the de-butching of alison bechdel

something odd is going on with the fun home national tour. at first i thought only i had picked up on it, and that maybe i was being too critical out of love for the show, until i made a post about it on tumblr and received hundreds of responses agreeing with my concern. a lot of us are wondering, fun home, why isn’t alison bechdel being portrayed as butch anymore?

alison

i love you, beth “butch is a beautiful thing” malone

for context, let’s take a look at the original broadway costume for alison, which was consistent through the off broadway and broadway runs of the show. a simple red ringer tee, loose fitting black jeans (not pictured, i know), short and sensible haircut, no jewelry. a fine butch outfit, something bechdel and other butch lesbians would likely wear.

sad

what’s with those thumb holes, anyway?

and then, almost every aspect of the original costuming was changed when the show moved to tour. it seems that someone confused “butch” with “unfashionable,” two words with absolutely no correlation. they changed alison’s shirt to a weird, possibly chiffon vertical striped monstrosity, unbuttoned to show a camisole, covered by a weird athletic jacket type thing, gave her fitted jeans, and a necklace and earrings. in recent pictures it seems to me that she also hasn’t cut her hair in a while, which contributes to an even more feminine vibe overall. i guess some of these changes are insignificant on their own, but together the result is that the character is no longer really butch at all.

we’re left wondering what necessitated these changes. the same person designed the costumes for all three american stage versions of fun home, and all character’s costumes have stayed consistent throughout the different runs, aside from alison’s. alison’s costume was perhaps the most important costume in the entire show, as it represented her full realization of herself and acceptance of her butchness. now, she is being portrayed as a woman who grew up, accepted she wanted short hair, but maintained all other aspects of enforced femininity.

when kate shindle was first cast as alison in the tour, many of us expressed doubts regarding her ability to portray the character. not because she was former miss america, but because of the constant discussion of her status as former miss america spread around for the shock factor. this was coupled with her reluctance to cut her hair and attempts to persuade the show to allow her to wear a wig. we were concerned that she was not willing to fully and authentically take on the character she auditioned for, since it seemed she was constantly trying to distance herself from her character. unfortunately, it seems as though this may be the case. of course i can only speculate, but i must wonder if former miss america, who tried to persuade production to allow her to wear a wig, would also persuade them to change her costuming to be more typically feminine. it hurts, because beth malone was so full of joy to play a character that looks and feels like her. and it hurts because there are so many talented butch actresses out there who don’t have nearly as many casting opportunities to play someone who looks like them.

maybe it wasn’t kate shindle’s fault at all. maybe it was a result of the ever present need to make the show more palatable to an overwhelmingly straight public. the show is always marketed as a show about a family, a show about parents, a show about identity and coming of age, but very rarely is it publicly portrayed as a show about a butch lesbian. a butch lesbian just isn’t relatable to most theatergoers, but a short haired feminine lesbian might make the cut for tugging on those liberal heartstrings. i believe they have succeeded at making the show palatable to straight people, but they have alienated lesbians in the process.

regardless, it seems more research into butchness, its history and culture, is necessary from everyone involved in the show and bechdel’s portrayal. when portraying any oppressed minority group of people, research, understanding, and respect should be priority. i need the fun home tour team to understand that simply having short hair and wearing pants does not make a lesbian butch.

whatever the reason for these changes, many lesbian fans of bechdel’s writing and the show feel hurt, betrayed, and misrepresented. bechdel is a real person, a member of a real group of people, a group that is desperate for accurate and affirming representation in the media. fun home is a show for everyone, but it means more to lesbians than any straight person can understand. i wish that the tour production team was more conscious of that.