Fun Home, Or, Visual Pleasure and Dyke Spectatorship

Fun_Home_musical_original_Playbill_cover,_OctoberOver at the always illuminating Feminist Spectator, my pal Jill Dolan has already published the definitive lesbian feminist review of the new musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel‘s 2006 graphic novel Fun Home, currently playing at New York’s Public Theater. (Playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori did the adaptation. Get a little info on the show here and a short musical montage here. The show’s run has been extended through December 1. Read this, and then go get yourself some tickets. Has the Madwoman ever steered you wrong?)

I defer to Jill’s expert judgment on the brilliance of the show and the excellence of the cast. (Ben Brantley also gave it a rave review in the New York Times.) What I’d like to do here is justify the day of my life I devoted to training up to New York to see the show by riffing some on a comment Jill makes at the end of her review:

I left the theatre . . . feeling strangely seen and not quite sure how to think about that; I’ve spent so many years watching for lesbian subtext and trying to read queerness underneath protestations of heterosexuality. To see lesbian desire as the text felt almost startling — and more wonderful than I can even begin to describe.

My experience and sentiments exactly. I went to see the play alone, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose being occupied, as she often has been lately, with research and other shenanigans having to do with an obscure nineteenth-century poetess. No disrespect to WFKG, but I quite enjoyed my solitary Muppet Takes Manhattan adventure — the long, early morning train ride when a strong and steady internet connection helped me motor through a huge backlog of grading, the spontaneous stop at the “Queer History of Fashion” exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, the pre-matinee brunch at a sunny Italian place in the Village. Most especially, though, I was content to be alone when the lights went down and Fun Home began its 90-minute meditation on the love, ambivalence, and haunting uncertainty of a queer daughter’s relationship to her gay, deceased father. By “alone,” of course, I mean that I was in a theater full of strangers and didn’t have to worry about whether the sweet Asian guy to my left or the stocky dyke to my right were enjoying the play. I could give myself over entirely to what was happening on stage, where, as Dolan suggests, the action was mesmerizing and remarkable and painful and strangely interpellating.

Like the novel, the play is retrospective and delightfully meta. The narrator is Alison at 43, a lesbian cartoonist struggling to sort out her family history and the mystery of her father’s life and death. Played with ease and authority by Beth Malone (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real Alison Bechdel), Alison is on stage and at her writing table throughout the play, stepping away from the table to observe and comment on scenes from her earlier life and to join occasionally in the singing. She watches herself, and we watch her working on the book that will become the play we are watching. Two other actresses play Alison at earlier ages, and their performances are spectacular: Sydney Lucas plays her as a precocious gender-bending child; Alexandra Socha plays her as a charmingly confused college student who steals the show with a belted-out ballad of lesbian first love called “Changing My Major” (to Joan, the name of the first girlfriend, winningly played by Roberta Colindrez). (Speaking of adventures in meta-ness, the New Yorker‘s Michael Schulman has a nifty little note up on watching Stephen Sondheim watch Fun Home. [Literally: Schulman sat directly behind Sondheim at a performance.] It muses on Sondheim’s “pervasive influence on the genre” of the musical and on this one in particular, in part by detecting the echoes of several Sondheim songs in “Changing My Major.” It’s a smart piece that ends by wondering if Sondheim, who, “in his decades of work, . . . has never wrestled explicitly with his sexuality or his upbringing,” wasn’t, at Fun Home, “watching the one show that he could never write.”)

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Beth Malone, Sydney Lucas, and Alexandra Socha in Fun Home. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus.

Okay, back to Jill’s “feeling strangely seen” by the play and the alluring frisson, for the dyke spectator, of seeing a play in which lesbian desire is the text rather than the subtext or a wild fantasy born of some powerful (dis)identificatory need. Yes, darlings, I, too, squandered hours on the couch in the 80s desperately seeking the lesbian subtext of Cagney & Lacey. Meanwhile, WFKG had a thing for Clair Huxtable, which I didn’t mind because it meant I could have Kate & Allie all to myself. As well, you know, as the early Jodie Foster. To find pleasure in looking at most mainstream cultural texts, dyke (like queer and feminist) spectators can’t mindlessly surrender themselves to the fantasy structures of stories that assume and cater to heterosexual male desires. We must be willfully resistant readers, taking what we can or what we want from texts that ignore or despise us. We become skilled in remaking even the most toxic representations, recycling damaged stereotypes so that they become what José Esteban Muñoz calls “powerful and seductive sites of self-creation” (Disidentifications 4). Such resistance and revision become habitual, reflexive. They are, as Muñoz claims, “survival strategies” that minority subjects practice “in order to negotiate a phobic majoritarian public sphere.”

So it is hardly surprising that, despite The L Word, Ellen, and Orange Is the New Black, the dyke spectator (particularly if she is white, middle class, and of a certain age) might still find it strange to feel truly seen by a play — to feel, in other words, that her own experiences and desires are on every level (content, form, and fantasy structure) reflected back to her in what she sees on the stage. It is, as Jill implies, an intensely pleasurable experience, but it may also, after decades of wrestling with and against texts, be slightly unhinging to feel that one is invited into the cozy spaces of this fun yet fraught and complex home. I know that I felt unhinged, sitting in the darkness, as college-age Alison sang with lascivious gusto of her desire to change her major to Joan before shifting abruptly to consider the turn her life has suddenly taken:

I don’t know who I am.
I’ve become someone new.
Nothing I just did
Is anything I would do.
Overnight everything changed. I am not prepared.
I’m dizzy, I’m nauseous, I’m shaky, I’m scared.

Love and sex are giddily transforming and terrifying experiences, even, I’m told, when the norms of heteropatriarchy aren’t in any way violated. Still, it has always taken considerable effort and ingenuity for me to believe that Fraulein Maria and Captain von Trappe were singing about me as they confess their love for one another in The Sound of Music‘s “I Must Have Done Something Good.” (WFKG shared so fully in my creative appropriation of this song that it was performed as the processional at our commitment ceremony in 1989. Which proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that we were queer before queer was here, don’t you agree?) At Fun Home, I didn’t have to fight the text or mock it or translate it or lovingly subvert it. I just sat there, in awe, reveling in yet also feeling overwhelmed by the pleasures of identification. “Majoring in Joan” made me cry because it so viscerally recalled for me a similar night of my own college life so many years ago. A friend who saw the show the night before I did said she cried through most of the second half of the play and was surprised because she didn’t react so intensely to the experience of reading the book. There is something, I think, about seeing such a story brought to life on the stage, something about the intimacy and proximity of the performers to oneself, even across the dark space of a theater. There is also something about seeing the multiple time frames of this particular story dramatized simultaneously, as when, in the photo above, the three Alisons are on stage together for the show’s final song, the beautiful “Flying Away.” The song recalls the daughter’s childhood love of playing “Airplane” with her father, which is evoked in the illustration from the book version of Fun Home projected on a screen at the rear of the stage as the play concludes. That is the only time an image from the book appears in the play. In this moment, the play’s queer temporality is gorgeously realized. Desire makes all time present, brings all our selves — past and present, living and dead, printed and performed — to us. It is a fitting, generous, not overly sentimental ending — and it left me feeling shattered. In a good way.

I left the theater eager for company, ready to end the solitary part of my long day. I was glad I had plans to meet friends for dinner and was thrilled that the friends were queer art and culture geeks who would be eager to talk with me about the play. They were, we did, and this post is what that dreamy yet solid queer conviviality helped to produce. I loved Fun Home, and I needed the ache it gave me. Recognition, it turns out, can hurt as much as misrecognition. I’m grateful to have had the occasion to learn that lesson after more than half a century of spectatorship. I raise a more than half full glass to the marvelous looking-glass of Fun Home in all its incarnations. Long may it run.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Pre-Fun Home Bloody Mary. Photo Credit: The Madwoman, 11/2/13.

Object-Oriented Mom-ology

[Clever allusion in post title explained here. Kinda.]

Today is Mother’s Day, a day I mostly loathe, perhaps because I’m not fond of commercially generated displays of rank sentimentality and perhaps because I resent that childless lesbians don’t get a special day set aside to honor their unique contributions to civilization. I mean, seriously, people, does softball mean nothing to you?

what my mother gave meNonetheless: I was driving to campus the other day and caught a few minutes of a conversation on NPR’s Tell Me More about a new collection of essays edited by Elizabeth Benedict called What My Mother Gave Me: Thirty-One Women on the Gifts That Mattered Most. The conversation made the book sound far less rank than its title and cover might lead one to expect. The contributors are a diverse group of writerly women, including poet laureate Rita DoveNation columnist Katha Pollitt, and Genius grant-winning immigration activist Cecilia Muñoz. The essays clearly aren’t all saccharine and floral tributes to Saint Mom either. Some document fraught relationships with difficult women who weren’t always as present or functional as their daughters might have hoped or needed them to be, yet each writer came up with a particular gift from her mother that had, over the years, attained a special meaning and resonance: a wok, a quilt, a photograph, a necklace.

Not surprisingly, the story got me thinking. I did a mental inventory of things my mother has given me over the past half century or so of our relationship. On my right hand, I wear a small diamond ring I got for Christmas my senior year of high school. In my dining room, I have the lovely gray Wedgwood that was the special occasion china of my childhood and a set of ruby red goblets that graced every holiday dinner table. In my study, I have Brit lit anthologies filled with notes in her neat high school teacher’s hand. She gave them to me when I started graduate school. As I write these words, I gaze up at a gray and white china rabbit on a nearby shelf. It was her mother’s, and she passed it on to me after Grandma died. Photographs? I have boxes full, just waiting for me to fulfill her wish for a proper family history.

These are all beloved objects, things I love having in my daily life and world. I cherish them and, if they are intended to be used, I use them, regularly. They are gifts that matter, deeply, yet none of them seems quite the right vehicle for taking up Benedict’s challenge to her contributors to describe a gift that “magically, movingly reveals the story” of my mother and my relationship to her (xii). I thought again, harder, letting my mind wander into places it doesn’t often go, not because those places are especially painful or tragic but because they are remote. I thought less of objects than of moments, turning points in my life when my mother had made a difference. And just like that, I knew how to identify the gift that mattered most.

The Plane Ticket

It must have been over the semester break, also in my senior year of high school, but I’m fuzzy on the timing. Still, it was winter and I had time to take a trip, so that would make sense. That year was strange for me — intense, as senior years tend to be, but weird because I wasn’t living with my family. My father had gotten transferred to a new job in a town about an hour away from where I attended high school. My parents gave me the option of staying behind, boarding with a friend’s family during the week so that I could graduate with my peer group. I was editor of the yearbook. I had a (gay) boyfriend. I had seen how hard similarly badly timed moves had been on my older brother and sister, so I opted to become a commuter kid. It was a good decision, but the arrangement added to the tumult of what is always a topsy-turvy period in one’s life.

In the midst of all this upheaval, I was also of course trying to figure out where to go to college. With all the editing and writing I was doing, everyone — myself included — had been assuming I was headed toward journalism school, perhaps at Indiana University, where my parents had met in the early 1950s and from which the grandmother with the china rabbit had graduated in the late 1920s. The summer before senior year, though, I spent six weeks in France in a language-immersion program. When I stepped off the plane in early August, I had a difficult time speaking English to my parents — and all my old plans and assumptions had been upended. I had been to a ballet, seen the Mona Lisa, picnicked in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. I had visited tiny towns on the Norman coast, where grateful citizens still recalled being liberated by American troops in World War II. I had learned to tell jokes and to dream in another language. I had learned to love vegetables! Suddenly, Bloomington just didn’t seem big or glamorous enough, and I wanted more from college than a vocational training program.

McGill scrapsAnd so it was that at some point in December of 1976 or January of 1977 I found myself alone in Montreal, Quebec, checking out McGill University. I had never been to Montreal before, and I had never even heard of McGill until one of my pals in the study abroad program mentioned she was thinking about going there. “Wow,” said my impetuous young mind, “an English-speaking university in a French-speaking city known for its elegance and sophistication. Allons-y!” So I went, and of course I fell instantly and hopelessly in love. I remember nothing of campus tours or meetings with officials, though I’m sure I must have met with someone. (Remember, though, the whole campus visit industrial complex was a lot less complex in ye olden times of the 1970s than it is nowadays.) The highlights of the trip that I do recall were taking myself out for a dinner of crepes and wine and getting caught in a snowstorm that resulted in my flight home being canceled. I was already at the airport. I called home collect — remember: no cellphones! — to get advice on what to do. My mother gave me a credit card number and told me to take a cab back to my hotel. Because people were nicer and more trusting in ye olden times of the 1970s, I was able to check back into the hotel with nothing but a number on a piece of paper. I had one more deliriously happy night in Montreal and made it home the next day, determined to enroll at McGill. Which I did, for two years — but that is another story.

Why do I consider that plane ticket to Montreal the most important gift my mother ever gave me? And why do I think of the gift as coming from her when I know that my father was fully involved in this process?  I suppose that particular ticket feels monumental because it was the first time I was sent out into the world on my own, to explore and evaluate a whole new set of possibilities and make my own judgment about them. When I came home and announced my decision, no one questioned it. No one said, “Oh, honey, why do you want to go so far away to school?” or “You know, they don’t even have a journalism program.” I made a decision, and it was respected and supported, every step of the way.

I credit my mother with the gift of the ticket because she was always the one who encouraged me to fly. I adored my father, but Mom pushed me to develop my skills and talents in ways that he didn’t. I realize there was a certain amount of vicarious living going on in her embrace of my big dreams, but I also think she recognized early on that I needed to chart my own course and that it was going to be quite different from hers. Not that my mother’s life was terribly thwarted or ground in the mill of the conventional. She had a husband and four children, yes, but she also had a demanding career, first in teaching and then in publishing. She set a high bar for accomplishment, and I’ve spent my life trying to get over it.

The finest gifts are always a reflection of both the giver and the recipient. They come out of deep desires and understandings; they meet deep, often inchoate, needs and open mind and heart to new ways of seeing, being, and thinking. With the gift of a plane ticket, my mother said to me, “Fly, my darling daughter. I know you can. I know you must. Fly away, and I will survive your absence. Fly back, and I will welcome you home. Fly, daughter, fly.”

Thank you, Mom. For the ticket to everything.

The Madwoman's Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

The Madwoman’s Mother, hamming it up for the camera. South Haven, MI, c. 1993.

Learning from Madonna

MDNA Tour, Verizon Center, Washington, DC, 9/23/12. Photo Credit: The Madwoman

Yeah, I know the whole Madonna-Is-This-Epic-Pop-Cultural-Rorschach-Test is, like, so twenty years ago, but bear with me for a minute. A week after my baptism into the High Church of Please Don’t Call Me Madge, I’ve nearly got the ear worm of “Girl Gone Wild” out of my head, but I still find myself cogitating over something I turned to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and said in the middle of the show. I had to whisper/yell it and repeat myself several times to be heard, of course, but once she caught the drift of what I was saying, she nodded in enthusiastic agreement. So, what was my high-on-MDNA revelation?

Early in the show, there’s an incredibly dark sequence in which Our Lady of Pop becomes a gun-toting gal on a rampage. It runs through three songs, the aforementioned “Girl Gone Wild,” “Revolver,” and “Gang Bang.” There’s a lot of shooting and a lot of blood, much of it projected in high-definition on the screen at the back of the stage. “Gang Bang” is an especially creepy and powerful song about a scorned woman shooting an ex-lover in the head. The refrain is a gleeful, “Bang Bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head.” It was riveting, but I don’t think my companion and I were alone in finding the spectacle both discomfiting and difficult to read. However, as “Gang Bang” transitions to a snippet of “Papa Don’t Preach,” the girls with guns scene gives way to four soldiers wearing camouflage pants and masks that seem both vaguely tribal and eerily reminiscent of the hoods worn by tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The soldiers surround Madonna, who is lying on the stage singing, wrap her in chains, hoist her above their heads, and march with her body to the back of the stage. Images of fire and implements of torture flicker on the screen. As she sings “Hung Up,” Madonna, accompanied, by the soldiers, walks across a wire suspended above the floor. They appear to be walking through fire. I realized in that moment that we weren’t being forced merely to revel in gratuitous violence for its own sake. The evocations of Abu Ghraib somberly recontextualized and geopoliticized the cartoonish violence of the earlier, Tarantino-esque scene and made its consequences starkly real. (Or, you know, as real as anything can be in the surreal spectacle of Madonna.) It was then that I turned to WFKG and said, “You know, I would despair of our species if it weren’t for popular culture. Our political system is so broken, so utterly incapable of addressing with any real thought or feeling the urgencies of our time. Popular culture at least tries, at least sometimes.” (Here is a link to a vid of the whole MDNA show. The scenes referred to in this paragraph are in the first 25 minutes.)

I wasn’t just thinking of Madonna, of course, though I do hereby declare that the mind-boggling multimedia extravaganza of “Nobody Knows Me” is the most compelling meditation on representation, violence, and non-identity the twenty-first century has produced. Even without the swastikas. (That “Nobody Knows Me” link is a pretty decent concert vid. Click on it to see if you agree with me or think my claims are proof that I’ve gone MADonna.) I’m also thinking of our old pal Bruce Springsteen, who’s been brooding on the painful gap between American ideals and American realities for decades and fighting off despair through rousing calls to consciousness, compassion, and engagement. It would never have occurred to me to compare these two artists, so deeply different in so many ways, but WFKG and I trooped down to Nationals Park to see Bruce for the eleventy-billionth time just a week before we saw Madonna, so the passion of the Boss’s live performance was fresh in my mind as I found myself caught up in the frenzy of “Like a Prayer” and “Celebration” that concludes the MDNA show. For all their differences, both Madonna and Springsteen demand that their audiences look into the darkness of their own and their country’s souls — but then lift us up into light, dance, a space in which we can see one another’s faces, move and sing together. It isn’t just a party, though it is that. It is a moment of shared agency and, perhaps, a shot at collective redemption. (Bruce, Madonna, and the Post-Catholic Allure of Redemption. Discuss.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the gospel of popular music, particularly in live performance. It’s also fascinating to me, though, that in this moment when our politics seems so stunningly dysfunctional we see evidence throughout popular culture of serious efforts to grapple with many of the intractable problems our leaders are barely able to acknowledge much less address. What am I talking about? Everything from The Hunger Games to Homeland, from the brand new Revolution to the salacious yet smart Scandal. These are all fundamentally dystopian stories of an America dying or destroyed by some combination of corruption, conspiracy, and neglect, but they are also stories of characters struggling to be decent in conditions of profound moral ambiguity and battling to reclaim power — literally in the case of Revolution, in which the rebels are trying to get the lights turned back on after a 15-year power outage. (Given the multi-day power outages we regularly experience in the Washington, DC area, this show feels entirely and excruciatingly apt to me. I imagine I am about two derechos away from being willing to kill to obtain one of those little amulet/flash drive thingies if it would help me to defeat the tyrant thugs of Pepco.)

This should be a longer post, a post that delves deeply into the kind of cultural work I see these shows and performances as doing, a post that explains eloquently and in great detail what we learn not only from Madonna but from any pop cultural text that challenges us to think, feel, act, and connect. This longer post would wrestle with the important question of whether my investment in such stories is not proof that I suffer from what Lauren Berlant in her latest book terms cruel optimism, an attachment to objects — “food, or a kind of love[,] . . . a fantasy of the good life, or a political project” — that “actively impede the aim” that brought me to them initially. It’s entirely possible that I do suffer from cruel optimism. It’s also possible I would rather have cruel optimism than no optimism at all. Because given the choice between dog-paddling and drowning, I would choose dog-paddling every time. Happily.

Sadly, however, it’s also true that it’s Sunday evening. I have work to do. And the new seasons of The Good Wife and Homeland begin in less than an hour. What are you watching? What are you listening to? What kind of work is it doing, and why does it matter? What have you learned and from whom have you learned it?

Peace out, Madpeople at your Laptops, and remember: Don’t be cruel.

I’ve Gotta Be Me-Ish

Does the world need a new blog? Probably not, but I do.

I’ve been hanging out for the past six and a half years in a quirky little corner of the blogosphere known as Roxie’s World, where I wrote, with great delight and satisfaction, in the voice of a bossy, opinionated wire-haired fox terrier. Why? Oh, heck, I don’t know. Why not? It started out as a lark, but I got hooked on the fun of imagining a world and bringing readers into it with me. As a scholar of American culture and writing, I was also fascinated with blogging as a social and literary form. Doing it taught me a lot about reading, writing, and the work of criticism in the 21st century.

Old dog bloggers never die — They just have longer telecommutes is the joke I came up with as a way to explain how the actual dog who inspired my blog would continue to be the narrator and presiding genius of Roxie’s World after her death. The embodied Roxie ceased to be on the penultimate day of 2009, and, true to the joke, the blog went on. It could, theoretically, keep right on going, but lately I’ve begun to feel that the experiment has run its course and perhaps it is time to make a change. I’ve found myself interested in the possibility of beginning again, taking on a new “supposed person,” as Emily Dickinson termed the identities produced through verbal performance.

So here we are. Welcome to the new blog, not quite the same as the old blog but not all that different either. If you’ve been running with the pack over in Roxie’s World for the last little while, you should feel right at home here. You can expect to encounter commentary on a similar, eclectic mix of subjects from a familiar perspective: queer, feminist, critter-affirming, with a tone that moves between and among irreverence, optimism, and righteous indignation, with occasional unapologetic lapses into sentimentality. I’ll write about higher education, middle age, new media, politics, queer stuff, books I read or teach, the stuff I watch on TV. I will rail about Excellence Without Money (which is still ™RW Enterprises LLC) and wax rhapsodic on college women’s basketball. I’ll offer glimpses of life with my new companion terrier, Ruby, and my companion human of 28+ years, the woman known on Roxie’s World as Goose. There’ll be jokes, recipes, pictures I take. Maybe even pictures I draw.

Like, you know, that one there on the left. (Pathetic, I know, but this is the kind of thing that happens when a girl gets a stylus to go with her iPad soon after finishing up Alison Bechdel’s latest book, which you should totes read, by the way.)

The idea of the Madwoman with a Laptop (ML for short!) came to me a couple of years ago when I was writing a short piece on academic feminist blogging for a collection Claire Potter (aka Tenured Radical) put together for The Journal of Women’s History. The figure was useful for thinking through questions about gender, literary history, and pseudonymity that were at the heart of that essay. It was also a satisfying way to pay tribute to the enduring influence of two of my most important teachers and mentors, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, whose monumental work of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, remains a standard in the field.

I don’t know why it took me so long to realize the Madwoman with a Laptop would also be a kick-a$$ framework for a blog, but no one has ever accused me of being quick to change. I am after all an academic and thus an incrementalist at heart. I also felt great loyalty and attachment to the beloved critter who made me a dog person as well as a blogger. Ready or not, however, I’m changing now. I hope you’ll come along for the ride and take a glimpse at the world through the Madwoman’s eyes. Who knows what you will see and what we might be together? Stay tuned, my pretties.

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