Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic has won numerous accolades and its stage adaptation swept this summer's Tony Awards. The book is an autobiographical meditation on love, family and identity, and with its constant references to Greek mythology and literary greats from Shakespeare to James Joyce, it’s not hard to see why it was Duke University’s recommended summer reading for incoming freshmen. But some students are objecting to the novel’s depictions of lesbian sexuality, arguing that the book is borderline pornographic and they shouldn’t have been asked to read it.
Duke’s not the first campus on which Fun Home has caused a stir, but a number of students have taken their concerns public -- fueling ongoing debates about expectations of emotional comfort in higher education and whether the medium matters when it comes to controversial content.
“I objected because I think sexuality is becoming more and more commonplace in our culture, and that’s a risk,” said Brian Grasso, an incoming freshman who began a critical conversation about the book on a Facebook page for Duke’s class of 2019. “Universities like Duke which are very pro-sex risk isolating or even discriminating against people with conservative beliefs.”
He added, “It seems to me that in making this recommended summer reading Duke broke its own rules about diversity and about cultural sensitivity.”
Grasso, 18, identifies as a Christian and follows the Bible’s teachings on what he called sexual purity. He said he was alerted to Fun Home’s depiction of oral sex between two women by a friend, and reached out to the Facebook group to ask about others’ experiences with the book before reading it.
“I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” Grasso wrote.
Soon a handful of students made similar comments, and Grasso said he was privately messaged by some 20 students who shared his concerns or offered support.
Jeffrey Wubbenhorst, another incoming freshman who responded to Grasso’s post, said via email that he didn’t understand why Duke had asked him to read any graphic novel, and that he wasn’t planning to read Fun Home in particular.
“I am a Christian, and the nature of Fun Home means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature,” he said.
Wubbenhorst said he wasn’t surprised that Duke had selected Fun Home for summer reading but said it constituted a “statement about tolerance and cultural sensitivity.” Namely, he said, that “cultural sensitivity is mandatory, unless we don't want to respect your cultural background or religion.”
Similar criticisms have been levied at other colleges and universities that have taught Fun Home, including the College of Charleston -- where state lawmakers threatened to defund the summer reading program for featuring it -- and the University of Utah. Both institutions stood by the book, which tells the story of a lesbian woman coming to terms with her own sexuality as she over time discovers that her distant father is also gay. Fun Home features black-and-white drawings of the protagonist in bed with and performing oral sex on a partner. Much more broadly, it features scenes of a family breaking apart under the strain of lies and closeted identities and then struggling to reconnect, or at least better understand each other, on new ground.
Crafton Hills College in California briefly said it was going to include trigger warnings in its course on graphic novels featuring Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s critically acclaimed Persepolis, about the Iranian revolution, but later backed down amid accusations of censorship. This was prompted by a student and her parents complaining.
Duke’s summer reading program is recommended, not required, and designed to give incoming students a shared intellectual experience. The book is selected each year by a committee of students, faculty and staff. Bechdel, like other authors whose works have been selected in previous years, spoke to students during orientation earlier this summer.
Michael Schoenfeld, a Duke spokesman, said, “Fun Home was ultimately chosen because it is a unique and moving book that transcends genres and explores issues that students are likely to confront.” It’s also “one of the most celebrated graphic novels of its generation, and the theatrical adaption won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and four others, in 2015.”
Schoenfeld reiterated via email that the reading program was voluntary and said that with a class of 1,750 students, “It would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking. We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.”
Grasso said he wasn’t opposed to challenging ideas or uncomfortable conversations, noting that he’d already discussed the book with a gender-fluid friend who disagreed with him. But he said it was unrealistic to expect him to abandon strong beliefs against pornography overnight, or even within four years at Duke. Although he said he believes homosexuality is “morally wrong,” he said he’d be equally against being asked to read a book with graphic depictions of a heterosexual couple -- especially without an explicit warning about the content.
“I think there’s a fundamental difference” between being asked to read about sex and being asked to look at it, he said. “And I think there would be an even bigger difference between a picture and a video. It becomes harder to intellectualize.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education advocated against trigger warnings for graphic novels in the Crafton Hills case. Perhaps because teaching graphic novels in the college classroom is still a relatively new phenomenon, Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE, said he hadn’t seen many other free speech cases involving them. He rejected the argument that graphic novels might be more deserving of trigger warnings or other kinds of censorship than traditional books, however, and said that controversies such as the one at Duke are part of a larger, growing problem of students expecting to be emotionally comfortable at college.
“My overall take is that most people have a desire for freedom from speech [they find objectionable] and that higher education’s goal should be to try to get them out of that way of thinking,” said Lukianoff, who recently wrote a book about the topic, and co-wrote a related cover story for The Atlantic Monthly called "The Coddling of the American Mind." “If we did a better job of educating people in K-12 to seek out material that they didn’t agree with or that might not work with their worldview, this might not happen.”
FIRE also vigorously defends people’s right to free speech. But Lukianoff said no one at Duke was asking the students to accept only the worldview presented in Fun Home -- only to read it, not even for a grade.
Grasso said that recommended reading nevertheless meant encouraged, and that created pressure to conform. He said he’d eventually read the book, after a friend sent him page numbers of sexual scenes so he could avoid them.
Charles Baraw, an assistant professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University who teaches courses on graphic novels, said trigger warnings or not, most of the students involved in the Duke debate seemed to have received some notice about Fun Home’s content.
“Everyone seems to know what is inside the book even when they putatively refuse to look at it,” he said, adding that he’d oppose the imposition of a formal warning system in part “because it implies that viewing a drawing of two naked women on a bed together (reading a book!) may inflict a kind of trauma on the reader. … I'm not comfortable with that.”
That said, Baraw added, “When I teach Fun Home and other challenging graphic narratives, I do discuss the power of the medium to evoke very strong emotional responses, and I ask students to first take note of their gut responses, second, step back and analyze what they felt, thought and experienced when reading these works.”
Like Grasso, Baraw said that images do affect the reader differently than does the written word. But Baraw said that's the point and power of graphic novels.
“When handled as well as Alison Bechdel does in Fun Home (or Art Spiegelman does in Maus [about the Holocaust]) the rhetoric of comics often does disturb, challenge and provoke us. For me, this is as true of the violence in The Dark Knight Returns and Incognegro (which graphically depicts two lynchings) as it is in Fun Home or Charles Burns’s Black Hole,” Baraw said via email. “This is one of the most important reasons to read and teach graphic narratives: they don’t just disturb or offend our sensibilities and beliefs, they get us talking and thinking, and maybe, acting differently than we did before we read them.”
Hillary Chute, an associate professor of English at the University of Chicago, said all of the female graphic narrative authors she wrote about in her book, Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics -- including Bechdel -- have faced censorship issues in their careers. And more controversy is sure to come, she said, given the rising popularity of these works and the fact that people react “very, very differently to seeing images of sex” versus merely reading about it.
“People tend to react to images much, much more quickly than they do to prose -- because they can feel so immediate, and so quickly produce so much affect,” Chute said.
Powerful feelings aside, she strongly disagreed with the idea that Fun Home was pornographic.
“When an author draws something explicit -- even when the context is the farthest thing from pornography -- the reaction is often to label the work pornographic, simply because of the radical act of picturing something,” Chute said. But not all images of sex, however explicit, are pornographic.
“Bechdel’s autobiographical images of her first relationship are not meant to titillate, but to describe, as everywhere else in the book, what her experience of realizing she was a lesbian was like,” Chute said. “In terms of Fun Home striking a nerve, anyone who has actually read the book will know how far from pornography it is.”