Social psychologists have long been engaged with the question howindividuals construct and understand their identities (Abrams et al. 98).
Throughtheories, they have tried to explain the interdependence of humans in thisprocess of understanding and construction. Freud explains the relationshipbetween the true identity and the performed identity, which is adjusted tosociety’s norms and values, through his psychoanalysis. Henri Tajfel developedthe social identity theory which argues that individuals understand themselvesthrough group relationships and traditional gender stereotypes and expectations.
These stereotypes tend to be prescriptions for how men and women are expectedto behave and look (Prentice and Carranza 269). Auster and Ohm however arguethat humans no longer rely on traditional gender norms and stereotypes. Theyclaim that the boundaries of gender have become less strict and humans are nowfree to associate themselves with elements from the other sex.
Gauntlett agreeswith this last view and argues that representation of diverse identities andsexualities in the media, can help an individual understand their identity. Thesestereotypes and expectations of gender and sexuality play an important role inAlison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as itdiscusses Alison’s process of identity construction, and specifically how shecame to terms with her and her father’s queer identity. This paper aims to linkabove-mentioned identity theories to the memoir to answer the questions: How are both Alison and her father’sidentities constructed? And how are they interdependent in this process?First, it is important to consider the difference between sex,gender and sexuality. Sex refers to the biologically given properties by whichsomeone is classified as either male or female. Gender is the division made insociety, according to biological sex. With gender come associated norms oftypical masculine or feminine behaviour, clothing and stereotypes. Finally,sexuality refers to an individual’s sexual feelings and attraction towardseither the same, the other or both sexes (“Difference between sex and gender”2-3).
All three components are deeply rooted in the human psyche and underlie anindividual’s identity.Freud was one of many theorists tohave looked at the human psyche and its composition. The human psyche is a keycomponent of identity, since it determines the individual’s behaviour. Andbehaviour represents who an individual is (Tajfel). Freud argued that the humanpsyche consists of three components: the Id, Ego and Superego (Lapsley and Stey1; Mcleod 1). The Id is the instinct component which motivates behaviour. Inthis component elements of sexuality and self-preservation are incorporated andhence influence behaviour.
Important in this component is the principle ofpleasure. The wishes, i.e. impulses, constituted in the id have to be fulfilledfor an individual to feel pleasure. The Ego could be seen as a mediator betweenthe instinctive reality, the id, and the external reality, society. The egocontrols the impulses so that they remain realistic within society. Finally,the superego further control’s the impulses by incorporating society’s normsand values, resulting in an impulse that is not only realistic but alsoacceptable and ideal (Lapsley and Stey 1; McLeod 1). The superego is a keycomponent in determining someone’s behaviour as it consists of both theconscience and the ideal self.
McLeod argues that “if the ego gives in to theid’s demands, the superego may make the person feel bad through guilt” (2).Hence, an individual’s true identity can remain hidden as long as the ego andsuperego are aware of society’s norms and values, and use them to control theid. The basis of the human psyche, as described by Freud, relates toindividual’s in-group behaviour as discussed by Tajfel in his social identitytheory.In 1969, Tajfel introduced the socialidentity theory which is concerned with an individual’s sense of the selfwithin a group. It aims to explain how an individual’s attitudes and beliefsare influenced by group members (Abrams et al.
98). These groups, according toTajfel, are groups within society and include family, friends, social class,etc (Stets and Burke 228). The social identity theory argues that an individualis reflexive. This means that humans can classify themselves in relation tosocial categories (Stets and Burke 224). They recognize certain categories by someone’sperformance of it.
By performance Stets and Burke mean that men and women areexpected to follow distinct gender stereotypes. Someone then performs anidentity, or a certain role within society (225). Behaviour traditionallyassociated with women is for instance being emotional, motherly, homely and gentle(Thomas 248). Masculinity is traditionally associated with courage,independence and being strong (Thomas 248). Hence, in order to be associatedwith a particular group in society, someone is expected to show a certainbehaviour that corresponds with that of the group. The psyche, as defined byFreud, makes sure individuals conform to these societal norms by mediatingbetween an individual’s true identity and its expected identity (Lapsley and Stey1; McLeod 1). Humans are therefore interdependent in the process of identityconstruction and understanding of the self, as they rely largely on societalnorms and expectations of behaviour.
However, the social identity theoryis dated, and it is argued that these set patterns of gender behaviour andcharacteristics are changing in modern society (Auster and Ohm 500). Auster andOhm argue that characteristics of masculinity and femininity changed in the1970s. An important factor in this shift is women’s emancipation. This madethat women, but also men “are found in a wider variety of positions and roles,and display a greater repertoire of behavioural traits” (Auster and Ohm 500).Gauntlett argues that in the modern Western world, gender has become a mix ofequal and unequal. He also states that women more often reject traditional ideasregarding their gender role and that sexual equality is widely supported (8).The shift gender roles are currently undergoing make that characteristics mayeven overlap at some points (10). In his work Media, Gender and Identity published in 2002, Gauntlett stresses the importance of the media in theconstruction and understanding of identity.
These days, the media widelyrepresents different images of men, women and sexuality. Gaunlett argues thatrole models represented in the media have changed and that television soaps nowrepresent lesbian and gay characters so the audience can “get to know”non-mainstream identities (187). A growing tolerance towards the queercommunity is one of the many positive consequences of this representation ofgay characters in the media. For newer generations, the step to coming-out orperforming an identity that does not resemble traditional norms of masculinityor femininity, may therefore be less frightening than it was years ago.Gauntlett states that “modern women are not generally bothered about fittingtheir identity within the identity of femininity” (12). He argues thattraditional gender norms are associated with the past and that both men andwomen are freer to associate themselves with a gender that crosses thesetraditional lines (12).Asmentioned before, gender and sexuality in relation to identity construction arecentral themes in Fun Home. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel discusses thestory of her childhood, and how her growing-up has made her into the person sheis today.
Since the memoir, written by Bechdel, is about herself, the namesAlison and Bechdel will be used interchangeably in this paper, but refer to thesame person. Through the memoir, Bechdel discusses events from her childhood which were importantin her process of self-exploration.She also discusses people who were important in her journey, and puts specialfocus on the story of her father. The memoir can be understood as abildungsroman as it discusses the authors’ psychological journey ofself-exploration (Herman 199).
Alison was born into the Bechdel family in the 1960s and shebelongs to groups such as middle-class white Americans, teenagers, students andthe queer community. Biologically she also belongs to the female sex, howevergrowing up, she finds that she does not identify with its stereotypical normsand expectations. The next paragraphs aim to link previously discussed theoriesto the memoir, to investigate how both Alison and her father construct theiridentities and how they rely on particular exemplary sources.
Thecharacter of Alison in Fun Homeclearly undergoes the process of comparing and identifying identities, asdiscussed in Tajfel’s social identity theory. As mentioned before, the theory statesthat an individual continually compares itself with categories and patterns ofbehaviour to establish whether they identify with it or not. Alison discussesseveral people and works that she reflected on in her journey ofself-exploration. Her father Bruce plays an important role in the memoir as shenot only tries to makemeaning of her own identity, but also focuses on building his. She has to cometo terms with who he is in order to understand and accept herself. Lembergargues that she has to make these connections between her identity and herfather’s “to work through the trauma that can accompany queer identity” (par.1). Bechdel thus gives her father a stage in her memoir by discussing hisinternal struggle, something which he has never been able to openly do.
Shecontinuously mentions his determination to restore the house to stress his multifaceted identity (Lembergpar. 5). While exploring her father’s history, she starts to understand certainparts of his character and things he did. Bechdel states that her father “usedhis skilful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be whatthey are not” (16). Her father was hiding his true identity and stayed closetedall his life.
Hence, the intersecting storylines of both Alison and her father’sidentity are important, as the building of his identity is closely linked to herpersonal process of identity exploration. Apart from Alison’s dependence uponher father’s identity, she alsowidely relies on literature in her identity exploration. She describes how her exploration sawa boost in the time she went to college (Bechdel 61-70). Gauntlett discussedthe importance of queer representation in the media and argued that it haschanged how both men and women think about gender and sexuality.
He states thatmodern women have learnt to reject traditional gender norms (187). In Fun Home, literature fills this role inthat it is the main medium of queer representation for Alison. Literaturerepresenting queer characters was widely available for Alison to read. She usedthis information to understand and learn more about the queer community and tocompare her feelings.
Rohy argues that she uses “the queer archive as atechnology of identity” (par. 10). Through books Alison learns about previous years,when freedom to express homosexuality was not as accepted as it is in her timeand age. Literature helps her “contextualise her life in relation to historicalevents and social norms” (Bauer 3). This process of comparing seems in linewith the social identity theory but it exceeds the traditional boundaries offemininity and masculinity.
One of the things Alison learns through these booksabout the history of queer life, is that her father’s position, as a young queerboy, was much different from hers. Not only was he not free to express himself,and hence to come out as gay, he did not have such wide access to queerliterature either. As Auster and ohm state, boundaries of sexuality and genderstarted to become less restricted from the 1970s, but before that time,different norms and behaviour were expected from gender performances. Brucegrew up being surrounded by traditional norms of femininity and masculinity,and he was expected to follow the latter. Nevertheless, Bruce, just like hisdaughter, uses literature in his process of identity performativity. Bauerclaims that in the memoir, books are not just a means of identification, butthey are also used as a form of communication between father and daughter (7).
Inaddition to learning about her own identity, Alison gets to know and understandher father more and more by reading books on his recommendation. In chapter 3Alison discusses her father’s preference for Fitzgerald’s work and argues thathe must have identified with the characters. Even though he has not discussedthis with Alison, she states that “the parallels are unavoidable” (Bechdel 63).
Hence, both Alison and her father are interdependent in their identityconstruction but Alison’s exemplary social categories exceed the traditionalboundaries described in Tajfel’s social identity theory. According to Herman, Alison’sidentity formation story is largely about her learning to reject standard anddominant gender stereotypical behaviour and expectations (199). The socialidentity theory implies that humans largely rely on traditional norms andexpectations of gender (Stets and Burke 225). As a child, Alison was widelyconfronted with these dominant norms of gender behaviour, as her father triedto make her dress and act like a girl. The memoir shows this struggle, fromgraphics of her father trying to make her wear a dress to a wedding, to asituation where he makes her wear a barrette in her hair, which shecontinuously removes (Bechdel 96-98). Atthe time, Alison did not know this was the result of her father’s attempt tosupress his true identity, but in her memoir, she states that “… he wasattempting to express something feminine through me” (98). Her father knows thatit would be socially acceptable if Alison performed this feminine behaviourinstead of him. Alison, however biologically female, does not identify withthese associated norms of behaviour.
In turn, she tries to project herrejection of femininity onto her father (Watson par. 13). Bechdel discusses heryounger self’s interest in men’s fashion on several occasions. She states thatshe “had become a connoisseur of masculinity at an early age” (95). In watching other people perform masculinebehaviour, she recognizes who she truly is. For instance, in chapter 4 of the memoir, oneof the graphics shows Alison reading an Esquire and telling her father whatstyle of clothes he should buy (99). Freud’s psychoanalysis states that theid’s impulses, the element that contains an individual’s sexuality andself-preservation, are being controlled by the superego, so that someone’sbehaviour is in line with society’s norms and expectations (Lapsley and Stey 1;McLeod 1). Lapsley and Stey describe this ‘filtered’ behaviour as acceptableand ideal (1).
Nevertheless, the psychoanalysis implies that humans not alwaysexpress their true impulses, their true self, since the superego transforms theimpulses into ones that are accepted in society. When linked to the memoir,this theory is represented in the way both Alison and her father project theirpreferred behaviour upon each other. Both know certain behaviour would be moreacceptable if performed by the other(Watson par.
13). Hence, this paper aimed to prove howboth Alison and her father Bruce’s (queer) identities are constructed in Fun Home. Analysis of the memoir, linkedto identity theories by Freud, Tajfel, Gauntlett and Auster and Ohm, showed howboth father and daughter are interdependent in the process of identityconstruction. Alison relies partly on her father’s history as she tries tobuild his identity to make a connection with her own, and to make meaning ofher feelings. There are, however, differences in the way they accept and expresswho they are. This paper argues that this difference is a result of thegenerational gap between the two.
Alison, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, hadmore possibilities to reflect on literature representing a diversity ofidentities and sexualities than her father growing up in the 1940s. Initially,both characters try to conform to society’s norms by projecting their true gendersupon each other, but as she gets older, Alison soon accepts her true identityand rejects traditional gender norms. Hence, Tajfel’s social identity theory could be applied toAlison’s construction process, but only if we step away from traditional gendernorms. Bruce fits much better in Tajfel’s idea of identity formation, butmainly because of the society he grew up in. Therefore, where Bruce hides his trueself and stays closeted all his life, Alison comes out as soon as she knows whoshe is and represents the modern female as discussed by Gauntlett in his work Media, Gender and Identity.