These freshmen have already flunked the Bechdel Test.

It’s the first day of school for many incoming freshman around the U.S., and at Duke, things are kicking off with controversy. 

The North Carolina university chose Fun Home for its Common Experience summer reading program for the class of 2019. The students were to read the book, then spend the week of freshmen orientation discussing it in various group settings.

The author of Fun Home is Alison Bechdel, famed creator of long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. The comic introduced the world to the Bechdel Test, a tongue-in-cheek methodology that has become a common tool for measuring female representation in movies and television. Fun Home, her graphic novel about her childhood, has won numerous awards and critical acclaim. This year its smash hit stage adaptation snagged a Tony Award for Best Musical. 

Yet Duke’s student newspaper, the Chronicle, reports that on the Class of 2019’s closed Facebook group, a number of prospective students have taken issue with the book. One freshman from Georgia reportedly posted that “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” he would be boycotting the comic. Other students followed suit, dubbing the novel “pornographic.”

Bechdel’s comic is a wry memoir about her father, a closeted queer and genderqueer man whose secrets and mistakes cast a pall on her childhood and hugely influenced her own coming-out process. Though the book does have some nudity, it is not pornographic in nature but rather done in service of the book’s themes of identity and exploration.

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Past selections of the summer reading committee—a group made up of staff and students—have included works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ann Patchett.

In June, when the controversy first arose, the University made this statement:

“We do understand that the novel may make some readers uncomfortable. It may create arguments and conversations, which are important to a liberal arts education.”

Duke’s Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations, Michael Schoenfeld, responded to a request for comment from the Daily Dot on Monday afternoon. 

Like many universities and community, Duke has had a summer reading for many years to give incoming students a shared intellectual experience with other members of the class (you can see the most recent selections at https://studentaffairs.duke.edu/new-students/common-experience).
 
The reading is selected by a committee of students, and staff, who then solicit feedback from other members of the Duke community.  Fun Home was ultimately chosen because it is a unique and moving book that transcends genres and explores issues that students are likely to confront.  It is also one of the most celebrated graphic novels of its generation, and the theatrical adaption won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and four others, in 2015.  As we have every year, we were fortunate to have the author join us on campus for a lively discussion of the book during orientation week.

The summer reading is entirely voluntary — it is not a requirement, nor is there a grade or record of any student’s participation.  With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking.  We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new

The many fans of the graphic novel on the Internet were quick to voice their disdain for the boycott.

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This isn’t the first time that Bechdel’s book has caused controversy. Last year, the South Carolina state senate cut $70,000 from the budgets of two public colleges that put books with queer themes on their reading lists, including Fun HomeCrafton Hills College in California, meanwhile, forced a professor to put a warning on his syllabus after a student complained that four award-winning graphic novels—Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel; YY: The Last Man, Vol. 1, by Brian Vaughan; The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House, by Neil Gaiman; and Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi—were violent and pornographic. 

The 20-year-old student told a local newspaper she didn’t think the books should be burned or banned, but she and her parents didn’t think they belong in a English course. 

The Duke student who made the original post told the Chronicle he’d succeeded in his goal of making other religious students feel less alone.

Update 4:53 pm CT, Aug. 24: This story has been updated to include a response from a Duke spokesman.

Illustration via Panels

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