Monday, September 22, 2014

Bechdel Family Home: Mirror and Mask

In Fun Home, many of the scenes are set in Bechdel’s antique family home. But rather than the scenes representing family life, they often focus solely on her father. She later finds out that her father was gay. Bechdel grew up in the 70’s, a time when social norms restricted her father from showing his true identity. Bechdel’s father uses the home as a mirror for the person he truly is, as well as a mask of the person he wishes he was: an All-American father, loyal husband, and a strong man. He struggles with who he is and who he feels he must be, giving him a complex identity. The Bechdel family home is the manicured, fancy, and exaggerated look into the inner workings of the author’s struggling father, while also representing the ideal family man he pretends to be.
Since her father hides his sexual identity, he often reflects his personality onto their family home. He becomes obsessed with the perfect restoration of the house and its surroundings. The first adjective used to describe such renovation is “monomaniacal,” meaning to be preoccupied with a single idea in an otherwise sound mind. Rather than the single idea literally meaning the decoration of the house, it is instead meant to represent the single idea of his sexual identity, the true idea that affects him. The house itself is over the top and extravagant, adjectives that could also be used to describe her father. Bechdel states, “I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” The specific way she describes the furniture as “his” rather than “the” furniture shows the deep bond he forges between himself and material things in the home. The image following this line includes a young Bechdel holding an ornate mirror against floral wallpaper in front of her father as he tells her to hold it higher. The picture shows her father literally looking at his reflection hanging on the wall, as he projects his hidden extravagant self onto the home.
In one caption, Bechdel complains that things in her home “obscured function. They were embellishments in the worst sense. They were lies.” It parallels the fact that her father is lying about who he is while embellishing to the world the lies that he has gone to great lengths to protect. The accompanying image shows an unamused Bechdel polishing an old-fashioned lamp, as a silhouette of her father is seen in the background. Bechdel’s arms encompass him as if she is polishing him at the same time as the crystal light.  It shows that the truths of her father’s identity are buried in the lies of the family he wears as a mask. Her father “used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”
While Bechdel’s father uses the home to convey who he truly is, there is also a juxtaposition as he is trying to make himself into the idea of a “home” in all meanings of the word. A home represents family and comfort, two things that Bechdel’s father never truly has due to his sexuality and his abuse as a child. The fact that he is gay, yet a married man creates an internal struggle (causing external physical violence). He wants to change himself so that he is as perfect as the home he creates. He portrays who he is internally onto the home, while he tries to change himself to be more like the home. The most obvious proof is the inclusion of the sentence: “His shame inhabited our house as pervasively and invisibly as the aromatic musk of aging mahogany. In fact, the meticulous, period interiors were expressly designed to conceal it” (20). He is ashamed of who he truly is and must take any measures necessary to make everyone else think he is someone else.

Bechdel’s father needs the family home for two paralleled reasons. Both are deeply related in his internal struggle with his sexual identity. He secretly reflects some of his flamboyant personality traits in the home. In addition, he masks his true identity in the concept of family encompassing the home. The family home hides what he cannot let the world see, but also shows who he desires to be on the inside. The house is both everything he is and everything he wishes to be. 


  1. Hi Susanne:

    The two aspects that the author's house serves--a mirror and a ideal for the her father's identity, are somewhat related but also contradicting at the same time. That is not to say that you cannot incorporate both in your essay. It just needs to extremely well justified. You're thoughts and evidences seems scattered. I understand that some proofs are inter-related, but if you want readers to follow you, you need to construct the logical arguments more tightly. An example of this is in the second paragraph, you said: "Bechdel states, 'I grew to resent the way my father treated his furniture like children, and his children like furniture.” The specific way she describes the furniture as “his” rather than “the” furniture shows the deep bond he forges between himself and material things in the home'. This evidence does not help prove that the house is a reflection of who he is, not until you further explain it at the very least.

    Paragraph 3 entirely deviated from your theory that Bechdel’s father uses the home as a mirror for the person he truly is as well as a ideal of the person he wishes he was. Instead it talks about how his true identity is masked.

    It seems like you did not have room to explore the second aspect of what the house represent this time. Provided we were asked to write a five-page essay. You are better off focusing on one of the two.

  2. Nice title, and nice argument. The 1st paragraph is a little slow, but the insight is good and complex: her father simultaneously hides and shows himself.

    The 2nd paragraph shows a good attention to detail, although I would have liked page numbers!

    The 3rd paragraph is excellent, although I'd like to see you return to Bechdel's ostensible hatred of embellishment. An interesting question for a possible revision would involve challenging Bechdel with her own alleged artistic values. Does she avoid embellishment in her artistic and (especially) written style, for instance? For my part, I'm skeptical, even if the claim is quite important to her.

    The last couple paragraphs are generic. You move away from the specific details (which you have an eye for) and make observations which, although not empty, are a little more obvious. I'd have liked to see your thoughts on what the mirror and mask, taken together, ultimately mean. As an example (it's a thought that you might totally disagree with) you might argue that the tension between the mirror and the mask, revealing and concealing, is specifically what drives him into suicide. Or was it Bechdel's pro-mirror (pro-openness & self-reflection) that really did him in? Etc. In other words, the conclusion lacked ambition.