Social attraction towards either the same, the other or

Social psychologists have long been engaged with the question how
individuals construct and understand their identities (Abrams et al. 98). Through
theories, they have tried to explain the interdependence of humans in this
process of understanding and construction. Freud explains the relationship
between the true identity and the performed identity, which is adjusted to
society’s norms and values, through his psychoanalysis. Henri Tajfel developed
the social identity theory which argues that individuals understand themselves
through group relationships and traditional gender stereotypes and expectations.
These stereotypes tend to be prescriptions for how men and women are expected
to behave and look (Prentice and Carranza 269). Auster and Ohm however argue
that humans no longer rely on traditional gender norms and stereotypes. They
claim that the boundaries of gender have become less strict and humans are now
free to associate themselves with elements from the other sex. Gauntlett agrees
with this last view and argues that representation of diverse identities and
sexualities in the media, can help an individual understand their identity. These
stereotypes and expectations of gender and sexuality play an important role in
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, as it
discusses Alison’s process of identity construction, and specifically how she
came to terms with her and her father’s queer identity. This paper aims to link
above-mentioned identity theories to the memoir to answer the questions: How are both Alison and her father’s
identities 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 which
someone is classified as either male or female. Gender is the division made in
society, according to biological sex. With gender come associated norms of
typical masculine or feminine behaviour, clothing and stereotypes. Finally,
sexuality refers to an individual’s sexual feelings and attraction towards
either 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 an
individual’s identity.

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Freud was one of many theorists to
have looked at the human psyche and its composition. The human psyche is a key
component of identity, since it determines the individual’s behaviour. And
behaviour represents who an individual is (Tajfel). Freud argued that the human
psyche consists of three components: the Id, Ego and Superego (Lapsley and Stey
1; Mcleod 1). The Id is the instinct component which motivates behaviour. In
this component elements of sexuality and self-preservation are incorporated and
hence influence behaviour. Important in this component is the principle of
pleasure. The wishes, i.e. impulses, constituted in the id have to be fulfilled
for an individual to feel pleasure. The Ego could be seen as a mediator between
the instinctive reality, the id, and the external reality, society. The ego
controls the impulses so that they remain realistic within society. Finally,
the superego further control’s the impulses by incorporating society’s norms
and values, resulting in an impulse that is not only realistic but also
acceptable and ideal (Lapsley and Stey 1; McLeod 1). The superego is a key
component in determining someone’s behaviour as it consists of both the
conscience and the ideal self. McLeod argues that “if the ego gives in to the
id’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 and
superego are aware of society’s norms and values, and use them to control the
id. The basis of the human psyche, as described by Freud, relates to
individual’s in-group behaviour as discussed by Tajfel in his social identity
theory.

In 1969, Tajfel introduced the social
identity theory which is concerned with an individual’s sense of the self
within a group. It aims to explain how an individual’s attitudes and beliefs
are influenced by group members (Abrams et al. 98). These groups, according to
Tajfel, are groups within society and include family, friends, social class,
etc (Stets and Burke 228). The social identity theory argues that an individual
is reflexive. This means that humans can classify themselves in relation to
social categories (Stets and Burke 224). They recognize certain categories by someone’s
performance of it. By performance Stets and Burke mean that men and women are
expected to follow distinct gender stereotypes. Someone then performs an
identity, or a certain role within society (225). Behaviour traditionally
associated 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 associated
with a particular group in society, someone is expected to show a certain
behaviour that corresponds with that of the group. The psyche, as defined by
Freud, makes sure individuals conform to these societal norms by mediating
between an individual’s true identity and its expected identity (Lapsley and Stey
1; McLeod 1). Humans are therefore interdependent in the process of identity
construction and understanding of the self, as they rely largely on societal
norms and expectations of behaviour.

However, the social identity theory
is dated, and it is argued that these set patterns of gender behaviour and
characteristics are changing in modern society (Auster and Ohm 500). Auster and
Ohm argue that characteristics of masculinity and femininity changed in the
1970s. An important factor in this shift is women’s emancipation. This made
that 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 of
equal and unequal. He also states that women more often reject traditional ideas
regarding their gender role and that sexual equality is widely supported (8).
The shift gender roles are currently undergoing make that characteristics may
even overlap at some points (10). In his work Media, Gender and Identity published in 2002, Gauntlett stresses the importance of the media in the
construction and understanding of identity. These days, the media widely
represents different images of men, women and sexuality. Gaunlett argues that
role models represented in the media have changed and that television soaps now
represent lesbian and gay characters so the audience can “get to know”
non-mainstream identities (187). A growing tolerance towards the queer
community is one of the many positive consequences of this representation of
gay characters in the media. For newer generations, the step to coming-out or
performing an identity that does not resemble traditional norms of masculinity
or femininity, may therefore be less frightening than it was years ago.
Gauntlett states that “modern women are not generally bothered about fitting
their identity within the identity of femininity” (12). He argues that
traditional gender norms are associated with the past and that both men and
women are freer to associate themselves with a gender that crosses these
traditional lines (12).

As
mentioned before, gender and sexuality in relation to identity construction are
central themes in Fun Home. In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel discusses the
story of her childhood, and how her growing-up has made her into the person she
is today. Since the memoir, written by Bechdel, is about herself, the names
Alison and Bechdel will be used interchangeably in this paper, but refer to the
same person. Through the memoir, Bechdel discusses events from her childhood which were important
in her process of self-exploration.
She also discusses people who were important in her journey, and puts special
focus on the story of her father. The memoir can be understood as a
bildungsroman as it discusses the authors’ psychological journey of
self-exploration (Herman 199). Alison was born into the Bechdel family in the 1960s and she
belongs to groups such as middle-class white Americans, teenagers, students and
the queer community. Biologically she also belongs to the female sex, however
growing up, she finds that she does not identify with its stereotypical norms
and expectations. The next paragraphs aim to link previously discussed theories
to the memoir, to investigate how both Alison and her father construct their
identities and how they rely on particular exemplary sources.

The
character of Alison in Fun Home
clearly undergoes the process of comparing and identifying identities, as
discussed in Tajfel’s social identity theory. As mentioned before, the theory states
that an individual continually compares itself with categories and patterns of
behaviour to establish whether they identify with it or not. Alison discusses
several people and works that she reflected on in her journey of
self-exploration. Her father Bruce plays an important role in the memoir as she
not only tries to make
meaning of her own identity, but also focuses on building his. She has to come
to terms with who he is in order to understand and accept herself. Lemberg
argues that she has to make these connections between her identity and her
father’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 his
internal struggle, something which he has never been able to openly do. She
continuously mentions his determination to restore the house to stress his multifaceted identity (Lemberg
par. 5). While exploring her father’s history, she starts to understand certain
parts of his character and things he did. Bechdel states that her father “used
his skilful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what
they are not” (16). Her father was hiding his true identity and stayed closeted
all his life. Hence, the intersecting storylines of both Alison and her father’s
identity are important, as the building of his identity is closely linked to her
personal process of identity exploration.

Apart from Alison’s dependence upon
her father’s identity, she also
widely relies on literature in her identity exploration. She describes how her exploration saw
a boost in the time she went to college (Bechdel 61-70). Gauntlett discussed
the importance of queer representation in the media and argued that it has
changed how both men and women think about gender and sexuality. He states that
modern women have learnt to reject traditional gender norms (187). In Fun Home, literature fills this role in
that it is the main medium of queer representation for Alison. Literature
representing queer characters was widely available for Alison to read. She used
this information to understand and learn more about the queer community and to
compare her feelings. Rohy argues that she uses “the queer archive as a
technology 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 time
and age. Literature helps her “contextualise her life in relation to historical
events and social norms” (Bauer 3). This process of comparing seems in line
with the social identity theory but it exceeds the traditional boundaries of
femininity and masculinity. One of the things Alison learns through these books
about the history of queer life, is that her father’s position, as a young queer
boy, 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 queer
literature either. As Auster and ohm state, boundaries of sexuality and gender
started to become less restricted from the 1970s, but before that time,
different norms and behaviour were expected from gender performances. Bruce
grew up being surrounded by traditional norms of femininity and masculinity,
and he was expected to follow the latter. Nevertheless, Bruce, just like his
daughter, uses literature in his process of identity performativity. Bauer
claims that in the memoir, books are not just a means of identification, but
they are also used as a form of communication between father and daughter (7). In
addition to learning about her own identity, Alison gets to know and understand
her father more and more by reading books on his recommendation. In chapter 3
Alison discusses her father’s preference for Fitzgerald’s work and argues that
he must have identified with the characters. Even though he has not discussed
this with Alison, she states that “the parallels are unavoidable” (Bechdel 63).
Hence, both Alison and her father are interdependent in their identity
construction but Alison’s exemplary social categories exceed the traditional
boundaries described in Tajfel’s social identity theory.

According to Herman, Alison’s
identity formation story is largely about her learning to reject standard and
dominant gender stereotypical behaviour and expectations (199). The social
identity theory implies that humans largely rely on traditional norms and
expectations of gender (Stets and Burke 225). As a child, Alison was widely
confronted with these dominant norms of gender behaviour, as her father tried
to make her dress and act like a girl. The memoir shows this struggle, from
graphics of her father trying to make her wear a dress to a wedding, to a
situation where he makes her wear a barrette in her hair, which she
continuously removes (Bechdel 96-98).  At
the time, Alison did not know this was the result of her father’s attempt to
supress his true identity, but in her memoir, she states that “… he was
attempting to express something feminine through me” (98). Her father knows that
it would be socially acceptable if Alison performed this feminine behaviour
instead of him. Alison, however biologically female, does not identify with
these associated norms of behaviour. In turn, she tries to project her
rejection of femininity onto her father (Watson par. 13). Bechdel discusses her
younger self’s interest in men’s fashion on several occasions. She states that
she “had become a connoisseur of masculinity at an early age” (95).  In watching other people perform masculine
behaviour, she recognizes who she truly is.  For instance, in chapter 4 of the memoir, one
of the graphics shows Alison reading an Esquire and telling her father what
style of clothes he should buy (99). Freud’s psychoanalysis states that the
id’s impulses, the element that contains an individual’s sexuality and
self-preservation, are being controlled by the superego, so that someone’s
behaviour is in line with society’s norms and expectations (Lapsley and Stey 1;
McLeod 1). Lapsley and Stey describe this ‘filtered’ behaviour as acceptable
and ideal (1). Nevertheless, the psychoanalysis implies that humans not always
express their true impulses, their true self, since the superego transforms the
impulses 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 their
preferred behaviour upon each other. Both know certain behaviour would be more
acceptable if performed by the other
(Watson par. 13).

Hence, this paper aimed to prove how
both Alison and her father Bruce’s (queer) identities are constructed in Fun Home. Analysis of the memoir, linked
to identity theories by Freud, Tajfel, Gauntlett and Auster and Ohm, showed how
both father and daughter are interdependent in the process of identity
construction. Alison relies partly on her father’s history as she tries to
build his identity to make a connection with her own, and to make meaning of
her feelings. There are, however, differences in the way they accept and express
who they are. This paper argues that this difference is a result of the
generational gap between the two. Alison, growing up in the 1960s and 70s, had
more possibilities to reflect on literature representing a diversity of
identities and sexualities than her father growing up in the 1940s. Initially,
both characters try to conform to society’s norms by projecting their true genders
upon each other, but as she gets older, Alison soon accepts her true identity
and rejects traditional gender norms. Hence, Tajfel’s social identity theory could be applied to
Alison’s construction process, but only if we step away from traditional gender
norms. Bruce fits much better in Tajfel’s idea of identity formation, but
mainly because of the society he grew up in.  Therefore, where Bruce hides his true
self and stays closeted all his life, Alison comes out as soon as she knows who
she is and represents the modern female as discussed by Gauntlett in his work Media, Gender and Identity.

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