10 Reasons To Love: Alison Bechdel

10th Sep 2014

10 Reasons To Love: Alison Bechdel
You probably know Alison from her invention of the now world famous “Bechdel Test”, but there’s so much more to this artist, writer and activist. Here are some starters for ten:

1. She’s been a feminist from the word go

Alison Bechdel’s work was first published in Womannews, a feminist newsletter, back in the summer of 1983. In a recent blog post she wrote: “I’m glad mainstream culture is starting to catch up to where lesbian-feminism was 30 years ago.” Right on.

2. She’s the genius behind Dykes to Watch Out For

This comic strip was her first published work, but eventually ran until 2008 (it’s now on indefinite hiatus). What began as a ground-breaking pop cultural representation of a group of lesbian friends became one of comics’ most celebrated strips of everyday life, sex and love. Check it out!

3. She’s won an Eisner Award

Fun Home – Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel – is her story of growing up and coming out in a family of intellectual undertakers. Yep, you read that right. The book charts her childhood and young adulthood, her realisation she’s gay, her literary interests and, most poignantly, her relationship with her father.

The book won Best Reality-Based Work at the Eisner’s – basically the comics’ industry equivalent of the Oscars – but it more than deserves every accolade. 

4. She created the Bechdel Test

No article about Alison Bechdel would be complete without her most influential contribution to modern feminist discussion: The Bechdel Test. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a test to apply to any movie, as a way of judging its representation of women. 

The test was first published in Dykes To Watch Out For and slowly gained popularity during the 80s and 90s, largely in film student circles. Nowadays, the test has gone viral, with a Bechdel Test website cataloguing most new releases. 

To pass the test, a movie must have: two named women characters, who speak to one another about something other than a man.

You’d think every movie would pass. Here’s some this year which have failed: Amazing Spider-Man 2, The Boxtrolls, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and The Grand Budapest Hotel… for shame!

5. She’s an intellectual

In Fun Home, especially, but in other works, too, Alison’s intellectualism is clear. Her reading of literary criticism, especially, helps to shape her understanding of her own work, and how she finds its place in our historical-cultural landscape. 

She also discusses how she rejected criticism at first, seeing other interpretations outside her immediate responses as “suspect”. This is something many English students can understand – that early uncertainty around whether examining a book or poem will somehow diminish its power, like a magician revealing how a trick is performed.

Here’s an example of how Alison Bechdel weaves her intellectualism into her own experiences. This quote, from Fun Home, discusses her father’s sexuality: 

“But how could he admire Joyce’s lengthy, libidinal ‘yes’ so fervently and end up saying ‘no’ to his own life? 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.”

6. She writes about sex, sexuality and sexual discovery

There are precious few examples of truly great sexual writing (the Bad Sex awards show that pretty clearly) but perhaps Alison’s genius is in detailing and analysing her desires. Sometimes she’s just open about feeling horny, at other times pensive around her gayness. It’s refreshing, brilliant and challenging, as these two quotes from Fun Home’s companion work, Are You My Mother, illustrate:

“On our second date, she kissed me in a bar. I invited her home. We just caught the F train, which seemed like a good omen.” 

“If it weren’t for the unconventionality of my desires, my mind might never have been forced to reckon with my body.” 

7. She found commercial success in her 40s

Similar to another top 10 author featured recently, while Alison Bechdel was a critical success early on, it was only in 2006, when she was 46, that she became commercially successful with the publishing of Fun Home

8. She understands depression, and has written about her own struggles with mental health

Alison Bechdel writes with brutal, raw honesty about her own feelings. She psychoanalyses her family and their relationships with a ruthless, uncomfortable, eye. Sometimes it’s hard to read, but mostly it gifts the reader with a deep and abiding sense of kinship with the author. As Alan Bennett wrote: 

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.”

9. She’s a Professor at Large at the University of Vermont!

The university’s website states: “The goal of the University of Vermont James Marsh Professors-at-Large Program is to bring to the University outstanding individuals of international distinction in the arts and humanities, sciences, social sciences, and applied fields.”

Lucky students!

10.She’s an activist – a woman for women

Alison Bechdel once said: “The secret subversive goal of my work is to show that women, not just lesbians, are regular human beings.” And this goal is apparent throughout her work.

She not only writes in a genuine manner about being a woman (think Orange Is The New Black-style frankness), she’s also open about the radical nature of her writing. And it’s this inherent honesty which tears down the usual walls around what people will and won’t read.

Lesbian feminist intellectualism, regrettably, isn’t usually on the New York Times bestseller list. Alison Bechdel is.

[Image credit: Wikipedia Commons]


  • Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

    I have been madly in love with Alison Bechdel’s work since 1987, when I first saw a DTWOF calendar at the house of a life long chum. I am still madly in love with her work, and a big supporter of hers at home and abroad. I used to consult with her about Thea’s diagnosis, which I share. Viva Alison, and Happy Birthday to the champ!