Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mr. Bechdel: One in the Same (Revision of Mr. Bechdel's Passion)

On the surface the Bechdel’s seem like a rather traditional family. They have their quirks but to an outsider everything appears very normal. However, from the first page of Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, readers become aware that her family is far from standard, and Bruce Bechdel is certainly no exception. He shows a keen interest in art, plants, decorating, his family, and little boys. There are different sides to Mr. Bechdel, many of which he keeps hidden under a cloak of conformity. Throughout the novel readers see that he does what is expected of him, not what he necessarily wants to do. Mr. Bechdel appears to be a typical family man and father figure; in college he is in a fraternity, he joins the army, marries a lovely wife, and has a family he provides for. However, I believe each of these accomplishments represents Mr. Bechdel’s desire to fit in and to conform, and that this conformity leads to his death because it inhibits his ability to be himself, causing him to fulfill his urges in harmful ways.
Bruce Bechdel is a very complicated character. He is introduced to readers as Alison’s gay (and possibly pedophilic) father, yet throughout the novel the audience sees aspects of him that seem to conflict with this initial view. During his college years he is part of a fraternity. In society today most people associate the idea of fraternities and sororities as very typically male and female respectively. It is interesting that he is so proud of and involved with his fraternity when readers know him to be a much more feminine seeming male character. That fact that Mr. Bechdel joins a fraternity is also interesting because fraternities stand for brotherhood, unity, and in many ways conformity. Take the practice of hazing for example. Many fraternities and sororities carry out elaborate hazing rituals for new pledges before they can become official members. According to Brian Hansen’s article, “Hazing: should more be done to stop it?”,
“Researcher Pollard, who designed and analyzed [a] survey, says the responses show that young people have a powerful need to belong to clubs, athletic teams and other groups. They also have a strong need to prove themselves, Pollard says, but contemporary American society affords them few other “rites of passage” to adulthood.
Without acceptable rites of passage in American society, belonging to a club or a sports team “has strong significance for young people,” Pollard says. “They partake in hazing rituals to show that they're worthy enough to belong to these groups, which allow them to prove themselves and reinforce their identities”’ (Hansen)
The entire practice of hazing revolves around the idea that teens can do whatever they want to other teens because the desire to belong to a specific social group is overwhelmingly strong. For some, hazing is the first thing people think of when Greek life is mentioned, and for many men who survived being hazed, it is a sign of masculinity. The fact that Mr. Bechdel may or may not have been hazed is irrelevant. What is important is the fact that he believes being part of a fraternity is the typical “male” thing to do, and he shows great pride in the fact that his frat brothers accept him as one of them. He has a “powerful need to belong to clubs, athletic teams and other groups…[and] a strong need to prove [himself]”. His membership to this brotherhood represents his willingness to conform to social practices in order to be perceived as manly. This “frat guy/ army man” identity is one that he wants to express whether or not he actually feels a true passion for either institution. His joining the army is another example of his intense desire to conform. The army is exceedingly regimented and every man and woman in the military dresses the same, acts the same, and is essentially treated the same. When taking this into account perhaps Mr. Bechdel joins the fraternity and the army so that he can feel as though he is the same as everyone else. Perhaps he joins so he does not have to face the fact that he is inherently different.  
            Mr. Bechdel conforms in many other ways too. He enjoys architecture and design but instead of pursuing them as a career, he takes over the family funeral business because that is what he believes others expect him to do. He prefers to be with men (as seen from his frequent trips to New York City’s Christopher Street and his flings with teen boys) but he marries a woman and raises a family because that is what a family man is supposed to do. His conformity even manifests itself through his daughter who prefers to dress and act like a typical male. Mr. Bechdel disregards her desire to appear masculine and dresses and treats as a girl because “that’s what girls should do”. This is especially evident on page 97 of Fun Home. Bechdel does not want to wear a barrette in her hair but her father says “I don’t care! Next time I see you without it, I’ll wale you” (Bechdel 97). He cares more about her appearing female than she does and the fact that his need to fit in has extended into his daughter’s life exposes just how intense his desire to be “normal” is.
            Generally, it is not dangerous to adhere to some social stereotypes because they are there for a reason; everyone does them. In Bruce Bechdel’s case however, adhering to the set male or “family man” stereotype proves to be lethal. In adhering to these stereotypes and conforming to other people, he is repressing who he truly wants to be. Nevertheless, his feelings are strong and they end up surfacing in destructive (and illegal) ways. His guilt eats away at him, eventually pushing him over the edge. Readers first see evidence of this when Bruce’s relationships with some of his male students come to light. He cannot get what he desires (a sexual relationship with a man) from his wife so he ends up seducing his students. Alison Bechdel writes, “part of dad’s country squire routine involved edifying the villagers—his more promising high school students. The promise was very likely sexual in some cases…” (Bechdel 61). Eventually Bruce gets caught driving around with and giving beer to one of the neighbor boys and is taken to court. If he had not been hiding under the guise of a straight man, Bruce could have been able to fulfill his desires legally earlier in his life and without feeling like he hurt anyone. He could have relieved himself of the strain conformity placed upon him.
            The repercussions of his conformity not only put a strain on Bruce emotionally, they also put deep strain on his family and his marriage. Because he is so wrapped up in acting straight he ends up lying to the people he loves. On pages 138 and 139 of Fun Home, Mr. and Mrs. Bechdel are seen having and argument in the kitchen. Mrs. Bechdel says, “where have you been? We ate two hours ago!” to which Mr. Bechdel responds by exiting the kitchen. The argument ensues when Mrs. Bechdel says,
            “Don’t walk away from me!”
            “For crissakes! I stopped for a hot dog!”
            “Good. I flushed your supper down the toilet” (Bechdel 139).
Readers are led to believe that Mr. Bechdel was late because he was out pursuing men (or boys). Now his extramarital affairs are causing tension in the family. The strain is intensified because it is very likely that Mrs. Bechdel is aware of her husband’s actions yet never confronts him for fear of upsetting the family system they have created. Now, with Bruce out pursuing other relationships, Mrs. Bechdel is shouldered with the burden of running a home virtually on her own. This whole scenario creates a volatile family environment that can be avoided if Mr. Bechdel is able to express himself outwardly to his family instead of sneaking around behind social conformities.
            So far we have talked about some of the ways in which Bruce Bechdel conforms and why he may do so, as well as the consequences of repressing his true desires. However, we have not addressed how exactly conformity caused his death. On page 153 of Fun Home, Alison is seen talking to her father in the kitchen where Bruce tells her he is going to see a psychiatrist. “The import of what he said was remarkable, but less so than the fact that he was saying it to me. The sudden approximation of my dull, provincial life to a New Yorker cartoon was exhilarating. But my father’s abject and shameful mien quickly sobered me up” (Bechdel 153). The cartoon accompanying this caption shows her father saying “I’m bad. Not good like you” (Bechdel 153). By seeing a psychiatrist, Mr. Bechdel is acknowledging that he has a problem. His seeking help is a sign that he is trying to come to terms with who he really is. For what seems to be the first time, he is admitting to one of his family members that he is not the normal father figure he appears to be. However, it is too late. He has sought help after he has passed the point of forgiving himself for hurting his family and for hurting the boys he was with. When admitting that he is seeing a psychiatrist he seems shameful and embarrassed. This fact is apparent when he says “I’m bad. Not good like you”. It is significant because it is the first time readers see him come to terms (at least slightly) with who he is, and all he sees is someone who has done terrible things. He represses his feelings for so long that when he finally allows them to come to the surface in therapy, it is too late. If he had stood up and been his own person from the start he would be free to seek healthy relationships with men and he would not see himself as a horrible person filled with embarrassment and regret for his actions.
            An interesting study published in the Sociological Inquiry found that “adolescents with higher levels of self-control are less likely to be susceptible to peer influence, while those lower in self-control are more likely to be influenced by friends” (Meldrum 106-129). In Mr. Bechdel’s case, this statement is wildly appropriate. Bruce has an idea of who he wants to be in his head, but his body and desires tell him otherwise, and in that way he lacks control. He strives to conform to others because being part of a group or feeling like he is living up to what others expect of him gives him a sense of control; he is able to influence how people see him. By finally telling Alison about going to see the therapist, or when he opens up to her during their car ride to the movies (Bechdel 220-221), he loses that element of control because he is not used to expressing who he actually is. Outwardly talking about his relations with men to his daughter is a gigantic step away from the comfort of conformity he normally surrounds himself with. Suddenly, his secret is also in someone else’s hands and he no longer has sole control over it. All of the actions he has done in secret become real and he is forced to face them. For him, a way to gain back the control and to assert himself over his own life is by ending his life.
            In the end, conformity kills Mr. Bechdel. It stops him from being his own person and in doing so, causes him to make decisions he greatly regrets.  He tries to fit in with the typical straight male stereotype because he wants to believe he is. Bruce holds on to this belief and this mask for as long as he can, but not being able to express himself takes its toll on him and his family. When faced with the idea of accepting his sexuality, he loses control. He loses control of his life and in one last attempt to regain control he steps in front of the truck.

Works Cited
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.
Meldrum, R. C., Miller, H. V. and Flexon, J. L. (2013), Susceptibility to Peer Influence, Self-
Control, and Delinquency. Sociological Inquiry, 83: 106–129. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682x.2012.00434.x

Hansen, Brian. "Hazing." CQ Researcher 9 Jan. 2004: 1-24. Web. 7 Oct. 2014.

1 comment:

  1. Your introduction is much improved. I’d like to see a version of your thesis which is a little more individual or a little stronger in some way, though. Also, he’s not into little boys, but high school boys - not good either, but a significant difference.

    Your discussion of the more obvious aspects of Greek life is a little too long, although fundamentally ok. I really like this approach for analyzing his character, but let me point out that there are whole dimensions to it that you aren’t even dealing with. If his concept of masculinity or adulthood demands conformity enforced through hazing, doesn’t that say an awful lot about how he relates with his children (or even, possibly, the students he preys upon)?

    “In Bruce Bechdel’s case however, adhering to the set male or “family man” stereotype proves to be lethal.” -- this is a smart line. Something like this could have led to that stronger thesis I was looking for.

    Re: your discussion of when he’s out for hot dogs. Obviously there’s the double entendre there, but it also occurs to me that there’s no more conformist, all-American thing to eat than a hot dog - it’s a great way that both sides of his character come together.

    ““I’m bad. Not good like you”” -- I think you could have pushed this a little farther. Is it his moral guilt that leads to his death, or his urge to conform? Are the two the same, or could we split them apart? Your discussion is fine, but if you’re interested in his morality and his conformity, it makes sense to talk about both of them explicitly together.

    The thing with conformity and self-control is so good that I feel like it’s underused - it could have been effective at the beginning, even, as a way of diagnosing the relationship between the seemingly conflicting parts of his personality. Your conclusion is good, but I think you could have been simultaneously more compact and more ambitious if you had started with some of this good material at the end, rather than saving it for the finale.

    One more thing - you put a lot of work into this repeatedly. It paid off. Good work!