Summer Porn Reading Lists (Part 2): Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about the “summer reading list” inclusions which have raised objections because they are seen as “pornographic”, either by the students themselves or parents.  If, indeed, colleges/universities/secondary schools are asking students to read (even as one of several available options) bona fide pornography, we should be alarmed.  Especially given the exorbitant tuition fees at a university such as Duke, where Brian Grasso objects to reading Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the inclusion of something truly pornographic would need to be defended as the most appropriate recommended reading for incoming freshmen, and its educational value and place as an essential part of the collegiate experience clearly articulated.

Duke University has not made it clear why Fun Home is something so essential to the freshman experience that it should be read before incoming students arrive on campus. And I must congratulate Mr. Grasso on his objection to the “assignment”, even as an option among several.  (I also must apologize for having mis-spelled his name in my earlier essay.) Although several of my social-media connections criticized him because his objections were based on a late-adolescent’s interpretation of fairly conservative Christian injunctions concerning contact with impure reading material, I applaud the fact of his having given any thought at all to voicing his opposition to an “assignment” given by the university he plans to attend.  Not every entering freshman thinks about these things. As I mentioned yesterday, I’d have found the objections more convincing had they appeared earlier on in the summer; the “I’m not reading porn” argument seems like an excuse for not having done one’s homework when it is issued so close to the start of term.

I had not read the “family tragicomic”–Ms. Bechdel’s memoir presented in the form of a comic book–when I first read the Washington Post article, and felt it necessary to do so prior to commenting on it beyond participation in some Facebook conversations. I have now done so.

It was a fast read, not so much because I found it engrossing or the charachters engaging (I did not), but because there are so few words.  Perhaps the artwork is what gives Fun Home its power, but it was lost on me, considering I’ve never been enamored of the comic-book genre to begin with, and have not really read one since I was in junior high school. It does deal with some potentially important themes:  growing up a little outside the mainstream, parental absence even when present, sexual identity, ambiguous death (both in its circumstances and the feelings it produces in the survivors). For me, all of this is “flattened”, almost to the point of trivialization, because of the graphic medium. I found the references to great works of literature mostly banal.

I am not sure what the educational justification for Fun Home is, and certainly, were I designing a curriculum in which the dominant themes needed exploration, I would find it necessary to investigate other materials before choosing this particular work for inclusion.  In any event, I would want it read in a group setting, with conversations directed by an instructor (rather than leaving students hanging on their own to figure it out), and with properly designed assessments based on the reading, to determine whether the desired learning outcomes had been met.

However, calling Fun Homepornography” is a bit of a stretch. I say this despite some “graphic” depictions of women engaged in oral sex.  In the 232 pages (hardback edition), I recall exactly four frames in which this activity occurs; one frame (I believe) is given over to masturbation.  With an average of four frames per page, that means somewhere around one-half of one percent of the book is devoted to explicit depictions of sexual activity.  Considering the purpose of pornography is to arouse the reader/viewer to a state of sexual desire/excitement to participate in the activity described or depicted, the reader/viewer would have to be exceptionally susceptible for Fun Home to meet the objective.   I believe Mr. Grasso to be male, which would make his participation in lesbian sexual activity all the more a remarkable success.

I am torn as to the purpose or appropriateness of Fun Home as reading which all entering Duke freshmen should experience prior to the start of their first term on that august campus. It explores–not well, in my view–some important themes, which would be better done as part of the curriculum. But Mr. Grasso’s incorrect objection to Fun Home on the grounds of it being pornography can only be made two ways.  The first is pure ignorance of the book’s contents.  The second is having seen the images (either through excerpts, or from actually having read it), and rejecting it out of hand rather than seeing the few frames in their context rather than as the somewhat dull depictions they would be when taken from the book as a whole.

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