Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Hot topics to watch out for

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Alison Bechdel, centre front, at the Auckland Women's Centre. Photo / Lisa Williams
Alison Bechdel, centre front, at the Auckland Women's Centre. Photo / Lisa Williams

Cult American cartoonist Alison Bechdel recently popped by the Freeman's Bay Community Hall for an Auckland Women's Centre fundraiser. It was as if Lemmy turned up in Western Springs to support the speedway, or Mark Knopfler put Local Hero memorabilia into last week's anti-Bunnings Arch Hill art auction.

In other words, in certain circles, Bechdel's a superstar. The funky, stylish short-haired women from Waiheke, Grey Lynn and Titirangi - with occasional bearded man - went wild as the writer-illustrator of Time magazine's Book of the Year 2006 bypassed the stairs and leapt on to the stage, like a boss - an "exercise junkie", Bechdel's aged over 50 but looks an androgynously attractive 30.

She won the Time accolade for her first graphic novel memoir Fun Home about her closeted gay father who died in a suspected suicide a month after Bechdel herself came out aged 19. Elsewhere, Bechdel has said she was freaked out about the book's best-seller success: she thought she was baring her soul to her own small, established sub-culture, instead it was to the whole world.

(The South Carolina House of Representatives cut funding to the College of Charleston last month for putting Fun Home on an optional reading list.)

But in Auckland, Bechdel spoke mostly about the comic strip she produced for 25 years until 2008, Dykes to Watch Out For. She started the strip partially because in the early 80s, "mainstream culture seemed irrelevant" to her own experience. The strip was Tales of the City meets The L Word - well before The L Word existed - it is half soap opera, half editorial cartoon about "how politics and things going on in the world shape our daily lives".

Case in point is the Bechdel Test. A work of fiction - originally a film - passes the Bechdel Test if it includes at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Such criteria don't sound so radical, but very few films pass the test: The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter series all fail.

Bechdel wrote the comic strip episode outlining this "rule" in 1985; it lay dormant until the internet made it a meme, making Bechdel both proud and befuddled. Last year, Sweden even adopted it as a semi-official film rating system. But Bechdel is ambivalent about taking credit: "I stole this from my friend!"

By having characters debate hot topics, Bechdel found herself researching opinions she disagreed with. A Dykes character named Cynthia is a Republican evangelical, and while Bechdel has never sympathised with Cynthia's views, "the more I wrote about her, the more ... I understood why someone might think like that, rather than just thinking they were insane."

The strip pokes fun at Cynthia for coming out as lesbian while remaining loyal to her church's virginity pledge, but it also affectionately lampoons those characters like Bechdel herself. Political analysis via self-mockery and equal-opportunities teasing. It would make the election more fun.

- NZ Herald

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