Alison Bechdel is an acclaimed author and illustrator known for her graphic novel ‘Fun Home’, and the Bechdel test, an indicator of gender bias in film.
Bechdel was born in 1960 in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania to Helen and Bruce Bechdel who taught at the local high school. Her father also worked as a funeral director at the family mortician business, which Bechdel and her two brothers named the “Fun Home.” Bechdel’s artistic talents were apparent from the age of three, and she was encouraged in her passion for illustration by her parents. She was an avid reader, like her parents, and while at high school she would discuss literature with her father in rare moments of bonding.
After high school, Bechdel continued her education at Simon’s Rock of Bard College in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, but after her sophomore year she transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio. In her first year at Oberlin, after becoming involved in LGBT group meetings on campus, she wrote to her parents and told them that she was gay. Her father rang her days later, telling her he was happy about her news and accepted her but her mother refused to speak to her. A week later, her mother revealed her father’s affairs with young men and days after that he was stuck by a Stroehmann’s Sunbeam Bread truck and killed instantly. After his funeral, Bechdel returned to Oberlin and graduated in 1981 with a Bachelor’s degree.
Bechdel moved to New York City, where she applied to a number of graduate art programs but was rejected. She worked a number of office jobs in the publishing industry to support herself before moving to before moving on to Hadley, Massachusetts, and then Minneapolis, Minnesota where she worked as a production manager for the weekly Equal Time. During this time, Bechdel discovered Howard Cruise’s Gay Comix and was inspired by the fact that gay and lesbian cartoonists were writing about their own experiences. Inspired, Bechdel created her own comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. The strip began life as a doodle in the margin of a letter to a friend, who encouraged her to submit her drawings to the monthly feminist newspaper, Womannews. She spent a year creating biweekly comic strips for the magazine, and in 1985 Dykes to Watch Out For was syndicated and then released as a collection by Firebrand Books a year later. The strip ran for 25 years.
In 2006, after working on it for seven years, Bechdel published her memoir/graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. The comic was named after her family’s funeral home and detailed her early years, her revelations about being a lesbian and her relationship with her father, focusing on her struggle to understand who he really was. Fun Home was was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and named Time Magazine’s No. 1 Book of the Year. Two years later, Bechdel took a hiatus from Dykes to Watch Out For to work on her second graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? which explores her relationship with her mother and was published in 2012.
Bechdel served as the guest editor of Best American Comics in 2011, and has drawn comics for Slate, McSweeney’s, Entertainment Weekly, Granta, and The New York Times Book Review. She was the Mellon Residential Fellow for Arts and Practice at the Richard and Mary L. Gray Center at the University of Chicago in 2012 and, while there, co-taught the course “Lines of Transmission: Comics and Autobiography” with Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Hillary Chute. In 2013, Fun Home premiered as a musical Off-Broadway at The Public Theater with a score by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. Kron and Tesori made history as the first all-woman team to win a Tony Award for best score. The musical was extended multiple times, and in 2015 opened on Broadway, with the majority of the cast remaining the same. The Broadway musical won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical. In 2014, Bechdel received the MacArthur Fellows “Genius” Award.
Bechdel’s comics have influenced analysis of the cinematic world, with the Bechdel Test which appeared in her comic strip. The test is utilized to measure the presence of female characters in film. The movie must have three requirements to pass the test.
1. It must have at least two women in it,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.
In 2013, the Bechdel test was incorporated in some of the ratings at four Swedish cinemas and the Scandinavian cable television channel Viasat Film. The move was supported by the Swedish Film Institute. A year later, the European cinema fund Eurimages incorporated the Bechdel test into its submission mechanism as part of an effort to collect information about gender equality in its projects. It requires “a Bechdel analysis of the script to be supplied by the script readers”.