A dyke to watch out for

Lane Sainty chats to Alison Bechdel.

Photo by Elena Seibert.
Photo by Elena Seibert.
Photo by Elena Seibert.

Alison Bechdel rarely draws herself smiling. This is perhaps unsurprising, when you consider the content of the two graphic memoirs that propelled her to cartoonist stardom: themes of sexuality, neuroses, and suicide underpinning the complicated relationship between Bechdel and each of her parents. All the same, it’s not until halfway through our interview that I realise what feels amiss: I was expecting somebody stern.

Bechdel, 53, is not stern, but she does talk the way she writes: carefully, without an errant or superfluous word. We meet on a grey, uninspiring Sydney morning in Ultimo, a couple of days before Bechdel is due to speak at the All About Women Festival at the Opera House. She’s giving a solo talk on her work, and also appearing on a panel titled Pictures Of You about women’s representation in the media — an intimidatingly broad topic, I put to Bechdel.

“It is, and I feel not terribly well-equipped to address it,” she says. “They put me on there because of that Bechdel Test thing, but I feel very out of touch with pop culture. I don’t know what I’m going to say on that panel.”

For the unaware, “that Bechdel Test thing” is a rule to gauge the presence of women in any given film. In order to pass the test, a film must fulfill three basic criteria: one, at least two women characters, two, who talk to each other, three, about something other than a man.

The test is named after Bechdel because it appeared, once, in a 1987 comic from her long-running strip titled Dykes To Watch Out For. The idea was borrowed from a friend of Bechdel’s named Liz Wallace, and, after publication, was largely ignored until feminist film students rediscovered it circa 2005. It went viral, and in a strange twist, the Bechdel Test is now a household phrase, but Alison Bechdel, cartoonist, is not.

“I resisted it in a way for a long time,” she says. “It was kind of annoying — like, I didn’t invent this test. And people are asking me to talk about it all the time. I don’t even watch that many movies.” But now, Bechdel is trying to embrace the test, using it for publicity. She agrees with me that it’s a low bar, but says the feminist ideal is spot on. “What the test stands for is something I have really devoted my career to, so that feels really consonant and right.”

Although Bechdel doubts the relevance of her contributions to a debate about women’s representation, I think her life-long stint as a chronicler of lesbians renders her an expert.

Her outfit for the All About Women panel — a button up shirt, blazer, and chinos, complete with sensible shoes and a masculine haircut — makes her stand out like, well, a butch dyke sandwiched by ‘conventional’ femininity. The striking rareness of such an image, even today, is perhaps the strongest indication of the ongoing need for comics like Dykes To Watch Out For, which Bechdel has said she started drawing because she didn’t see herself or her lesbian friends reflected anywhere.

She’s the first to admit that Dykes, which she wrote from 1983 to 2008 for various fringe publications in the north east of the US, is not for everyone. In her solo talk at the Opera House, she flicks through drawings on an enormous projector screen, cracking jokes about the niche nature of the ‘lesbian feminist comic’ genre. “I never wanted to water anything down,” she says, dryly, with an enormous illustration of a lesbian sporting a ribbed strap-on dildo looming on the screen behind her.

I ask Bechdel whether the use of ‘dyke’ was a bold choice, and she’s surprised to hear that my encounters with the word have primarily been as slurs. “Yes, it was consciously taking this slur, this negative epithet and reclaiming it, but… I wasn’t part of the generation that did that. I was slightly late,” she says. By the time Bechdel came out of the closet in 1980, dyke was just a word lesbians called themselves. “I thought it was a nice, descriptive word. Like, yeah, I’m a dyke,” she says with emphasis, as if testing to see whether the word still makes her feel empowered. Then she laughs. “It was easy for me to use that as the title of my work because it didn’t have too much baggage. It felt to me like a positive term.”

Although Dykes is fiction, I can’t help but notice one of Bechdel’s dykes — a politically correct, judgmental, holier-than-thou, and thoroughly neurotic lesbian named Mo — bears an uncanny resemblance to Bechdel’s replications of herself. It’s hardly a flattering connection, but I have to ask.

“Is that deliberate?”

“Oh, yeah,” she says, offering the maxim ‘write what you know’ as justification. “I actually thought I was disguising myself. I intentionally made Mo not look like me, then I grew to look like her. I didn’t have glasses when I started, and then I got glasses. And then my haircut looked more and more like hers. It was like I turned into her.”

A former girlfriend was horrified to spot the similarities in real life, Bechdel says. “Eventually we started having fights about something or other, and she said ‘You sound just like Mo! You sound just like your character!’ and I said ‘Well, what did you expect?’ and she said ‘I thought Mo was a joke!’ and I said ‘No! No, Mo is real’,” she says. “That relationship did not last very long.”

Although Dykes contains biographical elements, it’s in Bechdel’s graphic memoirs that she puts an unflinchingly honest version of herself on the page. Fun Home, about the sexuality and suicide of Bechdel’s father, was published in 2006 to great critical acclaim, taking out the Time Book of the Year award and earning a place on the New York Times bestseller list. After years of etching out a quiet living creating Dykes, Bechdel was thrust into the limelight. “I had been pushing on this door for my whole career,” she says. “One day they opened the door and I came tumbling into the room.”

It’s impossible to distil the complexity and brilliance of Fun Home into a short description, so you’ll just have to trust me: the novel is superlative. It is narrated via a series of literary analogies, including references to Fitzgerald, Camus, Wilde, and the myth of Icarus. Bechdel says the technique was unplanned, arising through her efforts to understand her long-dead father through his favourite authors.

She employs the same method in Are You My Mother?, published in 2012, but Bechdel questions the strength of the literary connections the second time around, describing Are You My Mother? as “murky and indefinite”. “I think that’s kind of the nature of our relationships with our mothers. As opposed to our relationships with our fathers, which I think are somehow more distinct and clear cut. Mothers are more complicated.”

In both memoirs, Bechdel — who, coincidentally, is almost exactly the same age as my mother — attempts to unravel the mutual influences between her and her respective parent. But at the end of Fun Home, there’s a distinct feeling that Bechdel has made peace with her father, while the end of Are You My Mother? implies a letting go of a different kind, a type of resignation.

Although it was the success of Fun Home that pushed Dykes into the world of well-known comics, it is impossible to overstate the cultural significance of the 25-year-long strip. Howerver, the enduring message of Bechdel’s work is still up for debate.

In the preface to The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For, a compiled book of the strip, Bechdel asks, “Have I churned out episodes of this comic strip every two weeks for decades merely to prove that we’re the same as everyone else?!”


“The truth is, when I was young, I always thought gay people were superior to other people,” Bechdel says, citing the outsider status of queer people as something that lent a special insight. “So part of me has been disillusioned to learn that we’re not. We don’t have special powers; we’re not inherently revolutionary at all. We just want to do what everyone wants to do.”

She describes the lesbian and gay rights movement as being in the inevitable process of making itself obsolete; the march towards normalcy slowly dismantling the need for queer culture. For Bechdel, the victory is bittersweet.

“There was this very vibrant queer subculture when I was young. It was like a ghettoized, separate world, which I loved. It was fascinating to me, so exciting to be a part of that,” she says. “And now it’s not really there anymore. But that’s the price of progress.”