Hey incoming Duke freshmen,
I heard that many of you are troubled by Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a graphic novel that was on your optional summer reading list. I was strictly conservative and devoutly religious just like you when I went to college, so I understand where you’re coming from. I remember how my experience with a book could be tainted by material that offended me.
But there are a few things I want to tell you now that I’m older.
You’re just starting your adult experience. You’re just starting to get out into the world without your parents to make your decisions for you. Until now you’ve had people screening things for you, holding things back from you, and protecting you because you were young. This book was given to you by adults, the same kind of adults who used to keep things from you. It seems strange at first, I know, but this is only the beginning.
For the rest of your life, adults will show you things and tell you things that you don’t like. You’re going to find things that conflict with your beliefs, people who disagree with them, systems that go against what you stand for.
In high school you can opt out of a class with a note from your parents. In college you can skip an optional book on the curriculum. That’s true. But you can’t spend your whole life refusing to participate or taking a pass. You can’t avoid all these things and these people and these systems and be a participant in the world. You need to figure out how you’re going to cope.
You probably know this already but sex is on TV, in movies, in books, in your neighbor’s dorm room. There’s also a bunch of other things you find morally offensive all around you: violence, lying, and stealing. Bad acts and evil things are an unavoidable part of being human.
So what do you do now that you’re (almost) an adult?
You can avoid things. That is an option and it feels awfully comfortable and safe since that’s how it is when you’re a kid. It has its problems, though. It’s not foolproof. Things constantly sneak in, and somehow it hurts more when you happen upon them because you make it a practice not to deal with these things. People start seeing you as someone different, which can be good but it can also hurt relationships and limit prospects.
Fun Home contains drawings of nude women. In my copy they’re on pages 80-81 and pages 214-215. These women are lying next to each other naked. They read books. They flirt. They have sex. Some of you called it “pornography.” This is what adults told you about sex when you were young. But you’re an adult now and this isn’t actually right.
Take it from someone who’s seen actual pornography, this isn’t it. Porn is designed to titillate, its sole purpose is arousal. These women’s bodies aren’t posed or idealized. Bechdel is showing her life just like she’s shown it for all the other pages in her book, as it is. You can run away from nudity and call it “pornography.” I can’t stop you.
But there are other options. Here’s one I like: You can learn more about the things you don’t agree with. It’s actually pretty useful, and the surprising thing is you can learn about them and continue disagreeing with them. You can have a richer knowledge of the world and still say the same person.
You can look at these pages in Fun Home for the few seconds it takes you to process the story and flip to the next pages. You can do that without your worldview falling apart, I promise. I can’t promise it won’t make you uncomfortable. It might show you a world you find ugly or one you don’t really like or one you don’t agree with.
That’s okay. This is how life works as an adult.
Do you ever read the newspaper? The same thing happens there. People give opinions you find flawed. Politicians pass legislation you dislike. Crimes are committed and people are punished. Much of what you find there is unpleasant. But you’re able to look at it, process it, disagree with it, and move on.
This is how being an adult works.
When something makes you uncomfortable, it also makes you think. It helps you evaluate your beliefs and your opinions. It can show you when you have a particular weakness. For example, if you find a graphic novel featuring a few pages of nudity to be unforgivable but happily consume a graphic novel full of violence and murder, that may be a reason to wonder why your reactions are so different when your beliefs say they should be the same.
I’m not saying you’re doomed to a life of discomfort. There are plenty of times when you find life to be almost entirely made up of beautiful things you love. But sometimes all of it gets to be too much. This is true for anyone, even people who aren’t religious conservatives. (It’s pretty trendy to say how different we are, but we’re more alike than you realize.) I know it can seem like you’re the only one who ever feels like your beliefs are under attack, but it’s actually a universal feeling. The atheist liberals also get weary of the barrage and take a little break. But none of us can take a break for too long because life moves forward, time passes, and we have to find our place in the world.
There’s one more important thing to think about. You can look at these stories and learn from them. You can learn how the world works, how people think, what other people’s lives are like who are different than you. (Jesus was actually a big fan of this stuff.) You may be surprised to find that the story of Alison Bechdel and her relationship with her father strikes a chord with you or that there are parts of her life that are similar to yours. You may find that she has seen a side of the world you didn’t know existed. One day that knowledge may come in handy in places you don’t expect.
So next time you get a reading list, think about what your reaction says about the way you live your life. Think about how much of the world you don’t know and how much you still have to learn. Think about where you want to draw those lines.
And make your own decision.