Cartoonist and 2014 MacArthur fellow Alison Bechdel may be best known for her eponymous sexism screening tool, but Alyssa Rosenberg believes more people should be familiar with the comic strip that put her on the map:
“Dykes to Watch Out For” dives deep into a fictional lesbian community, considering the impact of transgender politics, marriage and even the death of independent bookstores on her characters. Pop culture as a whole has had an unfortunate tendency, upon telling the stories of white, affluent gay men (and, less often, lipstick lesbians), to consider its task of diversification complete. “Dykes to Watch Out For,” which ran from 1983 to 2008, when Bechdel put it on hiatus, is a testament to just how much material other projects and other media have left on the table.
Her characters were multi-generational, multiracial and in all sorts of relationships, including marriages to gay men and house-sharing arrangements. They also ranged up and down the class spectrum: Mo Testa, the main character, started out as a bookstore clerk and ended up as a reference librarian, Toni Ortiz was a certified public accountant and several other characters were academics.
I always enjoyed the strip – a dykey Doonesbury that also managed to convey the complexity and nuance of lesbian life. Tim Teeman takes the opportunity to revisit a 2012 conversation he had with Bechdel about “Dykes”:
She secretly nursed ambitions that Dykes would become a crossover success: “It never did, but it’s been absorbed, grandfatherly, into the canon.” The strip ran from 1983 to 2008, though Bechdel told me in 2012 she was planning to reunite the women for more adventures. She says she had fun “playing them all off against each other,” debating the political issues of the day—and as this was the 1980s and 1990s, far from the relatively sunny uplands of today’s increasing climate of lesbian and gay equality and acceptance, there was much to debate, laugh mordantly, and grizzle over.
The advance of lesbians and gay men in pop culture has a depressing price, Bechdel said. “When I see what’s on television, it’s sad that queerness has become as commodified as heterosexuality,” she said. “The rough edges have gone. I have nostalgia for the bad old days.”
Bechdel’s works are introspective and personal. They are examples of how graphic novels and comic books can tackle serious themes and explore complex, chewy topics. In 2006, she published Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her turbulent relationship with her father … Bechdel was fearless in telling her story in Fun Home. The book interweaves timelines and characters before building to a devastating emotional climax. It’s as much a story of her own coming of age and coming to terms with her homosexuality as it is a story about how her father was unable to leave the closet — instead living a life as an ostensibly straight funeral home director.
Fun Home is also a smart take on how women learn to define themselves and create their identities as they grow up in a patriarchal society — and how all of that does and doesn’t differ for lesbians. And on top of all of that, it’s a story of coming to terms with one’s homosexuality in a world where such topics aren’t often discussed openly. Fun Home is Bechdel’s most significant work, and it’s where those who are curious about her comics should start.
Meanwhile, Dylan Matthews considers the MacArthur Foundation’s track record:
“The MacArthur Fellowship is not a lifetime achievement award,” the foundation writes. “We are looking for individuals on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea.” The list of past grantees suggests this happens sometimes – and when it does, the Foundation’s prescience is striking. Cormac McCarthy had written four novels before receiving the grant, but the ones that would make his name — Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, The Road — all came after. Henry Louis Gates was an assistant professor at Yale when he got the award, and went on to become a massively important public intellectual. Michael Woodford — now the world’s greatest monetary economist — got the grant while 26 and still in grad school. Stephen Wolfram, inventor of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha, got the award at 21.
But far more common in the fellowship, in 1981 and afterward, are established academics, activists, and writers whose best work was already behind them. Robert Penn Warren wrote All the King’s Men a full 35 years before his grant. Stephen Jay Gould had already developed his theories of evolutionary spandrels and punctuated equilibrium, and become a prominent public intellectual through his war on sociobiology and his column in Natural History. Richard Rorty had become perhaps the most famous philosopher in America two years prior to his grant, with his Philosophy & the Mirror of Nature. David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest the year before his grant. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web eight years before his. Andrew Wiles proved Fermat’s last theorem four years before his. Marion Wright Edelman was perhaps the major outside player in debate over national child care in the early 1970s – more than a decade before her award.
You can’t really defend these kinds of grants on “investing in potential” grounds. These people had already made it.
It’s worth noting also that the list has long had a left-liberal bias – almost no conservatives are even considered, it seems to me. To some, it’s self-evident that a non-liberal could actually be a genius.