This week, a number of incoming Duke University freshmen made news by publicly eschewing the chance to read Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home, on the grounds that it was graphic — in both senses of the word. The novel, widely considered one of the most important works of fiction in the past few decades, LGBT or otherwise, was chosen as a campus-wide summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen, designed to give the class of 2019 a common intellectual experience. The faculty-student selection committee knew the book would be controversial; in their announcement, they noted that they picked it to provoke discussion.
Fun Home, recently adapted into a wonderful, Tony-winning musical, has been censored and challenged many times before. The sticking point seems to be that the novel, being illustrated, includes a few images that are sexual in nature, though they are sexual for expository purposes, not titillating ones. As one of the most outspoken boycotters of the assignment, a student named Brian Grasso, writes:
I think there is an important distinction between images and written words. If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex. My beliefs extend to pop culture and even Renaissance art depicting sex.
A foray into armchair psychology might intuit that the “images” which are cited repeatedly to challenge Bechdel’s work are possibly a screen for the potentially discomfiting fact that the development of an authentic lesbian sexuality and identity are major themes of the book, not ancillary ones. This can be a challenge to a conservative worldview, or an anti-sex one. And as with Selma, which is partially controversial because it positioned black activism as its primary subject and depicted white politicians in a secondary role, Bechdel’s novel centralizes a previously marginalized existence in a way that still feels radical and important — just ask anyone who has seen the Broadway show and watched actresses belting out what are essentially delightful paeans to lesbianism.
It’s interesting to see the differences in the language that’s used when Christian or other religious, rather than liberal or minority, students challenge college assignments. Almost all the headlines I’ve noticed are variations on the theme that Duke students are”refusing” or “rejecting” the book. Pundits are not using the same loaded terms that they used when a few Columbia students got strident about Ovid’s Metamorphoses in a single op-ed. In that case, students were swaddled, coddled, babies, part of “The New Infantilism” on campus, a wave of censorship that was coming for our most hallowed texts. Many onlookers seem convinced that conservative censorship campaigns only happen at the high school level, but look at the history of college-level concern over Fun Home and you’ll see actual censorship at work, from both the government and university trustees:
Last year, the College of Charleston in South Carolina selected the book for the freshman class to read. The school’s board of trustees slammed the book choice and criticized it as “inappropriate for our students” and—you guessed it—“pornography,” wrote Christopher Korey, the school’s director of the First Year Experience and associate professor in the biology department, in an oped in the Post and Courier . Even more alarming, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to defund College of Charleston’s freshmen reading program to the tune of $52,000 because of the Fun Home selection.
The impulse to reject art that makes us uncomfortable is always going to be common among people with sheltered viewpoints, regardless of starting position on the ideological spectrum. But for some reason, many media and academic watchdog types are more inclined to freak out when a “classic” is called out by students for being racist or sexist than when a pioneering new work that challenges old norms is regularly assailed by right-wing critics, even to the point of being outright censored.
Regardless, it seems to me that these students dismissing Bechdel’s book out of hand are being just as childish, and come from just as “coddled” a place — perhaps an even more overtly overprotected one — as those students who are concerned about rape culture and racism in storied texts. As Paula Young Lee notes at Salon, “we arrive at an interesting catch-22; if these students had not peeped, how would they know there are naked pictures lurking in those pages? And if they had already peeped, their eyeballs cannot unsee their idea of sin — would it really be so bad to learn why they reflexively condemn a work they have not read?”
Obviously, this mini-revolt should be an important object lesson to left-wingers too. Considerate trigger warnings or other disclaimers may be appropriate to help students contextualize work and manage PTSD, but it’s important not to open the door to “conscientious academic objection” so wide that everyone feels comfortable completely bypassing, or even protesting, work they find “immoral.” If we do, it’s likely we’ll see far more protests against works like Fun Home than against The Great Gatsby.