Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Bechdel’s Sexuality: Her Father’s Nature and Lack of Nurture (Final Project)

What role do our parents play in our lives? The scientific argument of nature vs. nurture looks at certain aspects of an individual and debates what plays a more important role in someone’s life: their genes or their upbringing. However, it is now more widely accepted to believe that it is actually a combination of the two that shape “who we are.” Certain genes determine particular aspects of ourselves, but the product of the experiences also shapes us. It is more fascinating that certain, unusual traits can be controlled by this dichotomy. Fun Home depicts Alison Bechdel’s childhood highlighting the strange relationship between herself and her father. Throughout Fun Home, Bechdel depicts herself in a similar, if not mirroring way to her father to highlight the similarities between them and the influence he has had on her.  Her father is a closeted homosexual and Bechdel later comes out as a homosexual herself. Is it a coincidence that Bechdel ends up being gay? On the contrary, her sexual preference may be completely determined from her father. Bechdel’s sexuality is due to the genetic predisposition she inherited from her father as well as his aggressive behavior and hidden sexuality. Understanding Bechdel in a scientific perspective allows the reader to understand the graphic novel as an even more thought-out piece than before. The scientific background shows the art can be a textbook of her life. Furthermore, Bechdel’s situation shows more about the immense impact everyone’s parents have on not just their sexuality, but on the shaping of every aspect of life.  
In Fun Home, Bechdel depicts her father in very distinct ways throughout the book. She does show him as extremely controlling, but she also chooses to draw him in a similar matter to herself. Her tendency to show the similarities (rather than the differences) between them begins the connections of the role her father plays in shaping who she is. She knows, at least on a subconscious level, that her sexuality is due to her father. An example is on page 67 in the middle frame (Bechdel). Bechdel depicts her father arriving home from work and removing his coat as he leaves the kitchen, walking away from her and her mother. She purposely draws her mother facing away from the frame’s perspective so that her face is hidden showing that her father is supposed to be emphasized. Her autobiographical drawing of herself shows her with slightly wavy hair that falls over her face, which is shown with a rounded nose and half-moon shaped eyes. She looks towards her father in hope of guidance, perhaps even in specifically with her sexuality. Bechdel draws her father in a similar way; most specifically his eyes and nose are the matured equivalent of her own (Bechdel). Drawing him as the older version of herself shows that Bechdel knows she has similarities with her father, which starts the discussion of how much he impacts her sexuality.
There are many other examples of Bechdel’s depiction of herself and her father, but an important one is on page 123, as it depicts her subconscious dreaming which is very closely linked to true sexual preference (Bechdel). The last frame shows Bechdel facing her father in a dream. She first places her father opposite of herself; they are purposely mirroring each other. She even makes the attempt to make herself look more masculine than she does in the first frame of the page. In the first frame she is not shown with her father, and she looks more feminine in all aspects (eyes, hair, nose), but when she is shown mirroring her father she looks particularly more masculine. She portrays herself more like her father when she is with him. Her nose becomes pointier, her eyebrows are in distinct points rather than curved arches, and her mouth is small and bent downwards. Her father is depicted in almost every way as a reflection of herself. She goes even farther on the following page (Bechdel 124). The first frame shows the pair as silhouettes, standing next to each other. While she is shown as a smaller version, she is clearly supposed to be the miniature version of her father.  
An additional connection that Bechdel makes is comparing herself with her father in terms of colors. Blue, more specifically midnight blue represents herself, while a rich golden yellow represents her father. Even though these colors differ in a many ways and can be used to show the distinct differences between the characters, they also show the similarities. The colors are opposite of each other on the color wheel which in an artistic sense means that they can be paired together. They act on each other and emphasize the other’s tones. They also mix to make green, the color most associated with nature. It shows that the blue and yellow are at their heart related, in this case literally father and daughter. The artistic choices Bechdel makes in Fun Home show that there is more to her relationship with her father than just his power over his family; there is a connection between them in many other ways.
It is also important to look at the similarities between Bechdel’s personal experiences and her father’s sexual progression. Bechdel shows that as a child she liked to dress up in male clothing, an external sign of children who are struggling with their inner sexuality (Bechdel 182 Lippa 22). In one scene, as she and a friend are playing, they dress up in her father’s clothes and Bechdel expresses a great feeling of sadness when they stop playing the game. Later in life she finds a picture of her father wearing women’s clothing, representing her father’s similar struggle with his sexuality (Bechdel 120). When she finds the photo of her father she states, “…even the angle of shadow falling across our faces—it’s about as close as a translation can get” (Bechdel 120). The fact that Bechdel’s father and Bechdel want to be less feminine and less masculine respectively, is another reason to look at his effect on his daughter’s sexuality.
In the past, there has been a consistent debate as to which affects an offspring more: nature or nurture. Nature representing the genes they receive from their parents. Nurture representing the way they are raised and the environment they grow up in. Some studies show that anyone can overcome certain genetic factors, while others say that certain ones such as a developmental disease (cerebral palsy for example) are proof that these matter most. Then there are researchers who show that anyone can overcome a difficult home life such as growing up in the slums, but the reality is that the amount of people who successfully accomplish this is small, showing that nature must play some sort of role (Goldhaber). Recently, it has been concluded that it is most likely that a mixture of both factors affect an individual (Goldhaber). Of course both nature and nurture play a role in someone’s personality and certain traits. With this new idea, people have begun to focus on how these affect certain traits that are typically not thought of as influential by parents (Goldhaber). One of the most fascinating “traits” is sexuality or sexual preference of offspring.
There is a continued debate as to whether sexuality is a choice. However, if it is assumed that it is not controllable, what role do parents play in the predetermination. Sexual identity has three main components that can be affected by events and therefore Bechdel’s sexual identity can be due to her nature and her nurture (Goldberg 127). There are many studies that are interested in the sexuality of children who have one or multiple gay parents. Currently, scientists believe that sexual orientation is due to a multitude of factors that begin in the fetal stage. Genetics do seem to play an important role in overall sexual orientation. The most obvious research proving this is shown in twin studies where identical twins tend to be more similar in sexual orientation than non-identical twins (Goldberg 132). The twin study is one of the most important proofs that homosexuality is controlled by genetics (Steen 193). Therefore, if a parent possesses the “homosexual gene” and passes the gene on then the child will possess a genetic marker that determines their sexual orientation. In addition, research shows that the “social environment may be operative in the development of sexual orientation” (Goldberg 133). For children with two homosexual parents, the more open views allow individuals to truly think about their sexuality and determine their course, rather than assuming the typical heterosexual identity. Studies prove that social norms and social environment can affect sexuality depending on the individual (Goldberg 134). It is not that it completely determines their sexuality, but rather it influences the degrees to which they act upon “their own same-sex desires” (Goldberg 134).
After the twin studies first began, research began to find the specific gene which may “control” sexuality. In 1993, a team of researchers discovered a gene on the X chromosome that may be the “homosexuality gene” (Pool). The study was specifically on gay men and not women, but since females have two X chromosomes (one from each parent) and the specified gene is on an X chromosome, females must inherit the gene if either parent possesses it. There is still some debate as to if this specific gene is the only one that controls sexuality and to what affect other genes have on sexuality because it is clear that is complex with multiple alleles. However, it is clear that genetic disposition is a factor in sexuality.
While research on the impact of gay and lesbian parents on children is growing rapidly due to the wider acceptance of homosexuality, it is important to remember that gay parents have always existed (Goldberg 3). Many parents including Bechdel’s father have raised children in heterosexual relationships without many people ever knowing that they were in fact not heterosexual. However, even though their sexuality may not be clear, it is still not a personal choice and therefore its impact occurs no matter if it is known in the moment or not. The impact of Bechdel’s father’s hidden sexuality still plays a very important role in her sexuality even though he is not out as a homosexual parent, and the research still applies to her sexuality.
Bechdel’s father can be most easily described as a closeted gay man (there is some discrepancy because he does not self-identify). As someone who is in many ways living a lie, he often has outbursts of anger in moments when he loses control of his life. Since Bechdel has a strained relationship with her absent, abusive father, she wants to be different than him. She embraces masculinity in an attempt to be different than him. However, she does not know that the effect of her father’s sexuality and his identity cannot be reversed. He creates the identity of his daughter in more ways than either of them know.
Research shows that nature or the social environment of one’s upbringing at least is a factor in their expression of sexuality and the ability to properly consider being non-heterosexual.  Therefore, it is necessary to look at Bechdel’s childhood experiences to see not only how her father’s hidden sexuality affected her own, but also how his abuse/absence affects her sexuality journey. As previously mentioned, the genetic effects of sexuality are not hidden simply because the parent is a closeted homosexual, but the impact of a household environment with “out” homosexual parents is different than one with a closeted parent (Steen 185). In the latter, the parent must live a continuous internal struggle with who they are and who they pretend to be. As they try to live a life that isn’t inherently theirs, a large psychological impact grows (Pennington 37). This psychological struggle is a major factor in Bechdel’s father’s anger. When there are moments that he feels out of control, the only way he can express his unhappiness is by yelling at his children, the reminders that show the person he pretends to be. Since Bechdel grew up in constant unknowing of what her father would do, one must also look at the psychological impact on her sexuality. In many cases of abuse, especially when the abuser is male, the victim stops being attracted to the sex of the abuser (Letourneau). Since Bechdel’s abuse started at a young age, it is quite likely that she started displaying and embracing lesbian tendencies to exile anyone who was like her father. By being attracted to women rather than men, she put up a subconscious defense mechanism against being abused again (Letourneau). Due to the abuse, Bechdel was never attracted to men because she wanted to exile anyone who was like her father, anyone who was a man.  
There are still some people in the scientific community who believe that sexuality is completely a choice. They feel that there is no proof as to either nature or nurture playing a role in sexual preference, instead the individual chooses which gender(s) they are attracted to. As more research is done on the basis of sexuality, less people are in this realm of thought. It is now more widely believed that sexuality is due to a multitude of factors beyond one’s control. However, the factors that affect it will continue to be up for debate until some connection between every homosexual person is found. This task is almost nearly impossible, especially because sexuality is so self-identified. Research will continue to ultimately determine the origin of sexual preference, but to say that is completely up to the conscious brain of the individual is not proven or agreed upon. Almost all homosexual individuals agree with this and say that it is completely out of their control. The main argument up for debate in this paper is if it is completely dependent on one’s parents, in Bechdel’s case mostly her father.
Bechdel’s father ultimately ends up committing suicide shortly after Bechdel comes out to her parents. The interesting sequence of events with her truly becoming herself after her father dies shows the profound connection they possess. Despite all of their differences, they cannot be themselves at the same time. He must die in order for her to live, or at least live the way she wants to. Therefore, in an unknown and last attempt at fatherhood, his suicide allows her to embrace who she is without the known restraints from her father. There is another role that his suicide could play in his daughter’s journey. He in a sense is trying to warn her about the hardships of his life as a homosexual. In a research study, most same-sex couples voiced the opinion that they would prefer for their children to be heterosexual because it is an easier existence than their own (Goldberg). Bechdel’s father could not live with the idea of his daughter living a similar struggle as him so he committed suicide to escape watching his daughter struggle.
While her mother may not play as much of a role as her father in shaping her identity, specifically her sexual preference, it is still important to consider the ways in which her mother does affect her. Her mother lacks the ability to stand up to her father. She knows of his terrible acts to not only his children, but to other boys, yet she cannot successfully leave him. She watches as he torments her children and she does not do anything about it. Bechdel’s mother can accurately be described as a weak, helpless housewife. Subconsciously, Bechdel may have at a very young age associated with being the antithesis of her mother as much as the antithesis of her father. The stereotype of lesbians are that they are strong and independent, very far from how her mother is portrayed. As she embraces the idea that she is a lesbian, she gains the best of both worlds: she will never love someone who is like her father and therefore will never be in the helpless situation of her mother. In terms of conveniently living a different life than her childhood, her homosexuality gives her everything she subconsciously wants and needs.
By understanding the different factors that affect Bechdel’s sexuality and therefore who she is, the reader gains insight into the true premise of her story. The nature of her genes inherited from her father affects her sexuality, but also his hidden sexuality and abuse affect it. Fun Home is Bechdel’s artistic endeavor to produce the scientific explanations of her sexuality. It is an attempt to show the moments that changed who she was, including her sexuality. Since it is autobiographical, she gets to dictate precisely which elements are in a scene, and she chooses to show ones that emphasis the similarities between herself and her father. The graphic novel is like an illustrated textbook on her development. By understanding the impetus for Bechdel, the reader can also reflect on their own experiences to see more about human nature. Is anything truly in our control or is it all based off of our parents. Certain aspects may be thought of as determined by a person such as sexuality, but in actuality it is predetermined from our parents. In some cases this is obvious, for instance situations where children are born in a bad area and are therefore doomed to live a life plagued by hardship due to their parents. In other ways, like sexuality, it is much more difficult to see that almost everything about someone is because of our parents. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it is bad, but more importantly humans as a whole population must learn how to deal with the hand we are dealt. There are distinct types of people which certain personality tests can distinguish between. These types are often times determined in part by the parents of the individual and one can see how two types are more likely to produce a certain type of person. Each type has certain flaws, but it is essential to success that one learns what their specific personal flaws are. If your parents determine everything, then we really cannot change ourselves. We are currently living in a society where people are obsessed with changing themselves: their bodies, their lives, their occupations. Instead of spending so much time and energy trying to be people we are not, instead we should find ways to overcome our flaws. Even though different sexualities are not flaws, Bechdel must still overcome the hardships of her childhood to embrace who she is.
The scientific nature of Bechdel’s upbringing mixes with the artistic choices she makes form a different understanding of Fun Home. Not only does her father’s behavior ultimately influence her own, she also is fundamentally shaped by the genes he passes down to her. By knowing the multiple different levels of her background, the reader can understand her story as a work of art that has a scientific foundation which leads to a way of knowing more about her than the reader would if he/she does not consider the science behind it. By understanding the complexities of Bechdel and the impact they have on the book, the reader can also understand more about themselves and the power their upbringing has. The nature of their genetic disposition and the nurture they receive shape many aspects of someone’s life, not just their sexuality.

Works Cited
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. First Mariner Books, 2006. Print.

Goldhaber, Gale. The Nature-Nurture Debates: Bridging the Gap. Cambridge University Press, 2012. Print.

Letourneau, Nicole and Joschko, Justin. Scientific Parenting: What Science Reveals About Parental Influence. 2013. Web.

Lippa, Richard A. Gender, Nature, and Nurture. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc, 2002. Print.

Pennington, Bruce F. The Development of Psychopathology: Nature and Nurture. The Guilford Press, 2002. Print.

Pool, Robert. “Evidence for Homosexuality Gene.” Science. Vol 261, July 16, 1993. Published by The American Association for the Advancement of Science. Web. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2881553

Steen, R. Grant. DNA and Destiny: Nature and Nurture in Human Behavior. Plenum Press, 1996. Print.


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