As any fan will know, being an avid reader of Sylvia Plath does not come without a certain social stigma. Janet Badia's excellent book, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers brilliantly explores how Plath readers are perceived in society and how this translates into a larger question: how women readers in general are considered. Be it moody Julia Stiles in "Ten Things I Hate About You", brandishing The Bell Jar as a symbol of defiance against the dominant girlie trends of High School, or Rory Gilmore bookishly engrossed in The Unabridged Journals, Plath readers are often categorised as - generally female - isolated teens, angry women, and those interested in the "darker" side of life.
This dark perception of Plath and the credibility of women readers in general, adds problems to interpretation of the actual work (something which is inherently riddled with biographic troubles as it is). It is kind of a two-pronged sword because the cultural interest that obscures Plath's work is the same force that arguably keeps her to the fore of our consciousness (Woody Allen references, popping up in Jeopardy, etc). Although they are popular in their own rights, contemporaries like Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich just do not occupy the same important place in the current cultural landscape. Why is this? Why has Plath become such a universal literary symbol? Perhaps there is just something magnetic about her life and legacy that piques interest.
While I do feel very frustrated by Plath's cultural position (since I've started my Ph.D. at least ten people have told me that they have thought about "dressing up" as Plath for Hallowee'n, for example) - I do have to confess that before starting to consider Sylvia Plath in a seriously academic way, I would squeal with excitement when she gained reference on television, radio or in magazines. Lady Gaga singing, "Marilyn, Judy, S-s-s-Sylvia - tell them how you feel girls" at the very commercially popular Brit Awards a few years ago was such a thrill! Other musicians like my beloved Ryan Adams, the Manic Street Preachers etc have all incorporated Plath in their work. Whether it's the case that Plath's work or Plath the person has become a muse for other artists, I do not know. But here in 2012, she is still a hugely significant artistic figure.
With all this in mind, I thought I'd share some pictures of Lana Del Rey from a recent Vogue photoshoot inspired by Sylvia Plath. Entitled "Melancholy Sexuality", Del Rey's style is defined as: "melancholy and wistful, but she apparently appreciated
the comparison to Plath. “Thank you to the wonderful women at Vogue,”
she tweeted after seeing the cover."
Personally, I think the photographs look great. I can of course see the obvious flaws- the title "melancholy sexuality" has so many problems in relation to Plath. For someone encountering Plath's work for the first time through this shoot, they've already come to the writing with a whole series of preconceived notions of what Plath is all about. On the plus side, what Del Rey, Lady Gaga, the Manic Street Preachers etc do in their Plath-inspired artwork is glorify the individual, applaud those who do their own thing and express themselves to the fullest. There are so many mixed signals - and that's before we even get to the poetry!
I allow myself to enjoy Plath's presence in contemporary culture as long as I view her work in the same kind of way. I try to interpret her poetry, stories and novel in conjunction with modern critical theories and in the freer, more progressive way that women now exist in the 21st Century. Keep a rational mind for the work, but enjoy Plath's popularity with a large pinch of salt!
And I suppose, regardless of the way she is interpreted by others, the fact Plath is being emulated by some of the most popular working artists at the moment is a testament to how brilliant and life-changing her writings are. I think Sylvia Plath would eat ladies like Lana Del Rey and Gaga for breakfast, so it's good that they are paying homage! ;)