The Artist Behind Fun Home: Why You’ve Heard of Alison Bechdel

Irene MartinkoBlog, Featured

Two years ago, we were forced to close our doors to in-person audiences just days before opening night of Fun Home. Unsure of when we would be back, if ever, this show became the production that never was, and we anxiously awaited the day when we could open up our space and fill the theatre again. 

After two long, long years, as a true testament to Perseverance Theatre’s name, Fun Home has found life on our stage once again, and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited. This show makes me laugh, it makes me smile, it makes me gasp, and as I discovered on opening night this past weekend, at least five of the songs bring tears to my eyes. Trust me, you’re not going to want to miss this one. 

But what is Fun Home even about, you may ask? Based on the New York Times Best Selling graphic novel of the same name, this Tony Award-winning musical follows lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel as she works on her latest project. Drawing on her own memories to guide her, she grapples with her past, her relationship with her father, and her dysfunctional childhood growing up in a funeral home. 

Yes, Alison Bechdel is a real person, and yes, she wrote the graphic novel that the musical is based on about her own family.

But here’s the real question. Does her name sound familiar? Some of you may be huge Alison Bechdel fans already, but for those of you who aren’t… Perhaps you’ve seen it written or heard it in passing?

If you’re still not sure, this may help. Have you ever heard of the Bechdel Test? 

Alison Bechdel has written two graphic novels, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, and maintained a long-running comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. But popularizing what is now referred to as the Bechdel Test is perhaps what she is best known for.

First appearing in Dykes to Watch Out For in 1985, Alison Bechdel jokingly depicted a scenario inspired by her friend and karate training partner Liz Wallace. Dubbed “The Rule”, this comic shows two women deciding whether or not they would like to see a movie at the theater, and their subsequent conversation reveals the following set of Bechdel Test rules: 

  1. The movie must have at least two women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

Sounds simple, right? The bar is so low! Oh, how I wish it were that easy. I encourage you to take a trip to Google and look up movies that do and do not pass the Bechdel Test. The answers may surprise you. For instance, both Frozen and Die Hard pass. Yes, I said Die Hard. But the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy? Not so much. Jaws and The Sixth Sense make the cut, but The Avengers, Avatar, and The Social Network all fail.

The Bechdel Test has since become a wildly popular tool in examining both female presence in a film as well as the depth of their stories. Are these women dynamic, well-rounded characters? Or are they simply there to serve the male storyline? Do they have fully realized lives, goals, and objectives? Or are they the manic pixie dream girls designed for male protagonists to pine for and romanticize without actually learning anything of meaning about them? By publishing this comic, Alison Bechdel brought this conversation into the zeitgeist, putting the pressure on movie makers and screenwriters to do better. And in some ways, they have.

Of course, as storytelling and film have evolved, other tests have emerged to continue this examination, and to up the standard for what we should be able to expect on the big screen. My personal favorite is known as the Sexy Lamp Test. Can you take a female character out of the story and replace her with a sexy lamp? Then the movie doesn’t pass! And once again, you’d be surprised at how many famous films don’t pass.

There are also several tests that are focused specifically on representation of nonwhite characters in film. For instance, the DuVernay Test, named for famous film director Ava DuVernay, sets forth the rule that, in order to pass, a film must have an actor of color who has a fully realized life with their own goals and desires, and who is not simply a background character serving the white storyline.

And while it isn’t an officially named test, the Bury Your Gays trope was popularized to refer to the vast number of films, television shows, and books that kill off their lesbian and bisexual characters. Does the lesbian character die? Then it definitely doesn’t pass this test. 

When it comes down to it, there’s a lot more to Alison Bechdel than this one cartoon strip, and you’ll see that in Fun Home, but the Bechdel Test has been referenced for almost 40 years, and it paved the way for subsequent tests, opening up conversations about identity, representation, and storytelling. Next time you make popcorn and sit down for a movie, think about each of these tests. Does the movie pass? 

And I would be remiss if I didn’t say… Fun Home passes the Bechdel Test!