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Committed: The Independent Women of BRAVE & Are You My Mother?

by  in Comic News Comment
Committed: The Independent Women of BRAVE & Are You My Mother?

This is probably trite as hell, but I have to say it. Brave has a lot in common with Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, (but of course, on a much, much, much simpler level), they’re both about independent women, separating themselves from their mothers. Obviously, one is aimed at tiny children so it’s a different sort of approach, I know because I went to a midday showing of Brave and the massive audience of kids (predominantly 5 years old and under, from what I could see) were silent, paying rapt attention throughout the entire film. Boys and girls, they clung to their adult escorts, grimly fearful of the heroine’s plight. Eventually, resolving her relationship with her mother, just as her mother came to respect her, they reached a resolve. Her monstrous appearance was changed and our girl Merida was able to get the comfort she so badly needed. I’ve read the odd complaint that Brave is simplistic or familiar. I would remind those reviewers that it is a film aimed (very effectively) at tiny children. I would also ask those reviewers instead to take a look at Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? which might be more age-appropriate.

It doesn’t matter how old we get, as women we are always going to look to our relationships with our mothers to help us understand our own roles. Unlike men, who move into adulthood butting heads with male authority figures, there can never be a total separation between mother and daughter. Although our father’s contribute to our genetics, we just don’t pop out of their bodies, it’s simply easier to draw the line. Bechdel’s journey is her story this time, it is no childhood secret revealed, as in her magnificent book Fun Home. Now we’re getting a more complex insight into the author herself, and the part of her that is irrevocably, literally, physically a part of someone else. While mother and daughter are separate, what is it that makes them so? And how does that change over time, if it really can?

With Are You My Mother? because of Bechdel’s exhaustive note-taking and scrupulous honesty, we have one of the most complete portraits of an inner journey that I’ve ever read. It is personal and more than that, detailed to a degree that a person would ordinarily only give to a beloved friend or partner. As readers, we must love the author just a bit, enough so that this information is personal and intimate to us, rather than intrusive. Bechdel’s honesty and self-deprecation are so human, so understandable, and in the wake of her previous work, a true evolution. For me, it was easy to want to dive in and read more.

There is a fascination in Bechdel’s willingness to comb so intricately through all the “why”s of everything, as she says in the book, she’s in analysis and yes, that’s very much what this is; an analysis of her relationship with her mother. While I can relate to asking these questions, I know that I do not have her energy for the search, and when I was confronting similar (but also very different) demons, analyzing quickly lost any sense of excitement in the face of actual behavioral changes. I felt like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Rather Uninteresting Disused Cleaning Equipment – it wasn’t worth the adventure. But Bechdel keeps us in sight of the prize, and keeps working to let us take the ride with her for a while.

I did my best to take my time with this book, to focus on every word and line, giving it the attention it so obviously demanded and allowed. More than any comic book I can remember reading, this book gradually unfolds, like a lotus flower opening; richly complex, layered with potent meaning. Evocative and wrenching, it isn’t the linear story readers of Fun Home might be expecting. It is far more immediate, more mature and honest than what was essentially the childhood memoir in that previous work. Are You My Mother? is a grown woman’s story of her life and it is very touching. Maybe it is because of the issues brought up in Fun Home, but there is a tangible atmosphere of dread initially, as if looking into a box we aren’t meant to open, but instead of Pandora’s box it is just a small, confused child.

Very briefly, I spoke with another woman who’s reading the book. She wasn’t overly enthused about it, and talked about having to do a lot of cross-referencing and research in order to read Are You My Mother? This hadn’t occurred to me, partly because enough of it is stuff I’ve read before, or am familiar with. Naturally, I never gave it the attention Bechdel has (in fact, now that I acknowledge it, I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to anything as closely as Bechdel does) but I am familiar enough. While I’m not saying that an interest in psychoanalysis is essential to enjoying the book, it certainly helped.

As a more mature piece than Fun Home, about a living relative with complex, ongoing, adult interactions, this is a far more intellectual examination of a character than previously attempted. Bechdel is overtly using the medium not just to open metaphorical doors, as she did in Fun Home (and in a different way, in her earlier cartoons), but also to deeply analyze and free herself (and maybe us, along the way) from old, restrictive patterns.

When I finished watching Brave, I shed a tear for the reunion, glad to see mother and daughter able to share interests in a very implausible but happy way. Their bond cemented and roles established. After reading Are You My Mother?, I cried because I saw the adult Bechdel loving her mother for what she was able to give, and loving the child for getting what she could. There were so many rich moments of revelation in the book, so many moments that I empathized with. Brave is the film mothers can take their young children to, Are You My Mother? is what they can come home to themselves.

For a long time we’ve been told that women and girls relate better to men in fiction and film than vice verse, which is all well and good in marketing terms… But I am happy to have had my week dominated by entertainment aimed firmly at examining women’s relationships with their mothers in the context of bravery and risk, for a change.

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