The Bell Jar's sexist makeover
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 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.