It is undeniably that clothing and material surface plays an imperative role in the development of understanding one’s self since it reinforces gender binaries that ultimately dictate how we interact within the wider world. Undoubtedly, Alison Bechdel’s premise in her family tragicomic, Fun Home, is to simply understand herself through copious amounts of literature references and discourses regarding gender dynamics. As Bechdel interrogates identities that sit beyond the constraints of society, her intertexts allow her to navigate within a ‘binaried’ world implemented primarily by her father, Bruce. For instance, Bechdel examines the archetypes of traditional gender roles through clothing which portrays a framed perception of gender alluding to hetronormative standards. Similarly to how Queen Theory continually questions the normalization of gender roles, Bechdel does the same through a sartorial self-framing of a fragmented childhood and emerging adult aware of her sexual orientation as a lesbian. Just as the materiality and in between substance of texts creates discourse, the material world within Fun Home are intertexts of concrete binaries, gender expression, and archetypes involving social constructs that inform the life of Alison Bechdel and her experiences. Living in a household where binary restraints are enforced in order to conform to an ideology that frowns upon gender expression and differing sexual orientations, clothing and other material objects become a means of identity formation, protection, and social distinction.
Materiality becomes a focus within the realms of Bechdel’s childhood since the beautification of surface refers to Bechdel’s relationship with Bruce which informs her gender identity. From a young age, Bechdel casts a moral judgment of her father, knowing that he’s concealing many truths while exposing numerous lies in order to, “Make things appear to be what they were not (16).” With this in mind, readers can see the process of gender socialization which invokes discourses pertaining to the surface properties of women and men. For instance, one of the many texts littered in Fun Home is The Addams Family which refers to Bechdel’s feelings of isolation from the rest of collective suburbia, as well as, moments of connection within the skewed Bechdel household. However, looking beyond the surface of Bechdel’s awareness of her unconventionality, she also states when referencing her first-grade school photo in comparison to Wednesday Addams, “Wearing a black dress my father had wrestled me into, I appear to be in mourning (35).” Apart from the fact that Bechdel and her father are clear inverses of one another, Burce’s fixation on Bechdel’s exterior of formal dresses, barrettes, and displaying the ideals of a little girl her age teaches Bechdel the appeal of surface properties within the context of gender. Alison is taught to embrace womanhood through aesthetics which ultimately fuels a disconnect between her environment, sexual orientation, gender, and ironically relationship with her father. The disconnect is represented through the text of Proust, referencing how Bechdel is an “invert,” “the opposite of sissy,” to which she adds, “It’s imprecise and insufficient defining the homosexual as a person whose gender expression is at odds with his or her sex ().” Clearly, Allison and Bruce start to unravel their subjectivity in mourning of their loss selves, trying to carry societal burdens and each other up even though doing gender had become unavoidable because of the social consequences of sex category membership. Hence the reason why Bechdel considers her father’s death “queer business” since it was cryptic but also because Bruce’s expression of his identity and sexual orientation was intentionally withdrawn from his life earsing his indivdual footprint (57). In Bechdel’s case, gender-specific clothing and her image was a regulation disclosed by her father which made her and Bruce both sufferers of institutional narratives.
Looking at the construction of Bechdel’s social individuality, readers can see this is defined by her social potion, “which depends for its existence on a social world ().” Clearly, Bechdel’s quest revolves around figuring out these technicalities of social roles and how certain experiences as a child have made her receptive to certain behavioral norms. Ultimately, Bechdel is a subject of conflicting social norms which she eventually becomes conscious about as we read past, present and future representations of Alison Bechdel. This becomes quite apparent, when Bechdel and Bruce decide to eat a diner when they encounter, “ a most unsettling sight” of a non-conforming female in men’s attire and opposing the essential nature of gender. Bechdel states,
I didn’t know there were women who wore men’s clothes and had men’s haircuts… But like a traveler in a foreign country who runs into someone from home– someone they’ve never spoken to but know by Sight–I recognized her with a surge of Joy (119)
Notably, the individual impacts Bechdel and her father but for very different reasons, for Bechdel, it is a vision of a future and for Bruce the experience is haunting. Bruce even retorts back, “Is that what you like to look like (Ibid)?” to which Bechdel denies solemnly in order to protect herself. However, protection and conforming to a social script go hand and hand with one another, thereby marking the beginnings of Bechdel’s crisis of identity. Subsequently, encounters of gender only become more complex than a binary opposition of a good daughter and bad father, hence the reason why Bechdel needs to understand her father through the outlet of literature. Furthermore, Bechdel’s social individuality as a child seems to only weaken, since many of these intertexts were socialising influences that created implicit understandings of the behaviours of traditional men and women which ultimately shape their identity. In spite of this, our physical bodies do not always determine what course our lives as gendered people will take enforcing the idea that certain instionalised frameworks inform physical features of social setting ().
Part of social distinction, involves the gender binaries created for men and women which Fun Home deconstructs to what is natural, biological, or essential? The aspect of role conflict is showcased through Bechdel’s role-playing with Beth where they discover Bruce’s old clothes and create the personas of Billy Mckean and Bobby McCool (183). The embodiment of extreme forms of masculinities, marks an understanding of how material operates in the gendered world, to which the sex division of male and female bodies is entirely on a biological account(). In addition, on a car ride to the movies Bechdel and Bruce talk about this precise issue of the identification of gender and how it provides a resource to an infinite amount of discourses. One of which is the discourse of paternity, which Fun Home reveals through the intertextuality of Ulysses. Part of Alison’s quest of finding herself is to make sense of the discourse of paternity and through its deconstruction of sex segregation do readers begin to see the mutual intellectual respect between a father and daughter. The destabilization of the traditional archetypes of son and father demonstrates the ways how Bechdel implements centrifugal forces to decipher her father, hence the traditional narrative of gender.
Within Fun Home, readers see how a person’s gender is not simply an aspect of what one is, but, more fundamentally something that one does which disrupts Bechdel’s identity (). The tragicomic’s inclusion of gendered clothing and encouragement of traditional ideologies through aesthetics poses serious dilemmas for Alison Bechdel which ultimately makes her rethink her childhood in a fragmented fashion. The use of material both liberates and sets boundaries, creating a complicated relationship between normative expectations and welcoming Bechdel’s identity expression as a lesbian. Hence, the material world becomes a means of identity formation, protection, and social distinction which appear in Bechdel’s relationship with her father Bruce. Similar to how a quilt is comprised of an assortment of varying fabrics, Bechdel’s divergent experiences show a trail of her perceptiveness of gender that ultimately plays a role in the stitching and sewing of her evolving selfhood.