Fun Home: Pornography or Literature?

Recently in the news it was reported that freshmen students enrolled at Duke University were refusing to “Fun Home” as part of their English course material on the basis that it offended their Christian beliefs.  In some news stories, the focus was on triggers, while in other news stories, the focus was on the themes in the novel.

So as not to offend any readers or visitors to my blog, I’d like to post a warning (call it a trigger warning or a religious viewpoint warning or a whatever warning.  Call it whatever you feel is an appropriate label warning.  The bottom line is this is a warning).

WARNING 1:  Fun Home” by author Alison Bechdel is a graphic novel that addresses themes such as sexual orientation (including alternate lifestyles) and dysfunctional family life among other uncomfortable subjects.

Furthermore, a graphic novel is a book that consists of artwork and text much like a comic book is, however, it’s not a periodical, and is usually more substantial than a comic book in terms of content and page count.  And yes, the artwork is in keeping with what we expect from comic book art.  The BISAC subject headings ties comics and graphic novels together as a category (in other words, they are not separate categories according to the Book Industry).

Moving on:  The graphic novel enjoyed two weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and has been translated into French.  It’s done well for itself and its author.

WARNING 2:  What follows is not a judgment on any person, group, belief, behavior, activity, et al as it pertains to the novel and/or to the reactions to said novel.

The media reported that Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel was being viewed by some Christian students attending Duke University as a pornographic lesbian graphic novel which was in conflict with their Christian beliefs.  Specifically, it would seem that it was the medium in which the controversial content was delivered that was of a greater problem than the controversial content itself.

According to many Christian students, reading the graphic novel — given the nature of the medium in which it was presented — would be a tacit approval (on the Christian students’ part) of pornography, regardless of whether it was heterosexual or homosexual sexuality being represented in the novel.

The novel “Fun Home” features drawings that not only imply but that graphically show sexual activity between people (including, according to what is reported by the media, oral sex).  But is it pornography?

The dictionary definition of pornography is as follows.

Pornography (defined by dictionary)
The legal definition of pornography states that the representation in books, magazines, photographs, films, and other media that relate scenes of sexual behavior that are erotic or lewd must be designed to arouse sexual interest in its audience.  In fact, in 1957, the Supreme Court determined that while obscenity is not protected by the First Amendment, the  test for obscenity is “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to a prurient [lewd or lustful] interest.”

The question then becomes this:  Is “Fun Home” pornography, or is it literature that some segments of society find objectionable?

Books such as D. H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel, “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” are racy novels that have been included in University and college level English classes as part of the curriculum.  Are such novels pornographic?  In comparison to “Fun Home” where do such books rank?

WARNING 3:  Lady Chatterly’s Lover is a novel about a woman who was introduced to sexual liaisons as a teenager.  She marries at age 23 in 1917, and a month after being wed, her husband goes off to war.  He returns from the war paralyzed from the waist down and unable to perform his conjugal duties.  The wife finds solace in the bed of her husband’s gamekeeper, and winds up pregnant.  As late as 1960, British courts were determining if the D.H. Lawrence’s novel had literary merit or was merely smut between covers.

Perhaps the more overlooked question should be this:  What role  does — or should — university or college play in a student’s life?

If what a university or college education is meant to offer today’s students is a guarantee of employment upon earning a degree, that isn’t the same as the more traditional role of providing students with a broad education to satisfy intellectual curiosity.

At the end of the day, however, universities and colleges are supposed to be places of higher learning where difficult topics are discussed and where as many aspects of a topic as can be imagined are considered.

One cannot expect to leave university or college with a science degree or a medical degree or an art degree or any other kind of degree without being exposed to something along the way that may not jive with a student’s specific religious views.  The options students have when matters of conscience crop up are these:  Accept that one’s education will benefit from completing the course work one may find offensive OR accept that in refusing to do the course work on may find offensive that one may receive an F for not completing that part of the course.

In life, we all have to make decisions that will have long-reaching impact on our lives and the lives of others.  What matters is what we decide to do when adversity, challenges, and conflicts of conscience show up on our doorstoops, and how well we shoulder the responsibility of our personal decisions.

Should “Fun Home” be part of the Duke University English class curriculum for freshmen students?  I can’t speak for Duke University and I can’t speak for the freshmen students.  That’s a decision that’s already been made by Duke University, and a decision that each and every freshman student taking the English course where “Fun Home” is part of the curriculum have to make for themselves.

Next Friday, I’ll take a look at trigger warnings and their impact on university and college educations and campuses.

Elyse Bruce


Classical Mythology Too Triggering For Columbia Students

The Coddling Of The American Mind

Disturbing The Peace

Duke Freshmen Refuse To Read “Fun Home” An LGBT Graphic Novel

A Guide To Using Graphic Novels With Children And Teens

I’m A Duke Freshman: Here’s Why I Refused To Read “Fun Home”

Duke University Freshmen Refuse To Read “Fun Home” For Moral Reasons

Life Doesn’t Come With Triggers Warnings.

On Trigger Warnings

Our Identities Matter In Core Classrooms

The Truth About Graphic Novels: A Format, Not A Genre

Using Graphic Novels To Attract Reluctant Readers


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