Alison Bechdel, cartoonist and creator of the Bechdel Test. Photo: Elena Siebert
In her groundbreaking comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, American cartoonist Alison Bechdel saw her work as a way to make queer life more visible to everyone - including the LGBT community itself. Over 25 years, she charted the lives of a core group of lesbians and their engagement with the changing landscape of America’s political and social activism. Frequently hilarious, the comic strip is a triumph of modern pop cultural anthropology.
In addition to DTWOF, Bechdel’s major works have been the award winning Fun Home and the New York Times bestseller Are You My Mother? Bechdel’s work is bold, brave and utterly compelling - but she is perhaps best known for unknowingly inspiring ‘The Bechdel Test’, a measurement of feminist critique by which movies can be loosely judged in accordance with their inclusivity to women. That is, in order to pass the test, a movie must fulfil the following three criteria:
1. It must contain at least two women
Cover for 'Dykes to Watch Out For'.
2. They must talk to each other
3. The conversation must be about something other than a man.
Alison chats to Daily Life ahead of her appearance at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne and the All about Women Festival in Sydney this month.
Cover of 'Fun House'.
You can count a huge number of young feminists and lesbians among your fanbase. How much of an ongoing generational effect has your comic strip had?
It always surprises me to hear this, because it feel like ancient history to me and a little dated [laughs]. But the strip seems to have resonated with lots of women. I have contemporaries who approach me to discuss it, but then there are younger women too which is always very touching. When it started, it was just a handful of lesbians and a couple of gay men who would read it, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own now.
Comic strips from Dykes to Watch Out For.
I think one of the inspiring things about the Dykes was that they were so uncompromising in their politics. Do you feel that a cynicism and self-consciousness has infected political activism these days, or is it merely a different expression of rage?
I don't think there's a cynicism so much as it's just different. It's too easy to say that this generation isn't interested or has given up. Much more likely is the fact that they're just expressing their activism in different places or different ways.
Thank you! I always get really frustrated when I hear people argue that younger generations – particularly women – aren't interested in feminism any more. They are, you're just not looking in the right places.
[Laughs] Generations need to push back on each other, so in a way it's not surprising. But just because people aren't doing things that you can see or understand, doesn't mean they're not happening.
The South Carolina Legislature very recently withdrew $52,000 from the summer reading budget for the College of Charleston for including your autobiographical work, Fun Home, on their summer reading list. It was said the book "didn't merit scholarly consideration" because it "graphically shows lesbian acts". Does it ever feel frustrating, like, “didn't we solve this already?”
It was interesting. Because although I was very upset by that decision, it also wouldn't be happening if Fun Home weren't being included on reading lists. And I think that's incredible. The College of Charleston has been hugely supportive of the book. I think that vote might be getting overturned. But yes ... it does feel like we've been here before.
I read the Dykes collection in a matter of days, but you wrote them over three decades. How has it been saying goodbye to them. Do you ever check in with them in your head or are they, as Virginia Woolf might have said, "Laid in your mind"?
You know, I don't ever really talk about them or make up stories about where they are now. You have to remember that I did the strip for 25 years and it can be quite an exhausting process. It's a huge responsibility week after week and in the end I think I was just tired. I had other things that I I wanted to write. But I don't know that those characters are completely laid to rest in my mind. I've been thinking about them more lately, and thinking there might be scope for some kind of follow up. A short story perhaps, or even an animated series.
You've brought so many different characters into the world, but one is elusive. Is Are You My Mother? really about you seeking to understand a woman you can't quite capture, your mother. She has since passed away, but do you feel like you've resolved that in your mind?
I do. You know, I was very glad that she was able to read the book once it was finished because she was sick for most of the time I was writing it and I didn't know at first. When it became clear that she would be around to read the finished product, I was very glad. I think I would have felt differently about it if she hadn't been able to read it or if she hadn't been alive while I was writing it. It would have been a very different book. When I wroteFun Home, my father had died 20 years earlier so in a way I had a lot of distance to write it from. I also think the death of a parent changes the way you feel about them. I'm glad she was able to read it.
Are You My Mother? juxtaposes the creative woman your mother Helen once was – an actress, poet – with the mother and wife she becomes. She says she wanted to become the latter, but do you think there was scope for her to have been something more?
It's difficult. She was from a particular generation and it was much harder to combine those things. Women wrestled with expectations and limitations. But, you know, maybe she also wasn't destined to be a writer. Maybe she didn't really want it? Maybe that was her character flaw the way that my father's flaw was to hide everything.
Like how your father responded to Stonewall?
Stonewall really was the thing that forced my father's life to crumble around him. He realised that he'd never be able to live the kind of life he wanted to.
Has your father crystallised or disappeared for you since you wrote Fun Home?
To an extent, writing memoir always crystallises your family experiences. So writing that book crystallised him for me in the process of it, but I feel like the actual writing about your life is a little like taking certain things and putting them in a box. You take things from inside of you and you cast them outside; I have actually lost memories because I put them outside of me on the page. So it's hard to know what's actually real and what has become real to me. But I think I'm OK with that.
I can't finish without mentioning the Bechdel test, although I'm almost certain it's a question you dread now. It has become a benchmark for pop culture feminist film criticism. How do you feel about it now?
I'm actually very proud that this little thing has gone on, although of course it wasn't actually my idea. It actually came from Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own and it was boiled down to three bullet points. I'm glad to see that pop culture is embracing these kinds of ideas now.
Alison is in Melbourne for the Wheeler Centre on March 5. Bookings at wheelercentre.com. Alison will be introduced by Clementine Ford.
She will also appear in All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on 30 March 2014. See booking details here.