wake the girl asleep in her bed (“who needs dignity / 'cause this so much better”), I remembered with embarrassing clarity the high that accompanies that first threefold realization: a) sex is the best, b) sex with women is the best, and c) holy cow, I am SO gay, how could I possibly not have figured this out earlier?
It was sort of an extraordinary thing, to be an audience member of a renowned cultural phenomenon without having to suspend my own disbelief for once. I’ve been able to disregard hundreds of characters’ compulsive heterosexuality since I was little. Of course, whenever straight audiences are asked to identify with queer characters, they tend to find that they can do the exact same thing — queer needn’t be an impenetrable niche, no matter what nameless big-shot studio execs and literary editors might fear. As everyone crowding inside the theater listened with alternately swelling and breaking hearts all around me, their reactions affirmed that more and more creative decision-makers will continue greenlighting queer stories for the mainstream, because (obviously, banally, radically) queers are relatable, too. And for those of us starved for stories that reflect our own lives at our best and at our messiest, that’s plenty worth celebrating.
And yet, I still find that affirmation bittersweet.
One of oldest Alison’s most well-received lines is “Caption: My dad and I were everything alike / Caption: My dad and I were nothing alike.” It’s the show’s heartbeat. Both Alison and her dad are gay, though she will go on to thrive as a lesbian after he dies half-closeted and alone.
I can’t help but think of queer people and straight people falling into this binary too. We’re everything alike (plain old human beings) and nothing alike (too many examples to possibly name). Sometimes I feel like straight people are aliens. But of course, I adore a ton of them to the ends of the Earth and back — my aunts and uncles, my siblings, some of my best friends.
When I left the show, borne on a sea of rave review chatter up the escalator and out into the balmy summer night, I started messaging with an old friend from high school who works in theater about Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s astounding book and score. I didn’t mention that I was intermittently tearing up while standing alone on a busy block in Midtown Manhattan.
“Can you hear my heart saying hi?” she quoted to me with a smiley emoji. It’s a line from “Ring of Keys,” in which little Alison sees an old school butch at a luncheonette and feels a burst of connection with, and a longing to be, that kind of woman — one who “seem[s] OK with being strong.” It’s a song about desire. It’s a song about queerness that isn’t about sex, but about presentation, fulfillment, identification. Taking up room.
I wondered how my friend, a straight woman, thought about that line, and how it must mean something so different to her than it does to me. Had she ever seen queer desire in a child laid so bare before? Had I?
As I made my way to the subway, she messaged me her praises of the show: “Everyone can find something to relate to, gay or straight. It's about family and finding yourself and coming to terms with life. The Alisons of the world hopefully aren’t so mysterious after a show like this.”
I admitted to her that, in a way, I worry about that mystery disappearing. It’s such a bizarre worry: Of course I want to feel known, understood, and loved by broader culture; of course I want queerness demystified, inasmuch as that demystification would curb instances of intolerance and persecution against LGBT people. So why is the prospect of being perfectly and easily relatable to straight people making me feel as if I’m about to lose something important?
Maybe we need to lose a little to gain a whole lot more. The cost of equal recognition under the law, equal access to jobs and healthcare, and equal respect in our classrooms and boardrooms might just mean we’re a little less of a secret underground club, with all the cultural clout that affords. Fun Home probably shouldn’t belong to queer people alone, any more than it should belong to people who grew up in funeral homes. But queerness will always be its central, resounding tenant. That matters.
In the last song of the show, “Flying Away,” all three Alisons harmonize together, expressing their wants through the dizzying prism of change and memory. Little Alison wants to play airplane. Middle Alison, newly out in the world beyond rural Pennsylvania, wants to soar into her new life. Oldest Alison, looking back and through both of them, wants transcendence. It’s a refrain that every character in the family has cycled through, in one song or another: “I want, I want, I want.” Fun Home is about yearning. I can’t think of anything more human than that.
While sorting through my own messy wants, I’m trying to convince myself that straight people loving queer cultural touchstones like Fun Home doesn’t mean I’m forced to love them any less.
“I bet we watched very different shows,” my friend said. “And that’s the coolest part.”
We just love those touchstones differently, is all.