In her essay ‘Female Trouble’, Alison Bechdel utilizes a symbiotically balanced combination of emotional and logical appeal to the audience to encourage the reader to relate to her life experiences. She intricately works these into her casual, often humorous narrative. To open her essay, she uses her childhood memories of cartooning as an innocuous segue into an incisive commentary on the way ubiquitous patriarchal norms and warped gender roles shaped her self image as a young girl. She starts off with an account of her early days spent “holed up in makeshift offices [she] would construct around the house”, joking lightheartedly about her smugness at the enjoyable lack of change she’s experienced in her career. Her tone is non-confrontational and easy to identify with, which pulls the reader in regardless of their ability to relate to her specific experiences. Once her accessibility is established, she launches straight into a parable about the negative effects of societally accepted sexism on her sense of self.
In her recollections of early life, she reminisces about being a young girl and not being able to identify with representations of women in media (in particular, comic books). She paints a vivid picture of the different ways women are othered and portrayed as a subspecies to men, the default variant of the human race. Her anecdotes about her young mind trying to make sense of her own identity as a girl in contrast to her understanding of the female gender as depicted in most media resonated strongly with me and would with most women with some degree of understanding of gender roles and patriarchal society. Her memories are highly personal and charged with emotions not even necessarily understood or acknowledged by her younger self, but in addition to emotion her points are substantiated by logical reasoning behind her feelings.
For me, her memories of seeing herself as something separate, female but not female but not male either, evoked a strong emotional response. As common as these feelings must be, it’s rare to see them acknowledged with such eloquence and humor. She utilizes tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation and borderline dark humor at times to deliver her message of preteen isolation and discomfort with her own body and identity. She relates to the reader her memories of struggling to understand the concept of womanhood in the context of her art, exclusively drawing men for most of her life before finally applying her own identity and traits to the women she drew and effectively humanizing her own entire gender rather than perpetuating stereotypes of internalized misogyny without even realizing.
Particularly resonant with me were her descriptions of her awkward teenage years, sandwiched between blissfully youthful ignorance of gender and mature understanding of its relationship to her life. She peppers her essay with old drawing chronicling her artistic (and emotional) development from age three to her late twenties, and her confused, painfully representative high school and early college years have a sting of familiarity. Her description of puberty is excruciating and hilarious simultaneously, composing a painfully vivid representation of her reluctant transition to adulthood. She describes picturing herself as a man in her comics, all in contrast to her developing femininity in real life. “They were trying to force me back into girlhood, but I held out as long as I could, sustained by the cheerfully violent world of my drawings.” And yet, it is through her drawings that she slowly comes to understand and accept herself.
Her use throughout the piece of both pathos and logos as literary devices is instrumental in appealing to her audience. What could read as a piece simply about personal struggles with gender and an awkward adolescence is made a brilliantly crafted commentary on growing up as a reluctant woman in a patriarchal culture and struggling to accept both gender and sexuality. She infuses her narrative with feeling in such an eloquent way it becomes emotionally accessible to even the least similar reader, while also supporting her emotions with undebatable facts bordering on hard data about the unavoidable experience of growing up female. Where her writing could feel too individual with all her descriptions of her own experiences, she draws on historical information about the era in which she grew up: “I was a kid during the ‘60s. You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even a little lesbian, to see that women were getting a raw deal everywhere you looked.” Her graceful integration of objectively political and personal in this sentence carries through all of her writing in a way that draws readers in and makes them empathize both emotionally and logically.