Is The New Cover Of Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ Sexist?

There’s been some debate as to whether the new cover of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s groundbreaking novel about a woman who suffers from clinical depression due to the pressures of gender norms and misogyny, is sexist. The cover which features a retro gal powdering her nose in a compact mirror is an odd choice for the 50th Anniversary edition of the book.

I am not sure if the cover is inherently sexist, so much as it is completely gendered. Jezebel commented saying, “For a book all about a woman’s clinical depression that’s exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she’s expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it’s pretty … stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup.”

While Naomi Wolf of The Guardian says, “I see nothing wrong with this – except perhaps that some young women seeking a lightweight beach read might get unexpectedly very depressed.”

The trouble is I can’t remember the last time I saw a cover of a book that I thought was cool or even relevant to the story inside. Covers are marketing ploys, which is of course problematic because they often diminish or undermine the contents of the literature inside. Putting an image of a woman primping herself on the cover of The Bell Jar is an ironically bad gesture because it suggests that the book is going to read like a cheap and cheerful, romantic comedy about a Manhattan fashionista.

Is there anything sexist about the image on the cover? No. There is something sexist about the way we market books to women though. It’s the same way we market toys to little girls. It’s not just books “for women” it’s also books that happen to be written by women. They’re always pink, red, purple or that flirty teal blue, the font is always curly and cursive, the images always feature blond girls, lipstick, cocktails and shopping bags – it’s a bit condescending.

Do I think this cover is sexist because it’s on The Bell Jar? No, I think it’s misleading. Do I think marketing is generally sexist? Yes, quite often.

What do you think about the cover? I’d love to know your thoughts. Do you judge a book by its cover?

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  1. feministbarbie says:

    It's more misleading, than anything else. I've read The Bell Jar, and that is not a cover I would have picked…

  2. Nicole Hume says:

    Well…I'm not sure the cover is inherently sexist. After all, the semi-autobiographical protagonist (whose name I can't quite remember – Esther??) was a "fashion girl" and the story does revolve around her internship at a woman's magazine in which she, like all the other girls there, dawns dresses and make-up. I can't recall any specific scene where she applies cover up with a compact, maybe it happens and maybe it doesn't. Ether way, it does seem relevant. What seems sexist to me is that we see this cover, and image of a woman putting on makeup, and think it's sexist because it causes us to imagine a "cheap and cheerful romantic comedy about a Manhattan fashionista." I think this is a sort of internalized sexism. I.e. What's sexist is that we assume it's sexist. As far as I know, there's actually only one Bell Jar cover that tries to point out that the book is about female oppression (the one with the shadowy female figure enclosed within the bell jar) and the rest seem to be faceless women in dresses, or pictures of her from the waist down implying a sort of superficiality and disconnect (or even a purposely divided body, rather than a complete person) just as this one does. This one, however, seems to emphasize more so than the others (because she's putting on makeup) that the source of disconnect is stems from femininity/gender oppression.

  3. devin says:

    It's not bad for a woman to like feminine things though?!?!?!?!? The cover is more misleading, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being interested in makeup.

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