Saturday, August 1, 2015

Your Mama Was a Bulldagger

The San Francisco Gay Men's Salon is going to be discussing Stereotypes next month, and I've got my plane ticket and hotel room reserved.  On Thursday morning, by happy chance, Democracy Now! featured Alison Bechdel, the author of the graphic memoir Fun Home, and Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron, the composer and writer, respectively, of the Broadway musical based on Bechdel's book. 

Fun Home was amazingly successful, in both its iterations.  The book won numerous awards (scroll down to Awards) and was listed as one of the best of its year by a wide range of queer and heterosexual publications, and Bechdel was awarded a Macarthur Grant.  The play won five Tony awards, and has garnered a surprising amount of media attention, with the authors and cast appearing on TV all over the place.

Fun Home (the book, anyway -- I haven't seen the play yet) is about a lot of things, and its complexity has been noticed by many readers and critics.  But it seems to me that when people are listing what it's about, they tend to leave out "stereotypes" -- which is a bit odd, when I consider that Bechdel herself is a butch lesbian, and one of the key numbers in the musical is "Ring of Keys," based on a brief but important scene in the book where very-young Alison, in a small-town diner with her closeted gay father, is riveted by the entrance of a butch woman delivery-truck driver.

When people talk about stereotypes, they almost always mean negative stereotypes.  As I wrote in this opinion piece for the IU student paper fifteen years ago, the people who seem to embody those negative stereotypes are often the Boogeymen / women who scare gay kids and keep them in the closet longer than they might have stayed otherwise.  When we speak to classes we're often asked how we feel about those stereotypes, do we think they hurt gay people and let down the cause?  Lip service is often paid to the drag queens and butch lesbian of Stonewall, but in general gay people present the sissies and bulldykes as problematic.

Until now, that is.  Bechdel always had a range of types in her decades-long comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and butch characters were presented as a part of the lesbian landscape.  But despite the strip's popularity and longevity, it never got the exposure that Fun Home has had, with a little girl singing an ode to a butch woman on national (international?) television as part of the Tony Awards ceremonies.  "Ring of Keys" also seems to be one of the standout numbers from the musical, and other performers are picking it up for recitals and auditions, to judge by what is turning up on Youtube.  (Another song from the show that's catching on is "I'm Changing My Major to Joan," in which college-age Alison celebrates her first sexual experience.)

Fun Home's composer Jeanine Tesori told the Tony Awards audience that "'Ring of Keys,' ... by the way, is not a song of love, it’s a song of identification, because, for girls, you have to see it to be it."  But Alison Bechdel told Democracy Now's Nermeen Shaikh:
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Alison, one of the things that you’ve said about the performance of this song is that having a child singing about desire in this interesting way is also revolutionary.

ALISON BECHDEL: Yeah, I mean, desire and identification, and the complex relationship between those things. We don’t want to think that children have sexualities, and so that feels very revolutionary, that this kid is discovering this part of herself.
Presenting a stolid butch woman as an object of desire is transgressive whether the desiring person is a child or an adult, and I think that's the most revolutionary thing about this song.  It's not at all the same thing as, say, Ru Paul's Drag Race, where (from what I've seen) it's more or less taken for granted that a drag queen is an object of desire because he's dressed and made-up and moves and performs in conventionally feminine ways.  It isn't the queen who's the object of desire, but his outfit. I'm not the right person to say, of course, because I'm not at all fascinated by these tropes of glamor and beauty; I know very well that many people, probably the majority, love them.  And I think that whatever my own feelings, it's important to remember that contrary to the demonization of the sissy, effeminate males appeal to many people, men and women alike.
My own "ring of keys" figure was the early Captain Kangaroo (notice the jingling ring of keys the Captain wields as he opens the Treasure House each morning).  I think I exaggerate these traits in hindsight, but it seems to me that the Captain was a great male role model for little children, with his gentle voice and the kangaroo-like pouches of his jacket pockets.  He did semi-drag at times, putting on a frilly apron to dust the Treasure House, but it was the absence of machismo in his character that I liked about him.

Myself, I like to think that the woman who so impressed young Alison was a mother, maybe even heterosexual.  Smash those stereotypes!  I'm thinking of the story the poet Minnie Bruce Pratt tells in S/He about her lesbian friends' reaction to her mother:
But my friends are interested in something else: "We expected a little white lady in gloves. You didn't tell us your mama's a bulldagger!"

She has been the woman who sat at the grey kitchen table with me and my father, her child and her husband. She was always the one next to the stove, within reach of the pot of field peas, more cornbread. I'm so used to this that I saw her hands simply as feminine, though they are huge, capable with iron mattock or steel knitting needles. I'm so used to her height and bulk, her sneakers and windbreaker, her taciturnity and her ease with women, that I've never noticed how much she looks like the white-headed coach of a women's softball team [54].
Oh, I suppose it's more likely than not that the woman young Alison admired was lesbian, given the times -- it would have been the mid-1960s -- though from what writers on the butch-femme experience have said, many hard butches had to be supported by their femmes because no one would hire them.  But any woman who had a job driving a truck and delivering food to restaurants would have had to dress in a "masculine" way.  Especially in those days, any woman who wasn't wearing a housedress or heels and a string of pearls would have been perceived as a roaring butch anyway.  I wonder if the adult Alison Bechdel, if she could see that woman again, would perceive her the way she did as a child; maybe so, since her father clearly did.

I think it was DOB honchos Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon who observed, in their 1972 book Lesbian / Woman, that if you see a stomping butch in jeans, hiking boots, and backpack on the Appalachian trail, she'll probably have a husband and children with her; the lesbians will be tottering along in capri pants and flimsy shoes, trying to look feminine and fit into society. Besides, butch lesbians did become mothers with surprising frequency, as a surprising number of drag queens I've known became fathers. 

I suspect that the connection between desire and identification tends to be severed after puberty, often forcibly though not always or completely.  That's another stereotype: if we see someone who fascinates us, it must mean we want to copulate with them, right?  Or its flip side: I'm not gay, I don't want to have sex with that fascinating person, I just admire them and maybe identify with them.  The complex relationship between identification and desire, is, by the way, an important theme of Bechdel's (as opposed to Kron and Tesori's) Fun Home, with Bruce Bechdel wanting to be girly.  Though he shares Alison's admiration for stylish male clothing, he discourages her interest in it by pointing out that it would sit poorly on her budding adolescent breasts; mostly he tries to make her into the girl he wants, or thinks he wants, to be.  The adult Bechdel comments in retrospect that she wanted to be the well-dressed man, not to have him.  Yet she desired girly girls powerfully, without wanting to be them.  After she came out, though she had some butch-on-butch relationships (according to some of her earlier autobiographical work) with other women.

What makes Fun Home so rich is this ambivalence, this awareness of the contradictions in all the characters and in the story's creator.  (Creatrix?)  Bechdel has always talked about her own ambivalence about becoming mainstreamed; I worry that as the Fun Home phenomenon spreads inward from the margins and occupies the vast center, its complexity will be eroded, dissipated, lost.  (I also worry that it will become the Token Lesbian Success, as Brokeback Mountain was the Token Gay Male Success: oh, we don't need to do another lesbian play on Broadway, let alone a musical: It's Been Done to Death.)  If that happens, it won't be the fault of Bechdel or of Kron and Tesori, it'll be the fault of people who lazily and reflexively fall back on stereotypes, which must then be disassembled and deconstructed over and over again.