Laureation Address: Alison Bechdel BA

Graduation Office
Thursday 13 June 2024

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters
Laureation by Dr Rebekah Widdowfield Vice-Principal (People and Diversity)

Thursday 13 June 2024

Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Alison Bechdel.

Alison is truly a ‘Dyke to Watch Out For’ and, lest anyone think I have just insulted our esteemed honorary graduate, I do of course refer to her seminal comic strip series.

First published in 1983, Dykes to Watch Out For, ran for 25 years featuring in over 50 alternative newspapers. While Alison eschews the term ‘ground-breaking’ it’s important to recognise how pioneering it was. Described as “a countercultural institution among lesbians and discerning non-lesbians all over the planet” and “one of the pre-eminent oeuvres in the comics genre,” Dykes to Watch Out For provided a visibility to gay women which was very much lacking at the time. As Alison herself has said, “I didn’t see people like me, or my friends, reflected in culture… so I decided I would just create that depiction for myself”. In so doing, she produced one of the earliest and longest-running representations of lesbians in popular culture, providing that vital reflection not only for herself but for generations of the queer community.

The strip also spawned the now infamous and eponymous, ‘Bechdel test’ as a character in one episode, describes how she will not watch a movie unless it features two women, talking to each other, about something other than a man. Now a recognised standard for assessing gender bias in film, the Bechdel test has been the focus of numerous research papers as well as being used in the film industry to support greater gender equality.

But what also stood out, was that Alison decided to tell her stories in the form of a comic strip, a form she has taken to new levels as the author of three book-length graphic memoirs: Fun Home (2006), Are You My Mother? (2012) and, most recently, The Secret to Superhuman Strength (2021).

While the focus of her first two graphic memoirs drew on her often complicated relationships with her father and mother respectively, what is clear is that she gained much from both. As Alison puts it, “My father taught me to be an artist. My mother taught me to be a writer”. And it is these skills that she combines to such brilliant effect in her work.

Common to all three books is the way in which they draw on a wide range of writers and thinkers – from Woolf to Wordsworth, Camus to Kerouac – displaying an intellectual depth and dexterity that has pushed the boundaries of graphic storytelling and taken it in new directions. Indeed, Fun Home is often credited as a turning point for the graphic medium, with its success contributing to the popularity of the genre and to graphic novels being appreciated as a serious art form by the media.

It is therefore not surprising that Alison’s work has been recognised through a wide range of awards including a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant.

Over the course of her career, Alison’s comics have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Granta, and over fifty alternative and LGBTQ+ publications – securing success in an area dominated by men, and through a medium which has often excluded the queer community.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of her major contribution to the comic art form and advancing diversity and representation, I invite you to confer the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, on Alison Bechdel.

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