Article: Thinking through Thea: Alison Bechdel’s Representations of Disability

My essay, “Thinking through Thea: Alison Bechdel’s Representations of Disability,” has been published in the collection, Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Read the initial proposal for the essay below.

“Thinking through Thea: Alison Bechdel’s Representations of Disability” in Disability in Comic Books and Graphic Narratives (2016)

The Initial Proposal for  “Thinking through Thea: Alison Bechdel’s Representations of Disability”

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006) has quickly become one of the most taught and written-about graphic narratives, garnering academic attention for its nuanced investigation of queer identity. What’s missing among these assessments is an attention to Bechdel’s obsessive compulsive disorder at the heart of the tale (141-149). Her identity as someone with obsessive compulsive disorder arises nearly a decade earlier than her lesbianism and intervenes in her attempt to truly narrate her experiences. Although the main thrust of the plot unearths her father’s homosexuality alongside her own, their shared neuroses, including an obsession for detail, brings them together more primally. Given how her obsessive compulsive disorder manifests through storytelling, how might her comic echo this early identity in its recursive structure and careful striving for accurate depiction that scholars like Ann Cvetkovich, Julia Watson, and Valerie Rohy have aligned with a queer worldview? This chapter will uncover the crip ethic and aesthetic across Bechdel’s oeuvre.

To more fully understand Bechdel’s valuing of disability in her work, we must look beyond Fun Home to her long running series of comic strips that made her a household name among lesbians, Dykes to Watch Out For (1987-2008). In these fictional strips, Bechdel weaves together a wide-ranging, diverse cast of characters, enacting a visual politics that aligns with the notion of collective affinities that Alison Kafer unfurls in Feminist, Queer, Crip (2013) as a method of building theoretical coalitions by prioritizing the common ground among people with disabilities. Likely responding to the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Bechdel introduces Thea, a Jewish lesbian with multiple sclerosis, in 1991. This genealogy places Thea a full decade before Robert McRuer and Abby L. Wilkerson encourage a joint understanding of queer and crip identities in a special issue of GLQ, “Desiring Disability,” (2003) that precedes McRuer’s monograph on the subject, Crip Theory (2006).

Through the historically resonant Thea, whose cheeky presence debunks any characters’ or readers’ attempts at tokenization, how can we gain a new visual register for queer and crip affinities and identities that reflect back on McRuer’s work and Bechdel’s later exploration of her own obsessive compulsive disorder? Moreover, how can the figures of disability in Bechdel’s oeuvre work alongside Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies (1996) to uproot the myth of “bodily wholeness” present in one of the most foundational works of comics studies, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993)? How does following Bechdel’s exploration of disability invite a more capacious look at her oeuvre and recuperate her more popular and less academically “interesting” work?

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