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Cartoonist Alison Bechdel Awarded MacArthur Fellowship

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You'd think it would be amazing to win one of the world's most prestigious intellectual awards - one that comes with a prize of more than $600,000. But Alison Bechdel does not make it sound like a lot of fun.

ALISON BECHDEL: I thought was going to faint. (Laughter) It was like someone had actually almost hit me. It was like a physical blow.

CORNISH: That's Bechdel in an interview posted this week on the MacArthur Foundation website. She's talking about getting the call telling her she'd won a so-called genius grant. NPR's Neda Ulaby says that Alison Bechdel is one of the first cartoonists to be recognized.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's a pretty short list. Ben Katchor won in 2000. He wrote "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer." The MacArthur Foundation mentioned how Alison Bechdel moved graphic novels and memoirs forward. Her first one, "Fun Home," is a comic book and recently a Broadway-bound musical that draws on real-life letters, photos, interviews and diaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: September 15 - just had a good talk with dad, and I feel so much better - underline, underline, underline.

ULABY: "Fun Home" stands for funeral home - the place where Bechdel's father worked in a small Pennsylvania town. It's about her childhood, family dynamics and what happened when she went off to college and came out as a lesbian.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "FUN HOME")

WOMAN: Caption - I lept out of the closet, and four months later, my father killed himself by stepping in front of a truck.

ULABY: Bechdel talked about the book on NPR in 2006.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BECHDEL: He'd been very unhappy and more so than usual, doing kind of crazy things. He was reading a book by Albert Camus called "A Happy Death" and leaving it lying around the house in kind of an obvious way.

ULABY: "Fun Home" won the National Book Critics Circle award. And it made headlines earlier this year when South Carolina lawmakers threatened to cut funding for the College of Charleston after the book was assigned to its freshmen class. Bechdel got her start with a comic strip about a group of friends who start off living together in a lesbian collective in the Midwest. Hillary Chute, who studies graphic novels, says "Dykes To Watch Out For" was carried in nearly every gay newspaper and lots of alternative newspapers for decades.

HILLARY CHUTE: The fact that this kind of work was representing a slice of gay America in many, many papers for 25 years was a really big deal to gay culture.

ULABY: The characters loved books, marched in protests, broke up, went to therapy, took drugs and got law degrees. The New York Times called it "Doonesbury" with girl-on-girl sex. "Dykes To Watch Out For" ended in 2008, but it leaves a legacy known as the Bechdel test. In one of the strips - now 30 years old - a woman explains she only watches movies that meet three criteria.

BECHDEL: One, it had to have at least two women in it. Two, they had to speak to each other about three - something besides a man.

ULABY: That's Bechdel on NPR in 2008. Now the Bechdel test has become part of the cultural conversation. People keep track of the depth of female characters and argue about the Bechdel test online. Walt Hickey heard about in college.

WALT HICKEY: It seems so remarkably basic, right?

ULABY: Hickey works for Nate Silver’s site, FiveThirtyEight. He wrote up a statistical analysis based on the Bechdel test.

HICKEY: If you look at movies from the 2000s onward, about half of them didn't pass at all.

ULABY: Movies that don't pass tend to cost more to make, Hickey says. But movies that pass the Bechdel test make more money on average than ones that don't. Right now money is not necessarily a pressing concern for Alison Bechdel. She's working on a new memoir that brings together the history of American fitness fads and her own obsessions with bodies and minds in motion. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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