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Calling Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home “pornographic,” a conservative Christian group in South Carolina is criticizing the College of Charleston’s selection of the acclaimed graphic novel as recommended reading for incoming freshmen. The school, however, is standing by its choice.
The Eisner Award-winning 2006 memoir, which details Bechdel’s childhood with her closeted gay father, his apparent suicide and her own coming out as a lesbian, is part of the annual “The College Reads!” program, which provides free copies of the selected works to full-time faculty and new students. The books aren’t required reading.
However, Fun Home was labeled “A Shocking Summer Reading Assignment” by Palmetto Family, an advocacy group whose “vision is to transform the culture in South Carolina by reclaiming the values and virtues of marriage, the traditional family model and sexual purity.”
“If this book were a magazine it would be wrapped in brown paper,” Palmetto Family President Oran Smith is quoted as saying. “We reviewed every book assigned in SC this year. Many were provocative. This one is pornographic. Not a wise choice for 18-year-olds at a taxpayer-supported college.”
In its search of other colleges, the group found books like Rick Ostrander’s Why College Matters to God (at Charleston Southern University), Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once … and Young (at The Citadel), and Travis Agnew’s Freshman 15: How to Put the Weight on in All the Right Places (at North Greenville University). “Which one of these books is not like the others? And exactly how bad is it?” Palmetto Family asked, teasing, “Stay tuned for the story of the family that arrived at CofC freshman orientation with happy anticipation only to discover the deep commitment the College has made to Fun Home and all that it symbolizes.”
Smith said he isn’t sure yet what action his organization will take, telling the Charleston Post and Courier, “We don’t think this book should be banned in America. We don’t think it should be burned. It’s just not appropriate for college freshmen.” He again questioned whether the College of Charleston should be using taxpayer money to pay for the book and for Bechdel’s campus visit on Oct. 24 (a university spokesman told the newspaper that about $39,000 was spent on copies of Fun Home, with another $13,000 going to the cartoonist’s visit).
Charleston City Paper took it upon itself to find out just how “bad” Fun Home is, and discovered that, “The book does have some drawings of nudity, including a male body on a morgue table and a few panels that show a woman performing oral sex on another woman. There is also a section that describes Bechdel’s first period and first experiences with masturbation. For the most part, though, an initial scan of the book and a read of the first chapter make Fun Home seem more like a smartly written, deeply affecting memoir than a steamy porno — but hey, that’s just our assessment.”
Some of the College of Charleston incoming freshmen spoken to by The Post and Courier and ABC Channel 4 News didn’t see what the fuss was about, either. “I read the first 20 pages so far. I’m not too deep into it, but so far it’s pretty good,” Hassam Solano’More said. “Actually the fact that it was controversial has actually put me on to reading it because I do like reading things like that and I know that some people especially have a really closed mind and they need to read stuff like that to really expand their thought about what is going on in the world and real situations in life.”
Fun Home has been challenged before on at least two occasions, in 2006 at the Marshall (Missouri) Public Library and in 2008 at the University of Utah. In both instances, the challenges were ultimately unsuccessful.
“We are pleased to see CofC standing behind their selection of Ms. Bechdel’s important work,” Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, said in a statement. “This incident is a classic example of how comics come under fire from groups with no understanding of the medium. The accusations that Fun Home is inappropriate for college readers, and that its content is pornographic are absurd, but accusations of that type derived from taking a work out of context are common in the history of graphic novel challenges. We’re still gathering information about the challenge, but it’s distressing that this group would attack any book, especially one as acclaimed as Fun Home. The book is not required reading, and its removal from a state-funded institution such as the College of Charleston would be a violation of the First Amendment.”