Mothers and Freud: What More Could You Want?

Oh, look! A review! This is interesting. Read on: Cartoonist Alison Bechdel is back with her second graphic novel. I examine her own prejudices against the graphic novel and concludes that Are You My Mother? reads like a serious piece of literature, but illustrated with lots of pretty pictures.

Here’s the thing: I am a bit of a snob. I studied English lit at university and I learnt, long ago, that ‘serious works of literature’ don’t have pretty pictures. Illustrations are for children; text is for grown-ups. So I approached Alison Bechdel’s new graphic novel with a kind of, ‘this is going to be fun’ attitude. I was therefore surprised to find Are You My Mother? so, well, serious. With its psychoanalytic approach and quotations from Virginia Woolf, it’s as angst-ridden as a teenager with her first guitar. It’s kind of the lesbian folksinger of the comic genre.

All images courtesy Jonathan Cape

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love lesbian folksingers. Melissa Etheridge? I’m totally down with her. Constant Craving? I’m right with you KD. But, even for a therapy-loving, romantic person like myself, Are You My Mother? was a bit much. Bechdel’s second memoir chronicles her relationship with her mother. It tells the story of her mother’s frustrated artistic ambition as she gives up writing poetry to bring up her three children. It feels like, having exorcised the ghost of her father through her previous memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, it is now Bechdel’s turn to write about her mother.

Bechdel layers stories. She uses psychoanalysis and the work of Virginia Woolf to examine her relationship to her headstrong mother. She writes about mother and daughter through the lens of her therapy sessions and the process of writing Fun Home. The memoir is kind of a book about writing another book as well as this book and … you see? It’s just very hard to explain.

Bechdel is obsessed with twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf. Heck, she even goes back in time to imagine the two passing each other in a London park. Bechdel copies chunks of Winnicott and Woolf’s writing into her cartoons. She frames them in her strip, even as their ideas inform and guide her work. It’s all very meta.

It may be in the nature of memoir itself, but Are You My Mother? seems to say a lot more about Bechdel than it does about her mother. Sure, we get the story of her mother’s difficult marriage and frustrated artistic career, but the focus is always on Bechdel’s therapeutic process. She is obviously haunted by her mother. At one point Bechdel moans to her therapist that she can’t write until she gets her Mum out of her head. Bechdel’s mother is portrayed as sympathetic, yet distant. It’s easy to understand how this no-nonsense character is unfathomable to our neurotic, loveable artist.

In many ways it’s tempting to read Are You My Mother? as a sequel to Fun Home. Bechdel’s critically acclaimed first novel chronicles her relationship with her closeted father, who died in a probable suicide attempt when she was 19. Like her latest book, it provides an introspective story of her childhood. Fun Home jumps about in time, drawing comparisons between the frustrated life of her father and Bechdel’s own life as an out lesbian. She seems to be searching for her roots, somehow healing the pain of her father’s death by writing her own, queer, narrative.

In Are You My Mother? Bechdel explores the nature of the relationship between mothers and daughters. It’s a cliché that sons are Mummy’s boys and daughters are Daddy’s girls. So what about mothers and daughters? Freud said that the two are in sexual competition with each other. Our fairy tales portray mothers as scary, unreliable beings who often betray their offspring. Don’t trust your mother, she’ll probably unintentionally sell you to a witch or try to eat your heart. Charlize Theron’s deranged stepmother in Snow White and the Huntsman is a recent portrayal of an older woman who will do anything to destroy her stepdaughter. The murderous aliens of this year’s Prometheus turned our anxieties about our origins into big screen horror. Are You My Mother? sets out to heal the rift between mother and daughter and in doing so navigates one of our most fraught relationships.

Although I felt that Are You My Mother? needed to be edited with a heavier hand, Bechdel’s approach to memoir is compelling. I mean, I love introspection (see above note about being romantic). I’m totally down with the therapy. I am even aiming to read, sometime in the near future, the complete works of Sigmund Freud (I don’t know if this makes me annoying or ambitious. Probably both.). So Bechdel’s exploration of psychoanalysis and the difference between fiction and memoir appeals to me. Maybe if I were less of a geek, I wouldn’t have enjoyed the book so much.

For me, a twenty-something lesbian, it feels like Bechdel has been around for, like, ever. Her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For came out in 1983 (I was only just born, yo) and ran for 25 years. I associate Bechdel with that other lesbian cartoonist, Diane DiMassa. I read DiMassa’s Hothead Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist (obviously it’s hilarious) at about the same time as Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For and now the two authors are tangled up in my head in a kind of feminist-lesbian free association. Perhaps, approaching this memoir, what I really wanted was a bit of light-hearted fun. I didn’t get it.

To sum up, I have to admit that I would read pretty much anything Bechdel writes. Her late-night poetry or scribbles on a piece of toilet paper would, for me, be a treat. Are You My Mother? is harder going than you’d expect, but it is quite fun if you want to be encouraged to run out and read some psychoanalysis or works of modern literature. Its references to other authors gave me plenty of opportunity to geek out and I got to do so while reading a comic.

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Queers are Slutty, Lesbians are Boring

Why queer feminism is sexist, queer snobbery and, somehow, the Grand Prix.

Well, that was a bit ugly wasn’t it? All that fighting about the Berlin Femme Show. Meow, meow. I admit, swearing publicly on my blog wasn’t the best move, but it was the accumulation of years of femme hatred and misunderstanding and I was just sick of it and lost my temper. However, just like Nina Simone, I am a fluffy little kitten on the inside and I don’t want to be misunderstood. Oh well, on to the next topic.

Earlier this week I wrote a review of queer porno Mommy is Coming. It’s a pretty straightforward film with lots of sex and solid, quite funny, storyline. If you feel so inclined, I think you should go see it. However, something about it irked me a bit, and I’d like to talk about it more here.

The popularity of my post on hypersexualisation within the queer community obviously touched a raw nerve for many of you. A lot of you agreed that you felt pressure to want to and to have a lot of sex in order to fit in the queer scene. It seems, that in order to be a hip queer in the 21st century, you need to be very sexual and sexual in a certain way. I know that I’ve talked about the hypersexualisation of queer and the privileging of polyamory a fair bit already, but what can I say? I’m still not over it.

“Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach”

Last year I attended a zine workshop run by a friend. Each participant was asked to make a page for a collaborative zine for Lad.i.y.fest Berlin. We weren’t asked to focus on a particular topic, but given that this was a group of mostly queers at a feminist festival, nearly all of us wrote about our queer identities, which, of course, we probably all see as feminist. It was really fascinating to see a group of people, with hardly any prior guidance, all create pieces about their struggle to fit in the queer community and coming out as queer. One person wrote about feeling outcast as a bisexual, another a celebration of polyamory. I, of course, went on an angry femme rant. Diverse as they were, it took my friend’s perspective to see what all of these pieces had in common. She summarised – lifting her hand above her head – it seems that queer is an idea we think of as up here, and we – she moved her hand down to her waist – feel that we can’t get at it and are stuck down here. Queer is an ideal that none of us feel we can reach.

This idea has stuck with me over the past year and come up again and again as I keep hitting wall upon wall within the queer community: femmephobia, the privileging of polyamory over monogamy, queer masculinities over queer femininities and BDSM over so-called ‘vanilla’ sex. Although we queers congratulate ourselves on living by radical ideas that eliminate sexist and patriarchal hierarchies, we too create hierarchies that cause us to push away individuals who don’t conform to our standards.

Can any of us, as queers, say that we feel 100% comfortable in the queer community? I certainly don’t.

Of course, I know that many of you lovely readers are super intelligent. I know that many queers understand that the queer community can never be a happy patriarchy-free bubble, because this is the world we live in. And the trouble with the patriarchy is that it gets everywhere. But I do think we rest on our laurels too much. We are a bit too self-congratulatory and too quick to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the queer bill.

Over the past few months I have come to distrust the phrase ‘queer feminism.’ In fact, when I hear an event described as queer feminist, I am most likely to grumble and not want to go. This is because the values I see queer feminism representing here in Berlin are actually ones that I find sexist. Queer feminism, has, for me, come to mean a party where I will be the only femme and I will be ignored. No one will hit on me and I will struggle to find anyone who looks like me. I’ll smile if I see anyone wearing a bit of make-up, a hint of colour. The only trans represented at these parties will be transmasculinities.

 “I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool”

When I came out for the second time as bisexual (I had come out as a lesbian before, and then promptly fallen in love with a guy), I did so not because I really felt bisexual (I thought of the guy moment as a freak accident rather than a possibly recurring event) but because it was the cool thing to say. As a girl, it was OK for me to come out as bisexual because that wasn’t seen as threatening to the heterosexist status quo. As a bisexual woman, I still had one foot in the hetero pond, and everyone knows that girls can’t really fuck each other anyway. It took a lot of courage, and it was a very slow process, for me to later come out as lesbian, an identity that I found fitted me better.

Later, moving to Montreal and getting my first taste of living within a queer community, I started to notice that calling myself a lesbian was distinctly uncool here too. Real queers have fluid sexualities and don’t focus on such unimportant things as gender. Real queers love the person, not the gender. It became very fashionable to say, “Man, I experience my sexuality as fluid” (except without the ‘Man’, because actually if you were cool you wouldn’t sound like someone trying to imitate a rap star from the 90s, like I do). I get the whole sexuality is fluid idea. My own sexuality has changed faster than a tyre in the Grand Prix and I don’t think it’s my job to dictate someone else’s desires for them. However, I don’t like snobbery and such statements, with their implied I’m-a-better-queer-than-you, really piss me off.

So, how does all this relate to Mommy is Coming and queer porn? In my review of the film, I noted that although it showed some fine butch-femme and butch-butch sex, its view of what ‘queer sex’ is still felt pretty limited to me.

As queers and/or lesbians, what you will, we are starved for representation in film. There are still very few films out there about us, and even fewer that don’t pathologise us completely in order to ease heterosexist angst about queers taking over the world. Mainstream films about us portray us as fucked-up power lesbians who have non-penetrative sex on flowery beds next to our teddy bears. So it’s not surprising that our community-made queer films tend to go in the opposite direction. BDSM, dildos, public sex and leather. However, just like being a lesbian is uncool, it feels to me like the prevalence of these types of sex and relationships in queer films show a one-sided view of queer life. They seem to be saying that this is the epitome of what it means to fuck and love as a queer. If you’re a cool queer, this is what you’ll be doing in your bed/dungeon/swing tonight.

As a reader commented on my latest article:

“In the same way rad fem lesbian separatism did a fine job of ostracising certain women based on an essentialist reading of bodies, I find that far too much ‘queer’ culture and porn is doing exactly this again under a different banner”

Thanks, supernaut, for summarising so well. It seems that, instead of living in a happy-go-lucky world free of sexism and social norms, we queers are enforcing social norms in exactly the same way as the big evil Patriarchy Dude does ‘out there.’ Queer films promote polyamorous relationships, public sex and BDSM as a privileged viewpoint.

Contrast this with the fluffy-bunny-rabbit version of lesbianism we see in mainstream L-films, and you get a kind of kinky devil versus innocent angel version of gay life. Queers are leather-touting bois, lesbians are asexual little girls. It’s pretty interesting that these two images mirror the virgin/whore dichotomy, (not to mention masculinities vs. femininities) right?

My point here isn’t to slate Mommy is Coming, or to write a harsh critique of the few queer and mainstream lesbian films we have. I just want to point out that, yes, we do put too much pressure on each film to represent how we live our lives, and, yes, there aren’t enough films about us. So, budding queer filmmakers, who’s ready to take up the challenge?

Did you like this article? Then stay tuned for: Radical vs. Queer feminism; the showdown, next week.