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alison bechdel: a review

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Alison Bechdel is perhaps best known for inadvertently creating a gender bias test for films which has spread rapidly since the Internet has given it leverage. This test, which has been taken up as a classification system in Sweden for ensuring gender equality in films, posits that a film is only successful when it passes three basic tests: the first, that there have to be at least two named women; the second, that these women must talk to each other; and the third, is that they must talk about something besides a man. This test was first put forth in Bechdel’s influential comic strip Dykes to Watch out For, which ran for over thirty years and was one of the first representations of lesbians in popular culture.

However, hearing Bechdel speak at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne, she addressed the Bechdel Test first, dispelling some popular myths regarding its popularity. It first appeared in Dykes to Watch out For in 1985, and, according to Bechdel, was promptly forgotten about. It was not until, ‘there was an internet’ that the test became popular and widely recognised as a legitimate form of film classification. Bechdel stated that she was originally sceptical about the test, and avoided talking about it, but has come to embrace it as the years have gone on. She also dispelled the idea that it was she who invented the test (‘I’m narcissistic, but not THAT narcissistic,’ she stated); instead crediting it to a friend, Liz Wallace, who in turn credits it to another friend. Bechdel also pointed out to the audience ‘Stigler’s law of eponymy’, which states that ‘no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer’. When looking up examples of the law on Wikipedia, the Bechdel Test sits right at the top of the ‘B’ category.

That was all that was addressed regarding the Bechdel test; which was refreshing given that Bechdel’s back catalogue of work is so much more than just this rule. She addressed the politically charged nature of the comic strip Dykes to Watch out For, and how her disillusionment with American politics in the 1980s through to the 2000s was woven seamlessly through the comic. She also described her original intention behind the comic, stating that she did not see representation of people who looked like her in popular media and entertainment forms, and took it upon herself to represent herself and her friends through this comic. She also justified the her use of comic or graphic narrative form, showing the audience numerous rejection letters for both art school and short story submissions which prompted her to combine the two.

Following a discussion of Dykes, Bechdel spoke of her graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Written about her childhood, Fun Home touches on what it was like growing up in a funeral home, her relationship with her bisexual father and how it related to her coming out as a lesbian, as well as her childhood compulsions of documentation, early obsession with comics and attempts to understand them. Fun Home is a brilliant read, and I highly recommend it to anybody who hasn’t read it, but be warned that it is, at times, quite disturbing. At the same time, the accomplishment of the book is incredible.

This accomplishment and mastery of the graphic form is something which Bechdel briefly discussed, showing the audience how she composes and compiles a memoir. Through a combination of drawings on tracing paper scanned into the computer, she manipulates the images through Adobe Photoshop, adds colour, text and outlines, and also fills in the sketches with another layer of drawing which is placed on top of the initial sketch after having been scanned into the computer as well. It’s a meticulous process, and one which has undeniably been mastered by Bechdel for many years. Typical to her modesty, the process was not dwelt upon for long, despite how fascinating it is.

She concluded by speaking to her second graphic memoir, entitled Are You My Mother? Where Fun Home grapples with her relationship with her father, Are You My Mother? deals with her fraught yet funny and complex relationship with her mother, as seen through the lens of psychoanalysis and literary references (particularly references to various works of Virginia Woolf). Again, Bechdel allowed the audience a glimpse into the creative process of the compilation of this work, showing the photos that she had taken in order to copy, sketch and translate into the book, as well as concluding her talk with an excerpt from the first chapter.

Bechdel’s talk was fantastic. It allowed audiences to see just how talented, funny, wise and deeply intelligent she truly is, as well as giving a remarkable insight into her work and her philosophies when it comes to her work. One quote which particularly stands out in my mind is her view on comics: ‘language is unreliable and appearances are deceiving…maybe you can triangulate between them and get to the truth.’

Bechdel was incredibly generous with her time, signing books afterwards for a line of fans which was out the door (yes, I did get my book signed, and no, I could not contain my excitement about this fact). The experience of seeing her speak was something I’m unlikely to forget.

2 thoughts on “alison bechdel: a review

  1. I saw Bechdel at Adelaide Writers’ Week, and I thought she was great! Thanks for giving some background on her work Ally, I really need to pick up one of her graphic novels.

  2. Pingback: Sunday feminist roundup (16th March 2014)

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