Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Facades in Fun Home (Revision)

Fun Home is an account of Alison Bechdel’s life with her father Bruce. She reminisces about her childhood and her coming of age, while acknowledging the large role he played in it. The fact that he was a closeted gay man was revealed to Alison later in life. Learning this provided her with insight into much of his behavior, particularly that towards her childhood home. In Fun Home, Bechdel’s house represents the façade that her father upheld to mask the true sexual identity of which he was ashamed.
Bruce Bechdel dedicates most of his time to perfecting the appearance of his home. The restoration completely occupies his mind, as evident in the comic panels. He is always absorbed in activities such as choosing drapes, adjusting decorative mirrors, and ordering ornate chandeliers. In fact, Bechdel describes his passion for refining the home as “libidinal,” “manic,” and “martyred.” These descriptors are accompanied by a cartoon of Bruce carrying a support beam. His posture is burdened and almost seems to suggest that he is a slave to this work of bettering the house.
In fact, he may feel this obligation to the house’s appearance because he relates it to the façade of his own identity. He desperately wants to uphold the appearance of an ideal father and husband. In order to do so, he represses as many indicators of his own sexual identity as possible. To Bruce, the perfect appearance of the house parallels his own façade as a straight man.
In her critique of Fun Home, Rebecca Scherr recognizes Bruce’s deception, describing it as “his way of manipulating the surface of things in order to hide in plain sight.” His life is defined by his struggle to keep his sexual identity hidden. Scherr goes on to say that Bruce has built his image in such a way to communicate that nothing is out of the ordinary, or in this specific context, outside of the heterosexual. He is the lord over every domestic decision, held accountable to no one. This obsessive control over the house aesthetics allows him to craft the family’s perceived identity with himself at its head as a traditional family man.
His fervent dedication to the home’s impression is accompanied by an unwarranted anger at any sort of disorder. This provides further evidence that he sees the house as a representation of himself. When his son is not orderly in arranging the Christmas tree, he responds in anger. He also responds with an unjustified spanking after seeing that a vase has been moved too close to the edge of a table. Hitting his children for such small matters seems to be a vast overreaction. These accounts and others like them show that Bechdel’s father takes any kinks in the home personally and is desperate to remedy them. His over-the-top reactions indicate that the order of the home has a deeper significance.
           The significance of what the house represents to Bruce can also be seen in Alison’s reaction to his behavior. She resents his obsession with appearances and refuses to comply with it in her own life.  In fact, Alison comes to abhor useless décor and has no patience for maintaining the façade of their home. This difference between how they view manufactured appearances parallels the way in which she and her father deal with their “non-traditional” sexual orientations. Whereas Bruce has hidden his sexual identity away and built up an appearance as a traditional family man, Alison comes out and openly identifies as homosexual.
This argument is not to say that aspects of Bruce’s true personality are not incorporated into his façade. One of the most memorable of these is his preoccupation with flowers. Alison claims that no straight man ever loved flowers to the extent that her father did. Similar to how he managed the appearance of the house, Bruce ensured that their landscaping was always in perfect order. His dedication to botany, however, takes on a less manic quality than his behavior toward the house. He is simply passionate about flowers, choosing to invest in them without the ulterior motive of masking anything.
Scherr suggests that his bent for gardening as well as renovation may be recognizant of his more effeminate personality. It is true that his sexual orientation may actually be used as an argument against viewing the home as a representation of Bruce’s pretense. However, Scherr’s claim fails to take into account the difference in Bruce’s attitude or at the very least, Bechdel’s presentation of it, depending on his focus. His adoration of flowers is presented as separate from the rest of his controlling renovation habits. The placement of his love for flowers is deeper into the novel, introduced to viewers after they are aware of his deviant sexual desires. In this way, Bechdel seems to suggest that this effeminate quality was one that Bruce could not manage to repress.
The library is also a place in which Bruce appears to be more true to his real identity. Surrounded by books of troubled authors, Bruce immerses himself in their tragic stories of internal conflict and ill fated lives. His reading choices suggest that Bruce relates most to characters and writers who are tragically conflicted. Alison compares him to Proust, who also happened to be a closeted homosexual. Fitzgerald, a struggling alcoholic with a schizophrenic wife, was also an author to which Bruce is frequently compared. His indulgence in the stories of these conflicted men is an aspect of his own struggle that he permitted in the home.
In addition to delving into the fictional and biographical accounts of authors that reflect his own issues, Bruce is also seen here with one of his young male conquests. He entertains his brighter male students by inviting them into his library safe haven. In fact, this scene is striking because it is when viewers witness Bruce at his happiest. The fact that Bruce may indulge in his homosexual and pedophiliac tendencies in this room further suggests that the library is the place where Bruce is most himself.
The reason for Bruce’s projection of his façade on their family home may in fact be that he is most like himself while inside it. Because the home is the site of his true conduct, it is also the source and reminder of his shame regarding that conduct. Alison acknowledges on page 20 that Bruce’s shame is always present in the home and that the elaborate design is primarily a method of hiding it. His embarrassment at his own desires permeates every inch of the home and compels him to construct an illusion of an ideal family home.
One panel mentioned previously provides further evidence that Bruce projected his own personal façade on their family home and that his primary motivation was his personal shame. Returning to the picture of Bruce burdened with a support beam gives insight into what fuels his endless renovating habits. In fact, the picture draws a parallel to the images of those convicted to crucifixion carrying their crosses as retribution for their sins. Bruce felt overwhelming shame for his alternative sexual identity and regarded the home as his burden to bear. His expression in the picture does seem to suggest retribution. To further drive home the point, Bechdel includes the adjective “martyred” when describing how he approaches the housework.
 Bechdel mostly uses words that suggest compulsion and obsession when discussing his attitude towards the housework. His attitude toward gardening and his library is reflected in her word choice as well, with words such as love. This separation is important in understanding that this argument does not claim Bruce banished all of his true personality in the making of his mask. He merely viewed the house as the representation of his own lies and was always eager to ensure that the falsehoods were never discovered. As mentioned previously, one of the primary instigators in this creation of the home as a facade was the shame he felt within the home. Nevertheless, other motivations are made apparent in the novel as well. 
 One of these inducements is likely that Bruce could not seem to control the longings afforded to him by his sexual identity. This is evidenced by the fact that he continued to have affairs and pursue other men. He was unable to restrain this aspect of himself. However, he was able to control how others saw him. Dedicating himself to maintaining his masquerade provided him with a sense of control. He viewed the house in a similar way. Obsessing over the décor and upkeep of the home represented his greater internal struggle and provided an external avenue of control.
The comic’s portrayal of how Bruce regarded his home revealed that it represented his shame-induced performance as the ideal, straight husband and father. The house required copious amounts of maintenance, as it reflected the attention with which he had to attend to his own personal façade. His dedication to maintaining the perfectly matching drapes and flawless flower beds mirrored his own determination to maintain his appearance.

Works Cited

Scherr, Rebecca. "Queering the Family Album: The Re-Orientation of Things in Alison                        
              Bechdel's Fun Home." Forum for World Literature Studies 3.1 (2011): 40.

1 comment:

  1. “In Fun Home, Bechdel’s house represents the façade that her father upheld to mask the true sexual identity of which he was ashamed.” - to an extent, isn’t this obvious? That doesn’t mean that the importance of it is obvious, or that your conclusions from it are obvious, but that’s the great danger here.

    “In order to do so, he represses as many indicators of his own sexual identity as possible. To Bruce, the perfect appearance of the house parallels his own façade as a straight man.” - this has a lot of appeal, but Bechdel is also very clear that her father’s fixation on the details of the house’s appearance is far from conventionally masculine.

    Do you buy into what Scherr says? He’s hiding in plain sight - but also he’s overtly showing off his interest in flowers, finely detailed decoration, etc. I’m just curious what you do with a lot of the *details* of what he’s interested in.

    “Whereas Bruce has hidden his sexual identity away and built up an appearance as a traditional family man, Alison comes out and openly identifies as homosexual.” -- so they are the same and opposite to one another -- all external vs. all internal. One thing I’ll note is that you’re transitioning into more challenging points, but you’re doing it almost invisibly, when something like this could, for instance, have improved your introduction and streamlined the following paragraphs.

    “His embarrassment at his own desires permeates every inch of the home and compels him to construct an illusion of an ideal family home.” -- I’m torn. Is this insightful or muddled? You claim, I think, that he both hides and reveals through the home. In ordinary terms, that’s a contradiction. If there’s a higher logic here, a way in which hiding and revealing are one, that’s what you should be more overtly focusing on, rather than getting lost in sometimes irrelevant details.

    Toward the end, you don’t really accomplish much. You struggled to really articulate an argument which *could* be advanced. One thing that’s missing here is the second half (give or take) of the book - or maybe the parts of the book concerned with Allison’s later life. My point is that if you’re interested in the duality of hiding and revealing, why don’t you do more with who he most reveals himself to, which is Allison? Think of it is as a mystery: he is hiding himself in the house, but leaving clues behind. Think of her as a detective: she uncovers his secretes while exploring and revealing her own identity. Not that I’ve quite articulated an argument either - what I’m trying to show is the kind of material you could have explored in order to discover a clearer argument than what you’ve got.