Life Lessons

Listen Up, Duke Freshmen: ‘Fun Home’ Is Not ‘Porn’

Some Duke freshmen have elected not to read Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed memoir-turned-Broadway hit, claiming its material violates their Christian beliefs.

08.24.15 11:40 PM ET

A group of young Blue Devils are taking a stand against sin at Duke University by refusing to read MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic novel, Fun Home.

The college—ranked eighth in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report—is encountering backlash from freshmen who are offended that Duke wanted them to read the memoir about Bechdel’s coming out, her realization that her father lived as a closeted homosexual, and his suicide.

Fun Home has since gone on to become a much-praised, Tony Award-winning stage production, and Bechdel spoke candidly about its genesis and her emotional life story to The Daily Beast.

“Obviously, the purpose of Fun Home is literary and not pornographic in nature,” freshman Brian Grasso told The Daily Beast. “However, I still hold that personally, it would be dishonoring to God for me to read it and to view it.”

He was one of the students who posted in Duke’s Class of 2019 Facebook group to voice their offense that the university would choose a book that would violate their values.

The book was chosen by the Duke Common Experience Program, which selects a text each summer to “give incoming students a shared intellectual experience with other members of their class,” according to a university press release on the selection from earlier this year.

Recent previous selections have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals.

Grasso was not the only freshman who raised concerns that Fun Home was pornographic.

Freshman Jeffrey Wubbenhorst told the Duke Chronicle in an email that “the nature of Fun Home means that content that I might have consented to read in print now violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature.”

Duke prides itself on being one of the most prestigious and intelligent academic institutions in the country.

The North Carolina university accepted just over 9 percent of all regular decision applicants, making it one of the most selective colleges in the nation.

For last year’s accepted class (PDF), the mid-range SAT scores ranged from 680-790 for verbal/critical, 700-800 for math, and 700-790 for writing in the Arts & Sciences program.

But along with intelligence can also exist sheer idiocy. Viewing Fun Home as analogous or similar to pornography is a gross mischaracterization of Bechdel’s sensitively written, honest, and moving memoir.

The unwillingness of certain members of the Class of 2019 to even read the book to discover for themselves whether Fun Home is the repugnant material they fear it is reveals a decidedly anti-intellectual attitude.

“I struggle with it [the decision not to read Fun Home], but it’s not justification to view the images just because of some literary merit,” Grasso said.

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He added that he did attend the talk Bechdel gave at the university over the weekend. He also read the parts of Fun Home that did not include graphic images after a classmate told him which pages to avoid.

While many news outlets have reported students’ refusal as motivated by Fun Home’s treatment of homosexuality, Grasso made it clear that his objection was in terms of the graphic content, not the gay themes.

“I would not have read the book if the pictures were of heterosexual intercourse,” he said. “I am a Christian, and I do believe what the Bible says about homosexuality but I also know Christians recently and historically have harassed homosexuals, and I believe what the Bible says about harassing people and discrimination.”

The Fun Home row is the latest in a series of controversies to hit Duke in recent years.

In 2006, a stripper accused three members of the Duke men’s lacrosse team of raping her.

The accusation was false and all charges were dropped, but not before the coach was pressured to resign and the three players were vilified by the community and the media.

Earlier this year, reports circulated that Duke basketball team cut junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon because he was accused of sexually assaulting two women.

The school didn’t comment on the reports, and the team proceeded to win the NCAA tournament championship.

Relative to this history, students’ refusal to read a recommended piece of literature is small potatoes.

Still, their reasons for not reading Fun Home are perturbing to hear—and to have them go uncriticized—in an academic environment that is held in such high esteem.

“It wasn’t for me a matter of exposing myself to new ideas, but a matter of deep-rooted religious convictions that are becoming increasingly rare in our culture,” said Grasso. “Duke University claims and triumphs diversity, and if students with certain religious beliefs don’t get to hold those views, then diversity doesn’t hold its purpose.

“The purpose of the university is for people to come and hear different perspectives, and I thought I was consistent with that in my decision not to read the book.”

The Daily Beast approached Bechdel for comment, but had not heard back from her by press-time.

Duke University roundly rejected any suggestion that there were larger concerns about homophobia or an anti-intellectual mentality in the refusal to read Fun Home.

“You’re making absurd generalizations based on a few individual comments,” Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, told The Daily Beast in an email.

“The summer reading is a small part of the student experience that takes place before they even go to their first class. We have great confidence in Duke students’ ability and willingness to grow and learn during their time here.”

To be fair, Fun Home has actually caused far greater outrage on other college campuses.

Last year, the College of Charleston in South Carolina selected the book for the freshman class to read.

The school’s board of trustees slammed the book choice and criticized it as “inappropriate for our students” and—you guessed it—“pornography,” wrote Christopher Korey, the school’s director of the First Year Experience and associate professor in the biology department, in an oped in the Post and Courier.

Even more alarming, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to defund College of Charleston’s freshmen reading program to the tune of $52,000 because of the Fun Home selection.

It doesn’t appear as if the Fun Home refusal has caused any hardships for Grasso, or others like him, at Duke. “Very few students have said negative things to my face,” he said.

“This whole Fun Home incident has given me a good bit of confidence and caused me to defend a lot of what I believe, which is a good thing. That’s the point of diversity. I’m not afraid of controversy or discussion or good old honest debate,” said Grasso.

For those of us a few years removed from college, the unwillingness of students to engage with literature that will make them feel uncomfortable or will go against their beliefs is not only troublesome, it’s a betrayal of the purpose of learning.

An undergraduate education isn’t about only voicing your opinions. It’s about grappling with those voices and belief systems that are different, perhaps even contradictory, to your own.

Viewing Fun Home as pornographic because it has visual depictions of sexuality is nonsensical.

But these are young students. It’s the school’s responsibility to step up and teach them. Duke should challenge these beliefs head-on, rather than dismiss these refusals to read Fun Home as minor quibbles.

Those objecting Duke freshmen would be far better served, watching and listening to the amazing Sydney Lucas sing ‘Ring of Keys’ from the Broadway show. They might just learn something.