“It’s our very capacity for self-consciousness that makes us self-destructive.”
The name Bechdel is for me synonymous with the Bechdel test. I was, of course, vaguely aware that the phrase originated from a person named Bechdel who did something with comic strips or drawing on the internet, but other than that it was just a feminist test that was popular for a while, but has since gone somewhat out of fashion.
The Bechdel test has been criticized for being insufficient, that it’s too easy. In that in order to “pass” the test a movie must feature 1. At least two women, 2. Who talk to each other, 3. About something other than a man. This means that a movie could effectively pass it if one woman asks another about the bus schedule. The test has since been elaborated, replaced etc. by other versions that I will not comment on here. The only thing I will say is that for me the delightful thing about the Bechdel test is that is absolutely absurd. It is nowhere near sufficient in terms of ensuring interesting narratives for rich, interesting female characters – which is why it’s so hilarious that so many movies fail even this simple test.
So, I knew practically nothing about Are you my mother? The book is born from Bechdel’s attempt to understand her relationship with her mother. She draws on psychoanalysis, often including descriptions of dreams, as well as literature, poetry, memories, and conversations.
At times the book can appear meandering or aimless, but it is only because I relationship does not just happen between two people, but also when the other is not there as is illustrated in the opening scene where Bechdel is talking to her mother in the car. The mother is not there, yet their relationship is and it is from this point of view the conversation is carried out.
This book is not an easy read. It is heavy on intertextual references and at times I wanted to stop the book, find the research paper she was referencing in order to understand deeper. I was happy to have read To the Lighthouse as it is heavily featured.
“I have never read Sylvia Plath. My mother has never read Virginia Woolf. In general, we have stayed out of one another’s way like this.”
The book shines in the conversations, when the main character steps out of her mind and engages with other people. This also allows the comic book format to step into character, allowing the actual events to take place seamlessly and effortlessly underneath Bechdel’s own psychoanalysis. At times the meandering becomes a but unstructured. The dreams in particular are heavy-handed and overanalyzed, yet Bechdel is skilled in bringing the narrative back from the brink again and again.
A question Bechdel and her mother seem to struggle with a lot, as Bechdel reveals intimate personal issues about her family in her books, is whether art is better when it is generalized, apart from the self, or if it is truer when it is up close and personal. The mother thinks Bechdel’s art is far too intimate and personal, whereas Alison believes that is the only way art can be. I can’t help but think it is fitting that the mother is an actress, taking generalized words upon her to act a part whereas Bechdel is a writer who is much closer to the production of the story.
Throughout this book I was completely in awe of her honesty. Even just writing this review I’m tiptoeing around my feelings for my mother, yet you cannot read this book without facing that exact confrontation. My mother is amazing and wonderful and a human flawed being. I love her, but more importantly I adore her as a person. And like Bechdel it required some work and maturing to come to terms with all the issues between us, and passed on from her.
I think this book works so well, because in a sense both Bechdel and her mother are right. The value of art happens in the personal relation to art. And luckily humans are all so similar that even the most personal can become general.