The theme of sexuality and gender identity is apparent throughout the memoir, Fun Home. It introduces two distinctly different coming-to age stories of a father and daughter dealing with their sexuality. The novel highlights moments of struggle each character experiences when they discover that their identities differ from the expectations that are being promoted by their society. Much of what the novel says about what makes us who we are is contributed to the acceptance we hold true for ourselves. Thus, the constant and growing shame Alison experiences throughout this story is evident as it appears to originate from the discomfort the world offers her. With not being able to hold acceptance within herself, Alison additionally begins to feel discomfort in her own female body as well.
The story beings with the introduction of Alison, a 4-year-old girl, who seems to be admiring a woman wearing male clothes. Her father, Bruce, quickly realizes this and scolds her for being in awe. When he angrily asks her if that is what she wants to look like at that age, she feels pressured to lie and say, “no.” As Alison hits puberty, she begins to identify with herself more. However, the feeling of shame grew with her and was upset with herself when being attracted to pictures of female pin-up models. This is because as a child, her father played the role of society’s enforcer. In other words, he attempted to make her act more girlish and dress more ladylike, so that others would view her as “standard.” What Bruce was not aware of, was that this persistence of filling his daughter with shame and discomfort is what helped mold the pathway for developing compulsive, OCD-like behaviors. Such behaviors were driven by her lack of sense in control of the world, which is a result of the world forcing her into repressing herself.
As the reading goes on, we do, however, become exposed to the underlying issues that appear in the father. Quite similarly, he too identifies as “non-standard.” This may explain the reason why he acquires the need to express his femininity through his daughter. Bruce Bechdel grew up hiding his sexuality. He set up barriers to hide behind, and therefore, never found a way to accept who he was. The author depicts him to be cold and an often-absent father whom is full of rage. His relationship with Alison was unsteady, as they both asked a lot from each other; for Bruce to be more masculine, and for Alison to become more feminine. This rocky relationship and the continuous struggle he faced accepting his sexuality was believed to be the two possible causes to which led Bruce to suicidal death.
In a way, as much as Bruce and Alison are similar, their stories can easily be seen as opposites of each other as well. While Alison presumed the courage to explore and express her sexuality, her father remained in secret. It was not until his death that she became aware of his hidden sexuality and the many affairs he pursued, primarily with his teenaged male students. By knowing this, Alison was quick to realize that her father never fully escaped from his self-destructive tendencies. This, in turn, gave Alison reasoning behind Bruce’s erratic but frequent temper tantrums her and her brothers often experienced growing up. Her assumptions were quick to make due to her living a much more honest and happy life once fully accepting herself. It allowed her to minimize her discomfort and approach things in a more appropriate and honest manner. Unlike her father, who did not know how to see or accept himself in this way.
By exploring Bruce’s story, it can easily be interpreted as a cautionary tale of what could potentially happen if someone is unable to openly express their sexuality and gender identity. In this sense, it will encourage one to reflect and rethink on how accepting others helps to shape the identity of that person. While the story focuses on the openness versus repression of coming-to-age individuals relating to their sexuality and gender identity, it also idealizes the way that shame can drive a person to obtain self-destructive thoughts. This stands true as Alison states, “I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death” (p. 228). Her relationship with her father was rocky all throughout her childhood. However, by remembering the way she felt growing up struggling with her sexuality, she began to re-examine her relationship with her father. Thus, acknowledging the hidden connection her and her father had when she was a child as they both faced a sexual identity crisis.
Alison’s difficulty in speaking about her father’s sexuality arose as she was struggling to know herself. However, these struggles begin to subside once attending a college that was much more open to the different ways of being. The community differed from that where she came from, which in turn, encouraged her to become more open to both herself and others regarding her gender identity. From there, she began to explore her sexuality in a more honest way. Alison wanted to reclaim herself from her past and in doing so, started venturing into public relationships. This is a prime example of why it is so important for a person struggling with their identity to be surrounded by an accepting and nurturing community. It strengthens that individuals mental state by encouraging them to accept themselves and by limiting those negative thoughts Bruce encountered.
Overall, Fun Home makes note of how living a closed life is profoundly damaging. It also draws focus to the efforts it takes one to live an open life when their sexuality does not meet the norms of their society. It emphasizes that these expectations are found everywhere, catastrophically affecting the lives of those feeling as if they do not belong. An example of this is displayed through Alison’s suffering as a child. Her father’s efforts to characterize herself into something she is not, is a reflection on her insisting the same from him. It connects the complications repression of one’s self-identity has on the individual themselves. Bruce hiding his sexuality created an almost inevitable pathway to live his suffering through his daughter. He wanted to express his feminine side through her, however, was impossible due to Alison’s tomboyish style. Furthermore, the book offers no solutions to these serious and unfortunate issues that society continuously presents to us. Those solutions are to be made by the world, as a whole.