By Steven Foster
Psychologists and researchers often apply a matrix to films in order to measure gender equality. Places like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media use it to inform Hollywood producers and studio heads of gender bias. Hip college papers apply it religiously. The New York Times will cite it. It goes like this:
• A movie must have at least two female characters
• Those characters must have a conversation
• That conversation can be about anything—except a man.
It’s shocking how many movies fail this litmus, called The Bechdel Test, after cartoonist Alison Bechdel. Bechdel, quoting a friend of hers, spelled out the test in a few panels of her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. (In the strip, the only movie that passed this test at the time was 1979’s Alien, which is both true and hilarious, though it does assume the xenomorph wasn’t a dude.)
While no movie has been adapted (yet) from Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home, it’s interesting to apply the test to its creator’s most seminal work, now currently enjoying a touring production as a play:
• Fun Home has precisely four female characters—six if you count “Small Alison” and “Medium Alison,” depictions of the author as a child and college student.
• Two of these female characters do have a conversation.
But it’s the third criterion where things get dicey. When the female characters talk, their conversations are certainly about a man, even if he’s never named. It’s a man who haunts the play like a prevailing spirit. He’s a ghost that, until his exorcism in a book, haunted Bechdel.
Fun Home is basically the story of Bechdel’s life, sparked by a moment in college where she wrote a letter to her parents coming out as gay. This revelation prompted Alison’s mother to drop her own bombshell—that her father had been having gay affairs for years, and that she’d put up with it but was now asking for a divorce. Bechdel hoped this newly revealed common bond would, at last, connect her to her emotionally distant, sometimes tyrannical father. She shared a fateful car ride with him, hoping to bring up the elephant in the front seat at the next stoplight. Or the next. Or the next. Until finally her father hijacked the moment for himself, divulging his secret and his shame and leaving Alison still untethered.
He would take away her chance to connect with him forever when, two weeks later, he was struck and killed by a truck in an almost certain suicide.
Not exactly Wicked, is it?
The book itself wasn’t exactly easy to write, either.
“It was a long process in which I never knew what I was doing,” confesses Bechdel, in a comment sure to inspire struggling authors. Today’s murky rough draft could be tomorrow’s Book of the Year. “I felt kind of lost and frustrated the whole time. I had periods of feeling very immersed in the work and like I was on the right track. But for the most part, I felt I was flailing and just making it up as I went along.”
What she made up as she went along was a bestselling book with an almost Tennessee Williams-like setup, with a time-traveling, sexually charged, psychologically complex plot, and an almost elegiac tone. It’s not the kind of book you read and immediately think, “Musical!”
But that’s precisely what happened.
Fun Home first strikes the reader as an almost unadaptable book of memoirs, like the Cloud Atlas or, closer, The Watchmen. But when audiences experience Fun Home as a musical (which they’ll have the chance to do this month at TUTS), the of course-ness of it all comes crashing in, and you realize nothing but a musical could express it, nothing but a musical expound on its subject matter, nothing else but a musical could be it. The songs in Fun Home are soaring, but wrenching. Whimsical, yet desperately wounded. Lyrical and longing. This isn’t some regurgitation of a Disney cartoon turned into a live-action song-and-dance number, it’s an entirely different kind of theater experience.
“I don’t know how they figured that out,” Bechdel says of the play’s life and success as, of all things, a musical. “But to me, a musical completely captures that feeling of the book. I mean, it’s such a sad story. But it ends on this very hopeful, exciting note.”
She remembers when she was first invited to see it. It’s one thing to write about your life. It’s another thing entirely to see it played out before you. Was she a little nervous? More like scared.
“I was,” Bechdel admits, laughing. She’s funnier than you’d think—much more Dykes to Watch Out For than someone who’d just written the equivalent of a Eugene O’Neill comic book about her life.
“[I was scared] for a number of reasons,” she says. “First, if it was going to be bad, that would be awful. I felt everyone was looking at me to see what my reaction would be, and that was very stressful. It was hard to even have my own fun, spontaneous experience knowing how closely I was being scrutinized. But that was sort of an amazing thing about this production. They didn’t have to care about my feelings. They could have done anything with that material, but Lisa [Kron, book and lyrics] and Jeanine [Tesori, music] and Sam [Gold, director] just took great care with it in the fact that it was about these real people, and they wanted it to be true to the real story in a way that they didn’t technically need to.”
That faithfulness paid off. Big-time.
The play debuted off-Broadway at The Public before moving to Broadway and receiving the kind of reviews producers pray for. Awards followed, including five out of 12 Tonys for which the show was nominated, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. Tesori and Kron were the first female writing team to win a Tony for Best Original Score. Kron also won for Best Book, lead actor Michael Cerveris won for Best Leading Actor, and Gold won for Best Direction. The touring production isn’t slouching on its predecessor’s success either. Gold directed it himself, making the delicate transition from theater-in-the-round to the more common proscenium staging (read: The show travels well).
“I have seen a couple of the shows—in Cleveland, in San Francisco, and in Los Angeles,” Bechdel says. “I have a funny relationship to this play, you know? It’s not just that it’s my book. It’s that it’s my life, and that gives it an extra layer of meaning. I am connected to this production more than if it was just some random book that got turned into a vehicle—fiction, as opposed to real life.”
The play features a series of firsts that have earned Fun Home a place in the Broadway canon. It’s the first Broadway play to have a lesbian as its protagonist, and the first Broadway play to win a prize for a female writing team. And it’s probably the only play you’ll ever see where an 11-year-old croons a song of spiritual awakening upon seeing her first butch lesbian. It’s one of many emotionally wrenching moments, and Bechdel has her own, but we’re not going to give it away.
“It’s almost hard to talk about any of this stuff with any kind of freshness because I’ve really gotten kind of inured to it in a way,” she says. “But the first bunch of times that I experienced it, it was magical. Everything feels so much more meaningful, and these characters are bigger than life. The dramatic resolution is so powerful. The moment when the father asks the college-aged daughter to go for a ride and the college-aged daughter doesn’t really respond to him and [SPOILER]. That moment? I mean, that’s the moment in the show that hits me. It’s different than it used to be, but the first moment I saw it, I just started crying. Because that’s what I really wanted—I wanted to connect with my father.”
And that’s where Fun Home strikes its universal through-line. Gay plays are nothing new on Broadway, but the boards have been extremely lesbian-phobic, except for The Color Purple and Hedwig, both of which seem like consolation prizes. But in Fun Home, sexuality is front and center. There’s even an anthem to sexual dawning, “Changing My Major.” But Fun Home doesn’t succeed because it’s a let’s-look-at-lesbians chamber piece.
“A lot of it is . . . timing?” surmises Bechdel. “You know, when you’ve gotten, as a culture, able to hear queer people’s stories in a way that we couldn’t, even 10 or 15 years ago. People who aren’t gay or lesbian are able to see a story about a queer person, and it may be interesting to them in a way that it didn’t used to. I think the whole shift in the political landscape—of gay marriage, all that stuff—just created a very ripe moment where this story just sort of fit the bill.”
It’s a modest viewpoint, to be sure. There’s a powerful magic at work in Fun Home, an alchemy in which the play becomes a looking glass, or Rorschach of one’s own relationship with one’s parents. Where Mom and Dad aren’t simply structures or parental units but agents. Agents of hurt, of self-interest, of pity. They’re strange, and they’re strangers. They’re in your house, but they’re aliens. You’re related, but you don’t relate. Fun Home takes the tie that binds and takes up the slack, makes it rein-tight, and then, somehow, snaps it loose. It’s a tricky, fantastic bit of theater.
“I feel like maybe the people who see it are moved by it,” Bechdel demurs. “A lot of people who’d seen it would come up to me and say My family is just like that! But then they would go on to describe a very different situation. I think it was the realness of the situation, that a family secret was uncovered. So many families have these secrets or think they have these secrets, and they’re very oppressive, they’re very limiting to everyone in the family system, and there’s something very freeing about seeing secrets exploded. It’s like a cautionary tale, I guess, of what the cost of oppression is.”
Bechdel’s writing another memoir now. It’s her third. But after a second one centering on her mother, she’s decided to not focus on the family.
“Nope! I’m going to give my family a break,” she says. “It’s called The Secret to Superhuman Strength. It’s about fitness. It’s about exercise and mortality and the body.”
She’s also resurrected Dykes.
“I was very happy to be done with it for a long time, but recently, ever since the last election, I’ve really been missing that outlet. I’ve drawn a couple of recent episodes and brought a few characters out of retirement for a few Trump episodes.”
At this moment, however, Bechdel is enjoying having been named Vermont’s Cartoonist Laureate, a position she was awarded a few days before we spoke. It sounds like a cushy gig, but what do I know? I mean, it could be an honor with incredible pressure, filled with weighty moments. So I ask her: What, exactly, does a cartoonist laureate do?
“There’s not any specific duties that I’m aware of,” Bechdel confesses. “But I guess I’m going to speak up for comics as a way of telling stories.”
Maybe cartoonist laureates do that. Maybe they do something more obvious. Bechdel has an idea.
“They rest on their laurels,” she laughs.