The Bell Jar, the book cover, and mental illness

The Bell Jar, the book cover, and mental illness

Dear Internet,

Earlier this year, there was a brouhaha all over Facebook and Twitter about how “disgusting” and “sexist” the new UK version of the 50th anniversary cover for Sylvia Plath’s seminal work, The Bell Jar. Here is the offending cover:

slyviaplath

There are obviously several “chick-lit” cover tropes in play:

  1. Stock image of a woman applying make-up
  2. Vintage coloring scheme
  3. “Girly” cursive font

Given this context and novel’s content, everyone and their sixteen cousins are in a tizzy about the nature of this cover:

If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar. via Jezebel

How is this cover anything but a ‘fuck you’ to women everywhere? via Dustin Kurtz, marketing manager at Melville House

Awesomelycomicallyhistorically inapprop’ via Andy Pressman, graphic designer (in response to Kutz)

“The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover.” via Fatema Ahmed, London Review of Books

“Insult to women everywhere” The Independent

Ms. Magazine, Salon, and The Guardian also weighed in, but kept their content more neutral, while Chicago Tribune and Huffington Post UK wrote the usual knee jerk reactions you would expect for the sole purpose of link baiting.

Interestingly, the controversy was never addressed in publications with consistently reputable book coverage, such as the New York TimesUSA TodayWashington Post or SlateWhat’s even more interesting is the cover was released in October of 2012 and only in the UK. A few souls bemoaned the inappropriate nature of the cover at the time, but it did not become WW III until someone at Jezebel decided to get their tits up about the topic. At which time, it became a feeding frenzy of OH EM GEE, WE MUST AVENGE SLYVIA PLATH.

So there is that.

Here is something to think about. No professional writer, blogger, or Internet commentator of note, made ANY kind of comment in the defense of the cover as a representation of the mentally ill, or fuck, did not make a single noise that it was recursive against the mentally ill. No, no, no – it was all about feminism, how Plath got jacked out of literary respectability because of the lurid colored cover and the overly female image, and her work has now, so say them all, been degraded to some emo representative chick lit that completely belays her importance.

So isn’t it funny that when it comes to someones idea of what a graphic designed cover of mental illness could look like, we decide to reject that notion on the basis it is disrespecting our vaginas? I mean really?

And listen — can someone put Jezebel out of their misery because they have become a hyperbole unto themselves? I do not get how it is seemingly appropriate for them to rail against the man in regards to feminism while seemingly having zero problems making insulting and stereotypical commentary about mental illness in the same breath. So sayeth my comments to the article:

“I’m varying degrees disgusted/ashamed only a small number of people called out the fact Tracie is an insensitive and obnoxious asshole for making disparaging commentary about mental illness and suicide. I tried to commit suicide when I was 17, my mother attempted twice in her 50s. Maybe next time we’ll just come to you for suggestions next time we want to off ourselves since you seem to have all the answers.”

What’s next, Tracie? Commentary likening Sylvia’s use of gas to kill herself to that of the Holocaust? Maybe somehow tie it in into ” exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes”?

As a woman, who is bipolar, I don’t see the cover as “adjusting her make-up” or as some tricked pony of a color scheme to get more readers, or some flippant visual remark that the story is “chick-lit”, or being oppressed by the man for my gender (as you stated so eloquently).

What *I* see is what I see everyday in my OWN mirror: A woman with two faces. The public one I have to keep adjusted lest my illness be known, and the private one that is wholly different. The cover actually says A LOT about how much women need to carry more than one persona just to survive on a daily basis, even before the mental illness is added in.

It seems to me, that most people crying out “This is sexist bullshit!” or “That it’s an insult to women!” have never dealt with or experienced mental illness, which is far more stigmatizing for a woman.

And that fact has not changed in 50 years. Me, in response to the Jezebel article

So we come now, nearly a year later. We continually don’t want to talk about or disregard any representation of mental health in the media, even if that representation is wrong or misguided, if it goes against something else we place a higher value on, such as women’s rights.

But you can’t sacrifice one for the other. In an attempt to do so only reinforces whatever tropes and misguided notions exist whether the outlier is mental illness or something else entirely. And to reject a book cover under misconstrued ideals of what feminism looks like or that it is a rejection of contemporary ideologies — and remember, the baseline of what feminism is is the right to choose and portray our own lives — is just as hurtful and hateful as the projections everyone is attempting to claim the book is representing.

You cant’t have it both ways.

xoxo,
Lisa

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