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

“I am, I am, I am.”

by Naomi Elias

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.