<i>The Bell Jar</i>'s sexist makeover

<i>The Bell Jar</i>'s 1966 cover design by Shirley Tucker.

The Bell Jar's 1966 cover design by Shirley Tucker.

If you have a love of literature you might want to avert your gaze. If you enjoy elegant design you might want to not click on this link. Hell, I’d go so far as to say if you have a pair of functioning eyes and any semblance of good taste you might want to avoid what I’m about to show you. So now that you’ve been duly warned - behold! The 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. (Or scroll to pic below) And commence retching into the nearest receptacle.

Not surprisingly the entire internet has been giving the side eye to this horrifically ill thought-out, chick lit makeover of Plath’s beloved roman à clef (I own two copies!) Even though publisher Faber’s own website lists the themes of the book as feminism, depression and isolation, on the basis of this cover it seems they were lazily misinterpreted as “Girls like make-up and being pretty”. I’m surprised they didn’t find a way to stick a cupcake and a stiletto on there. It’s just so far off what the book is about that you wonder if the designer or anyone who signed off on this abomination even read The Bell Jar. I can only imagine the discussion going on during the brainstorming session... “So what is this, some sort of sixties The Devil Wears Prada? Just stick a retro-looking lady on there, some whimsical font and let’s call it a day.”

This monstrosity of a cover is made even sadder by the fact that the 1966 cover design by Shirley Tucker was such a clean and striking image that cleverly illustrated protagonist Esther Greenwood’s feelings of being trapped by a society with such rigid expectations of women and her spiralling descent into depression. That cover didn’t feel the need to hammer home that this was a book by a lady author by featuring a picture of a woman (you know, so all the men could make sure not to accidentally pick it up.) To have republished Tucker’s art on the anniversary edition would have been a much smarter decision as the 1966 version was a cover you’d actually be proud to display on your bookshelf.

Chick lit makeover... The 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s <i>The Bell Jar</i>.

Chick lit makeover... The 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

The cover also illustrates a larger problem in how women’s literature is treated. By making the cover so explicitly, narrowly feminine in imagery, it assumes that if a woman writes something it will only be of interest to women and should only be marketed to women, as if somehow women are completely incapable of speaking to the breadth of human experience. Author Jennifer Weiner (who is often pigeonholed as a chick lit author and is not a fan of the term) aptly described this literary sexism in a 2010 interview with The Huffington Post saying, “I think it's a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it's literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it's romance, or a beach book.”

There’s this bizarrely enduring idea that women can’t create “serious” art and this new cover design plays into that by being fluffier than a newborn duckling. The Guardian reports that Hannah Griffiths, Faber’s publisher of paperbacks, said the look was part of a strategy “to keep our backlist writers in the minds and hands of new readers” and that the cover was supposed to help the novel appeal to a reader “who could enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about the poetry, or the broader context of Plath's work.”  Frankly if such a reader exists who is ignorant or intimidated by Plath’s reputation perhaps their reading privileges should be revoked, rather than slavishly pandering to them with a bright, bubbly and thoroughly ugly book cover.

The simple fact is that it’s hard out there for female authors. As Daily Life’s own Kasey Edwards pointed out women writers are still advised to “pretend to be a man”, as if we were living in the downtrodden days of the Brontës penning books as the Bell brothers. Female authors aren’t reviewed or published with anything approaching parity. A glance at almost any greatest books ever list published shows how unwelcome women are in the literary canon. And yet miraculously Plath was able to channel her talent during a far less female-friendly era to write a book that continues to speak to readers decades later and has established itself as a classic that features on high school reading lists the world over. This anniversary edition of The Bell Jar should’ve been a celebration of the enduring appeal of Plath’s work, instead it serves as a reminder that, much as Esther discovered, women still aren’t being taken seriously.

10 comments

  • i think it's rather edgy.

    Commenter
    Ted Hughes
    Date and time
    February 05, 2013, 12:21AM
    • I agree. Everything you say is true about women in literature. Or if a woman does hold herself up to literature with a capital L, she is accused of being egotistical (ie/ Jeanette Winterson).
      As ill-fitting as the cover is, this really makes me want to do is revisit The Bell Jar again.

      Commenter
      Msjane
      Location
      Not-quite-Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 12:25PM
  • I don't enjoy Plath (too depressing for me by far) but that makeover is ridiculous. Nothing about that cover relates to what is actually within the pages. Maybe if the woman in question was sitting there with a straight-razor instead of a lipstick...

    Commenter
    TK
    Date and time
    February 05, 2013, 8:30AM
    • Does changing the cover of the book change it's contents or it's message? No.

      Perhaps the uproar says something about the superficiality of the modern feminist............you know, judging a book by it's cover and all that.

      Does changing the cover of the book change it's contents or it's message? Well perhaps it does if you're shallow and ignorant

      Commenter
      Dirk
      Location
      Avoca Beach
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 8:35AM
      • Changing the cover of a book does not change its contents, but it certainly can change its perceived message. A book's cover may not completely reflect its content, but it's certainly an integral part of its marketing, and therefore how it is perceived, who its intended audience is (according to publishers) who its read by, and therefore its place in literary history.

        It would be like re-covering Heart of Darkness with holiday selfies of two white men on a cruise.
        Without irony.

        Commenter
        mk.mac
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 11:34AM
      • Wait let me get this straight: We shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but we can make offensive generalisations about "the modern feminist".

        As Nicole wrote, there is a broader issue here about how women's literature is treated. Reading comprehension - you should try it.

        Commenter
        etoile
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 11:42AM
      • It is true that a book's cover is not the be all and end all of it, but I feel it is terribly disrepectful to the very real depression, isolation and oppression present in it's pages. It is dismissive of these themes as being 'women's problems' even though it is definitely not a story about 'the silly problems of women'. To me it is appalling to dress up one of the most insightful pieces of literature of the mid 20th century which should be read by everyone in a red and pink cover with an obviously narrow (read: female on a beach holiday) audience in mind.

        Of course it is ignorant and shallow to care so much about a cover, but by marketing it so specifically towards women, they have very deliberately removed men from it's audience. And we've come back to the idea that literature for women is separate from literature for men, regardless of its merit. The irony of this cover on Sylvia Plath's work makes my head want to explode.

        Commenter
        Lily
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 2:27PM
    • I can understand why someone would see this as a sexist image and to me it doesn't express the essence of the book properly. What I find far more sexist is this expression 'chick lit.' Literature is for everyone. You don't call a female painter a 'woman painter' anymore just as you wouldn't define literature as 'chick lit.' All kinds of literature needs to have fewer labels attached to them so that anyone can enjoy them - much like in the way that children's literature is for everyone to enjoy. It makes me sad to see the media stamping anything as 'chick lit.'

      Commenter
      ElspethM
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 05, 2013, 10:09AM
      • I agree that this new cover conveys nothing of the content, but this is just one example of many. Albeit one of the worst. Seriously guys, this will attract nobody. I have taken to reading ebooks so as to not have some 'random' artists' interpretation of the book next to my bed, interfering with my own imagination.

        Commenter
        Melbourne_Mum
        Date and time
        February 05, 2013, 3:32PM
        • Much ado about nothing. The protagonist works at a fashion magazine and the cover could easily be considered a representation of the norms she feels she must adhere to. Fine example of feminism telling women what they should look like and what they should project.

          Commenter
          missminute
          Date and time
          February 05, 2013, 4:11PM
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