Cartoonist Wins MacArthur Genius Grant

By Isabelle Dietz

This September the MacArthur Foundation granted Vermont cartoonist Alison Bechdel a MacArthur “Genius” Award. Bechdel lives in Bolton, Vermont and is known for her poignant portrayal of family relationships, as well as the lesbian community. She is the second graphic novelist to win the grant.

A MacArthur Fellowship comes with a stipend of $650,000 to the recipient, paid out over five years in quarterly installments with no strings attached.  There are no public nominations for MacArthur fellowships.  Potential recipients are nominated by an anonymous group and some are chosen by an anonymous selection committee made up of about 12 people.  Those who are chosen are then recommended to the president and board of directors, who choose the recipients.  Recipients first learn that they haves received the award via a phone call congratulating them.

“What a bizarre day,” Bechdel wrote on her blog on Sept. 17th, after the announcement. “I’m sitting here watching my email fill up with message after message from people from so many different times and places of my life, all congratulating me for the astonishing good fortune of receiving a MacArthur Fellowship. Not to mention a flurry of texts and tweets, and I haven’t had the energy to even look at Facebook.”

Bechdel is known for the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, which ran from 1983 to 2008. She also wrote two book-length graphic memoirs: Fun Home: A Family Tradition (2006) and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama (2012).

“I love that first book,” said Robert Cohen, Professor of English & American Literatures. Cohen has taught Bechdel’s book in classes before.

“It’s rigorous and deep and surprising and like all great memoirs, it transcends the scope of one life,” he said. “Maybe that’s because it’s so scrupulous about looking at her father — the autobiographical stuff comes almost by the way, in service of something larger and more mysterious: the father’s own struggles with identity: sexual and otherwise.”

The MacArthur Foundation praised both Bechdel’s comics and her graphic memoirs. In a statement, it said, “With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.”

One of the ways Bechdel expanded the potential of the graphic form was with the invention of the now-famous ‘Bechdel Test’ in 1985. The Bechdel Test was first used on films but now has found a wide audience and is applied to other areas of media as well. In Bechdel’s comic strip, one of her characters explains that she only watched movies that pass a three step test: the movie must 1) have at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. Bechdel talked briefly about the test when she came to Middlebury to give a talk titled “Dykes, Dads and Moms to Watch Out For” in November 2012.

“The talk was excellent,” Cohen said. “Polished, funny, terrifically insightful about her pretty painstaking and labor-intensive process of composition.  I remember she began by showing images of her rejections from graduate schools in both Writing and Visual Art, and how, feeling she was not good enough in either area, she found a way to combine them in the end.  That she seemed as surprised by her success as anyone was just part of what made her presentation so endearing.”

Bechdel told the L.A. Times that with the money, she will be able to pay off some debts and save for retirement, as well as expand her work.

Bechdel said she will be able to “take some risks, do something new — to plunge into my work.  It’s an incredible gift.”