Alison Bechdel on storytelling "for the forces of good"
This week Marketplace Tech is exploring South by Southwest Interactive, the tech-oriented event that draws tens of thousands of people to Austin, Texas every year.
We spoke with cartoonist and memoirist Alison Bechdel, who came to SXSW to talk about telling stories that work “for the forces of good.” For 25 years, Bechdel chronicled the lesbian community in her comic strip "Dykes To Watch Out For." Since then, she has published her second graphic memoir, won a MacArthur Fellowship, and watched the Bechdel test take on a life of its own. We talked with her about record-keeping, Google image search, and putting Silicon Valley through the Bechdel test.
I want to ask you something about record keeping. This is something you have done since you were a kid. Diaries, pictures, stuff like that. It’s informed your work. How do you keep records now?
A lot of my record keeping is now digital. I’ve got email, photos and I keep my diary on my computer. Somehow that doesn't make it any easier to find anything. I thought it would but...
Do you have a folder that says "diary"?
I do. Sort of, yeah. My archives are just proliferating. The older I get, the more stuff there is. It's sort of like my aging brain. It gets harder to find stuff.
Do memoirs matter in a world where Facebook summarizes your year for you every year?
Well, yeah. you can't reflect meaningfully on something that you're posting in half a second. I think memoir is still really an important act.
I want to ask about your process a little bit. How has technology changed the cartoonist’s job since you’ve started?
Oh man. It’s changed it on every level, profoundly. I started way before the internet, way before photoshop when I drew stuff by hand and you copied at the copy shop and put it in the mail. I think the most profound shift for me has been Google Image Search. If you wanted to find out what a 1968 Oldsmobile looked like, you had to go to the picture file at the library where someone hopefully had clipped out a photo of that car. Now that I can draw anything in the universe, my tendency is to want to draw everything in the universe, which is its own sort of problem, but I’m working on that.
Do you get more sleep now that you’re a MacArthur “genius?” Or did you get more sleep before?
I definitely got more sleep before. It’s a very nerve-wracking experience. I am still adjusting to it. But it’s really making me feel like I better up my game.
What are your plans for upping your game?
I don’t know. I’m just working. I’m trying to work harder.
This is something you’re probably very bored of talking about, but I wanted to ask you about the…
The Bechdel test
This is my great legacy.
How do you feel about that?
At first I was sort of bewildered by it and didn’t feel like it was really mine. It was an idea I stole from someone else who probably stole it from Virginia Woolf. But now I am very proud of it. I feel like it reflects the idea that a woman can be a human, a fully human character and subject.
You may have heard that there is a diversity problem in the tech industry.
This may come as a shock to you. But I wanted to ask you if you would consider what a Bechdel test might be for a company?
Are there more than two women in managing positions?
We would hope so.
Do they talk to each other? I don’t know. But it’s a good template that you can apply to any number of fields.
I think we are at a good moment right now. In the tech industry but also in the media. We are becoming more aware of white male hegemony. How do straight white men help to create a society where there is more power sharing with people outside of their group?
The fact that we are even able to see this, that people are aware of it is because that hegemony is not as hegemonic as it once was. The demographics of this country are really changing. I guess just to examine your privilege. It’s very hard to see what privilege is. We all want to believe that we deserve everything we have. And we don’t all have the same chances. So just looking carefully at that, I think, is the most anyone can do.
We’re asking people while we're here about their pitch...
Yeah. I am on a panel about storytelling and I want to talk about what makes a story good. Not just a compelling story, but what makes a story a story that works for the forces of good.
What is a story that works for the forces of good?
Oh, anything. You know most things. Advertising, propaganda...I think it’s important for any kind of story, especially journalism or non-fiction storytelling, to allow for its own possibility of being wrong.