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How ‘The Bell Jar’ Became Pop Culture’s Code For Female Sadness

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“I am, I am, I am.”

Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel has become a defining work of the feminist canon, achieving a kind of cultural longevity unparalleled by other books. This has largely been facilitated by mass marketing and the tight embrace of popular culture which have both worked to transform The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, from a troubled woman into a relatable heroine. One of the most commonly quoted lines, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am,” has become a self-empowerment slogan commonly embroidered on Etsy merchandise and completely divorced from the dark passage in the book it comes from when Esther attends her friend’s funeral. The book is semi-autobiographical in that the events loosely draw from Plath’s early life. She too was born in New England and briefly took a break from college to look after her mental health, a period she describes as “a time of darkness, despair, disillusion—so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be.” The Bell Jar’s subject matter was once deemed so unseemly that in 1977 a court granted an Indiana school board’s wish to include it on a list of banned books. Yet somehow this decidedly unromantic book— about a young woman who is prescribed electric shock treatments to cure her psychosis, is preoccupied with death, and suffers depressive episodes during which she starves herself and is insomniatic—has been romanticized into the quintessential literary companion for a teen girl. 

The basic plot of the novel is that 19-year-old Esther wins an essay writing contest organized by a fashion magazine and as a reward is given a job with the company in New York where she is introduced to a glitzy but high-pressure lifestyle whose trappings aggravate her undiagnosed-but-very-real depression and cause her to suffer a mental breakdown that then prompts her return to her New England hometown to recuperate. In a 50th-anniversary retrospective of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the New Yorker dismissively referred to The Bell Jar as “a version of [Catcher in the Rye] for girls.” But what does the female Holden Caulfield look like? Though The Bell Jar traffics in many themes, including classism, sexism, and mental illness, it has become synonymous with depressed and/or moody women. On film and television specifically, it has become a popular visual and textual prop to code an exclusively female experience of sadness.

When the book is used as a prop in a television or film scene, it’s visual shorthand that tells us a female character is troubled and/or an outsider in whatever universe she exists within. In the '80s dark comedy Heathers, mean girl Heather Chandler is found dead over shattered glass after a suspected suicide, and a copy of The Bell Jar lies next to her corpse. BuzzFeed writer Brice Sander notes Chandler’s CliffsNotes edition of the book is found atop a magazine whose cover reads "The Fall of the American Teen." In an essay on this subject, writer Janet Badia also notes that The Bell Jar is used in the same way in the 1994 feature Natural Born Killers, where the book is seen beside a sleeping Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), a young woman who  suffered an abusive childhood, before she and her boyfriend murder her parents. In each case, the presence of the novel is a warning sign or even an explanatory note for what a troubled female character has just done or will soon do. 

When the novel is featured more prominently, like say placed into the hands of a character, it becomes a referendum on her personality. Family Guy’s Meg Griffin and The Simpsons’  Lisa Simpson are both pictured reading the book. The former is a daughter who’s constantly forgotten and has her looks regularly disparaged, and the latter is her town’s know-it-all feminist, a trait that isolates her from her less-literate peers. In 10 Things I Hate About You, the '90s teen rom-com adapted from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Katarina (Julia Stiles) is the school shrew. In era-ordained terms this means she listens to female-fronted indie rock bands, doesn’t care what people think of her, and is seen reading The Bell Jar. These are some of pop culture’s most well-known Strong Female Characters™, but thanks to this semiotic coding, their entire personalities can be summed up by the phrase ‘the type of girl who reads The Bell Jar.’ Whenever The Bell Jar is invoked in pop culture, it is a loaded image used to conjure a specific type of woman: introspective, outcast, and, most importantly, sad.

In the 1997 Sabrina the Teenage Witch episode “Sabrina Through The Looking Glass,” the titular teen witch gets a pimple that makes her feel hideous and act grumpy. She hides it under a baseball hat and heads to school, where it’s clear she’s gone from bubbly teen to hot-tempered and vengeful spirit—she turns her archnemesis Libby into a goat and makes it snow outside. Sabrina acts completely out of character, blowing off her school project and barking at her friend and love interest, Harvey, in a shrewish manner. At lunch, a friend spots Sabrina hunched over her tray of food, reading a copy of Plath’s book and exclaims, “The Bell Jar! Three puddings! This can't be good.” Since Sabrina is not known as a big reader, the introduction of the book is suspicious. It is not there to further layer her identity but to tell the very specific story of the episode, which is that Sabrina is sad. Because this is a show about magic and it’s set in the '90s, where TV programming for kids was wont to give morality lessons, Sabrina later ends up trapped in a parallel universe where she is no longer unhappy but everyone in her life adopts her previous brusk attitude. In this version, a morose Harvey is seen reading The Bell Jar. This is telling because only in this parallel universe, where things are not right, is Harvey seen holding the book, a clear statement about the book not being the right prop in a guy’s hands. In this episode, The Bell Jar entered the narrative for Sabrina and is therefore only used correctly (i.e. held properly) when it is in her hands hinting at her specific female sadness. Though male characters are also built around archetypes found in literature, like the rebel (Catcher in the Rye) or the hero (The Odyssey), rarely are they seen holding that very book in a shot to summarize their personalities.

In her book Reading Women, Badia explains that the woman reader, specifically a woman reading Plath, has been pathologized in pop culture in order to elicit this very specific kind of response from viewers. Thanks to the popularity of this tactic over the years, the same response can now be elicited from the mere mention of the novel. In an episode of Freeform’s teen drama Pretty Little Liars, “There’s No Place Like Homecoming,” Hanna (Ashley Benson) is trying to get her friend Aria (Lucy Hale) over a slump, caused by her parents' marital problems, and into the idea of the upcoming homecoming dance. Hanna pulls two dresses out of Aria’s closet, a frumpy red number and a sexy little black dress, and then asks, “So, what are you gonna wear, 'The Bell Jar,' or 'Let's get this party started?'" While this is not the only instance the book is referenced on the show, it is the tidiest example of how it has become packaged as a pop culture item. The Bell Jar is not just a book, it’s an aesthetic.

The Bell Jar’s romantic plotline is its least compelling—if anything, the novel works hard to buck the reigning cultural belief that women were born to marry and mother (it was published in 1963)—but because of pop culture it has become associated with lovelorn women. In 1994’s Reality Bites, Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) finds her friend Lelaina (Winona Ryder) sulking on the couch during a romantic and professional rut and says, “You watch TV, chain-smoke, you don’t go outside or do anything. Man, you are in the bell jar.” In The Mindy Project episode “How to Lose a Mom in Ten Days,” a nurse, named Tamra (Xosha Roquemore) has recently broken up with her boyfriend and co-worker Morgan (Ike Barinholtz). But after she hears he’s already begun dating another girl, Tamra realizes how sad she feels about him not being in her life anymore and reflects, “I feel Bell Jar as hell right now.” In the Gilmore Girls episode “The Break-Up, Part II,” Rory (Alexis Bledel), a sophomore in high school, has been dumped by her first boyfriend Dean (Jared Padalecki), but because she doesn’t want to be “the kind of girl” who gets hung up on a guy, she refuses to wallow like her mother suggests and instead becomes hyperproductive. When her list of tasks is complete though, Rory starts to feel the sadness creep in, so she tells her mom she’s going to attend a party with her schoolmates, a wealthy group of elitists whom she despises, to which her mother replies, “Honey, why don’t you just stay home and read The Bell Jar? Same effect.” In a sequence of events that vaguely mirror the arc of Plath’s novel (let’s call it the G-rated version), Rory goes to the party, tries to fit in amongst her WASPy classmates, has a predictably miserable time, breaks down, and ends up back home crying on the couch with a gallon of Ben and Jerry’s Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream in her lap, ready to wallow after all. It’s no coincidence that onscreen breakups have become one of the most common conditions for this literary reference; The Bell Jar has been diluted into a symbol of generalized female blues.

Women’s fiction is often treated as a subgenre of fiction itself. This becomes painfully clear when evaluating the marketing strategies for fiction books written by women—a tweet poking fun at this gendered advertising problem recently went viral. For The Atlantic, Emily Harnett wrote about how fans of popular female fiction authors, like Elena Ferrante, fume at the sight of their simplistic book covers which imply their deep work is nothing more than a beach read (a dismissive classification that’s seen as a death sentence for people who identify as “serious” readers). These covers frequently depict seasides in pastel colors and/or women with their backs turned away from the reader gazing at some unspecified point in the distance. Looking at them, Harnett writes, “it’s easy to conclude that no woman in their fiction has ever lived inland, or so much as looked directly at a camera.” In her Bust article “Sexy Backs, Headless Women And Book Covers,” Anne Solomon wrote about how she worried her upcoming book would suffer this same chick-lit-ification with a cover depicting “wistful, feminine longing—for a man, perhaps, or for a dinner she doesn’t have to cook.” She found this treatment was given to books written by women no matter the content, whereas male writers were given creative covers that at least attempted to correspond with their subject matter.

With The Bell Jar, the evolution of the cover of the book is tied not only to its author’s gender but also to the way the book rose to prominence in American popular culture. In 2013, Faber and Faber released the 50th-anniversary edition, a vibrant red cover with yellow cursive spelling out the title alongside a woman happily primping herself in her hand mirror. A sanitized cover bearing no inclination of the darkness within its pages. This presents a sharp contrast to the cover art Faber and Faber put out in 1966, which features a cryptic black-and-white spiral that hints at the eye-of-the-tornado metaphor Plath later uses to describe Esther’s deteriorating mental state. A 25th-anniversary edition cover released by HarperCollins is cryptic for another reason: next to the title lies a single red rose—a combination of images (red roses and bell jars) that was made iconic by the fairytale Beauty and the Beast, not Plath. To its credit, the rest of the international book market has largely held off on Disney-fying the book through its cover art; the cover of the 1989 Polish edition is a nearly cloudless sky and in the foreground, a woman’s face is seen in shattered fragments, like we are viewing her through a broken mirror. 

A couple of years ago, Entertainment Weekly created a music playlist to go along with The Bell Jar’s key plot points. It includes famously melancholy pop hits like the Gary Jules song “Mad World” popularized by cult hit Donnie Darko and Radiohead’s “Creep.” Between each song, the writer very briefly and very reductively explains the connection: “I don’t belong here,” Radiohead moans—and Esther begins to feel the same.” This is how The Bell Jar exists in our cultural memory, as a kind of familiar word cloud where the most prominent word is "woman," and the second is "sad," with other nouns and adjectives like "outsider" and "misunderstood" filling out the rest of the cumulus. Unsurprisingly, the same fate has befallen the novel’s author, whose decision to take her own life is often the first and only thing the average person remembers about her. Plath and her novel are complex and multidimensional, but pop culture insists on flattening them both into a single narrative—the female misanthrope. Carl Rollyson, one of Plath’s many biographers, dubbed her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” Monroe was another bright star of the American post-war period whose work, comedic as opposed to literary, was outshined by the public’s lurid fascination with a one-dimensional, media-generated persona. In forcing the novel to occupy this fixed place in pop culture, we’ve trapped it in a metaphorical bell jar of its own.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

"In my head I thought, This is how it ends"

Kit Harington almost lost a lot more than the Iron Throne while filming the final season of Game of Thrones. According to an interview with NowThis News, the actor almost lost one of his balls while riding a mechanical dragon.

Harington revealed that the incident took place when he was filming the scene where his character, Jon Snow, takes a ride on Rhaegal for the first time in the Season 8 premiere. Since dragons aren't real (sorry), Harington was filming the scene, where Jon almost falls off the dragon and then swings around to pick himself back up, on a mechanical contraption.

"My right ball got trapped, and I didn't have time to say, 'Stop,'" Harington said in an interview. "And I was being swung around. In my head I thought, This is how it ends. On this buck, swinging me around by my testicles, literally." We see shots of the fake dragon he's riding in front of a green screen, and it does look pretty terrifying.

Luckily, his testicles remained intact through the near-disastrous event, and he's survived with quite the story to tell to unsuspecting journalists.

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Photo by Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for goop

"I had to create a harder shell about being a woman"

In a panel discussion during Gwyneth Paltrow's In Goop Health summit, actress Jessica Alba revealed that she "stopped eating" to avoid unwanted attention from men when she was first starting her career in Hollywood.

According to People, Alba said that she "had a curvy figure as a young girl" and, as such, was made to feel as though her body was the reason that men may be inappropriate toward her. "I was meant to feel ashamed if I tempted men," Alba said during the panel discussion. "Then I stopped eating a lot when I became an actress. I made myself look more like a boy so I wouldn't get as much attention. I went through a big tomboy phase."

She continued, "In Hollywood, you're really preyed upon. They see a young girl, and they just want to touch you inappropriately or talk to you inappropriately or think that they're allowed to be aggressive with you in a way."

Alba also noted that she was raised in a conservative household. "My mom would say, 'You have a body, and it's very womanly, and people don't understand that you're 12,'" she said. "I wasn't allowed to have my nalgas out, which is butt cheeks [in Spanish], but I was born with a giant booty, and they come out of everything. So, I didn't get to wear normal things that all my friends wore."

She said that these reactions to her body really affected her attitude. "I created this pretty insane 'don't fuck with me' [attitude]," she said. "I had to create a harder shell about being a woman."

According to her, her relationship to her body only changed when her first child, Honor, was born in 2008. "[After she was born,] I was like, Oh this is what these boobies are meant to do! Feed a kid!" she said. "And that was the dopest shit I'd ever done. So, I came into my body as a woman finally and I stopped being ashamed of myself."

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Photo courtesy of Teva

Because of course

Teva, the most obvious lesbian footwear brand since Birkenstock, really knows its customer base. In time for Pride, the brand has teamed up with Tegan and Sara for a gay shoe to end all gay shoes. In other words, your Pride footwear is on lock.

The shoe isn't just your average Teva sandal. Tegan and Sara's design, the Teva Flatform Universal Pride sandal, is a 2.5-inch platform shoe with a rainbow sole. Tegan and Sara noted in a press release that they have been Teva wearers for pretty much their whole lives. "We got our first pair of Teva sandals when we were 16," they said. "This rainbow Flatform collab is like full circle LGBTQ+ Pride validation."

What's better, with each sandal sale, Teva will donate $15 to the Tegan and Sara Foundation, up to $30,000. The funds donated will go toward scholarships which will give young members of the LGBTQ+ community the chance to go to summer camps which will "help develop self-confidence and leadership abilities in a safe and nurturing environment." Tegan and Sara added, "Teva's generous support for our foundation will allow us to help even more LGBTQ+ youth."

Available today at Teva's and Nordstrom's websites, the sandal retails for $80.

Photo courtesy of Teva

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Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images

"Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design"

Prada Group has announced that Prada, as well as all of its brands, will now be fur-free. According to a press release from the Humane Society, Prada, Miu Miu, Church's, and Car Shoe will ban the use of fur beginning with the Spring/Summer 2020 collection (aka the Fashion Week coming up next). The list of fashion designers banning fur only continues to grow, with 3.1 Phillip Lim, Coach, Armani, Versace, Gucci, and more having stopped using the material in seasons past.

"The Prada Group is committed to innovation and social responsibility, and our fur-free policy—reached following a positive dialogue with the Fur Free Alliance, in particular with LAV and the Humane Society of the United States—is an extension of that engagement," Miuccia Prada told the Human Society. "Focusing on innovative materials will allow the company to explore new boundaries of creative design while meeting the demand for ethical products."

Following London Fashion Week designers forgoing the use of fur in September and the first-ever Vegan Fashion Week taking place in February, it's easy to imagine an entirely fur-free fashion future. It's especially easy, I presume, for the brands to consider a fur-free future, given that entire cities and states are taking a stance. New York is following in the footsteps of Los Angeles banning fur, with a bill proposed this March that would ban sales across New York State.

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Photo by Johnny Dufort

"Club leisure" is the new athleisure

Alexander Wang is recognizing clubbing as the workout that it truly is with his latest Adidas collaboration. In this fifth installment, he "changes gears," per a press release from the brand, taking the iconic sports brand to the dance floor.

For the new campaign, the collection comes to life in iconic choreographer Tanisha Scott's dance studio and stars dancers Noemi Janumala, Dakota Moore, Avi McClish, and Olivia Burgess. The dancers show just how far these clothes can go when you want to bust a move or stretch, but TBH, I'll leave these poses to the pros and just use my clothes for flexing on the 'gram.

The collection—which features six apparel items, three shoes, and six accessories—features, per a press release, "Wang's knack for pre-styling." Standouts from the mostly black-and-white items include a silver sneaker that was *made* for moonwalking, an airy windbreaker that has just the right dash of bright blue with the scattered Adidas trefoil design, and a towel hoodie that you won't feel bad sweating in.

Ahead of the May 25 collection drop online and in stores, peep the gorgeous campaign images below.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Joggers, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Towel Hoodie, $350, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Sock Leggings, $60, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Adilette Slides, $90, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Futureshell Shoes in Platinum Metallic, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Core White, $280, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Shorts in Core White, $120, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

Photo by Johnny Dufort

Adidas Originals by AW, Sweatshirt in Black, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Bum Bag, $50, available staring May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Towel, $80, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Turnout BBall Shoes, $250, available starting May 25 at Adidas; Adidas Originals by AW, Duffle Bag, $70, available starting May 25 at Adidas.

NYLON uses affiliate links and may earn a commission if you purchase something through those links, but every product chosen is selected independently.


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