Amid reports of Kirsten Dunst’s next project, directing The Bell Jar, the story has regained relevance. Most of The Bell Jar by Silvia Plath examines with the question of socially acceptable identity and the pressures on a mid-century American woman, echoing current gender role tensions. The main character, Esther Greenwood, begins The Bell Jar by explaining, “I was supposed to be having the time of my life,” contrasting her own feelings with societal expectations. These pressures are revealed early in Esther’s story, climaxing in her breakdown.
Esther was supposed to be notable. She won an internship with a New York magazine at the beginning of the story. Although she was included in a feature, the end of the experience was anti-climactic. Upon completion, Esther mourns that her experience in New York didn’t turn into something more.
Esther was supposed to be stylish. She was surrounded by beautiful women with a passion for fashion. Esther appeared to be a careful consumer but, the pressure of keeping up her appearance fatigues her after a while.
This can be seen at the very beginning, “I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America who wanted nothing more than to be tripping about in those same size seven patent leather shoes I’d bought in Bloomingdale’s one lunch hour with a black patent leather belt and black patent leather pocketbook to match.”
Esther was supposed to be happy. Upper middle-class and presented with great opportunities, Esther experiences guilt for feeling empty. Her mania builds from a desire to correct discontentment. Her peers and parents condemn her as both unbalanced and ungrateful.
The end of the story is unsettling, as her fate is still being determined. She is “analyzed” and may possibly be sent out in the world, supposedly cured. However, if one applies Plath’s real-life conclusion as an epilogue of Esther’s story, the ending takes on a tone of hopelessness. The institution boxed her into a role, “recovered”.
Do you ever get stuck focusing on what you’re “supposed” to be?
Upon reading this often-referenced, near-memoir, I endeavored to seek out universal meaning of The Bell Jar beyond the teen angst punchline. This is not a story about a weak woman, a torn person, or a thinly-veiled autobiography of an addled author. It’s a screech in the darkness, a song with no words. Plath picks at the question, “Why does society get to decide who young women are supposed to become?”
Appearance Is Reality
Chronicling a period in Esther’s life, starting with an internship at a women’s magazine, moving through an agitated summer where she unsuccessfully attempts to draft a novel, and ending with a phase of outdated psychiatric treatments, the book takes on serious subject matter with the flippancy of modern journalism.
The descriptive colors, tastes and scents of the story, leave me with the same impression as watching Gidget or something with Frankie Avalon singing exposition. The only difference is that this story is frustrated by the Technicolor emptiness behind the drama. Basically, it makes the reader sit there and think, “Even killing yourself really doesn’t stir things up.” She’s tired of being watched, judged. She’s not tired of failing expectations so much as tired of people putting expectations on her. All of these components create the metaphorical titular terrarium, under which she feels trapped, “in sour air” of paranoia.
After years of being scolded by hypocritical pastors, listening to health advice from unhealthy doctors, and tolerating unsolicited opinions from dysfunctional adults, I have developed an interest in stories that focus on shared delusions.
In modern American culture, there are still people that consider me selfish and wrong to delay procreating. It’s the big picture that bothers me… the fact that people think they may assert control over another person’s decisions. Esther sums this up in her meeting with her first, entirely inept doctor, ““What did I think was wrong? That made it sound as if nothing was really wrong, I only thought it was wrong.”
Dysfunction is Limited to One
One of the themes in Girl, Interrupted by Susana Kaysen, questions whether institutionalized individuals are the only dysfunctional component of a family. In that memoir, it becomes clear that Kaysen’s mother, may have even more of a personality disorder. However, Kaysen’s mother has the social power, allowing her to force the main character into therapy. Kayson proposes that dysfunction groups of people, but the “weakest”, compliant individual who enters treatment.
Similarly, I have often found, when confronted with a group of dysfunctional people, one who does not accept the lie will be seen as a threat. This is revealed in phrases like, “You haven’t been around long enough…” or, “All of us agreed…” with the false reality supported by stories about situations. Often, these tales started with some truth, or at least the perception of it. But, the extrapolations extend beyond the actual applications. People divulge and withhold information based on their own agendas. Those who refuse to admit it, are terrifying to the dysfunctional group.
The cycle repeats as people with their own massive problems will attempt to control others in an effort to keep their made-up world from crumbling. This ranges from small-scale social bullying to nefarious political agendas. Sometimes, the sheer presence of someone who raises an eyebrow at a mutual, agreed upon lie– made up in an effort to manipulate outcomes– puts the untruthful party on the attack.
And then more lies follow–lies about the eye-brow-raiser– who “obviously doesn’t understand, never could, and should be put in place” before they disrupt the false order of a micro-universe. And although one can assure them, “I have no interest in your drama,” they will seek to discredit and destroy, lest we see the mold on the gingerbread house.
This is why women revolted in the last century. That’s why we will never dismiss Plath or her work.
“Feminism is all about giving women choice. Feminism is not a stick with which to beat other women with. It’s about freedom. It’s about liberation. It’s about equality. And I really don’t know what my tits have to do with it,” responded Emma Watson in an interview about her Vanity Fair cover.
In a not-surprising but, still-disappointing reaction, the internet pinned an H for hypocrite on Watson during her promotion of the live action Beauty and the Beast remake when she posed in a revealing, high-fashion top. Her feminist path, and the re-inventive path of the film, presented a juxtaposition that feminists, literati, film critics, and conservatives all struggled to compartmentalize from social context. This post explores the dynamics and discussion that have followed this fairytale remake.
Disney Princesses in 2017
To see if Disney Princesses can work in our world, I gave them all modern careers. Details on each at the bottom of the post.
Belle, Social Worker
Ariel, eCommerce Photographer
Tiana, Headhunter for Business Incubator
Cinderella, Adoption Coordinator
Jasmine, Travel Journalist
Mulan, Campaign Manager
Snow White, Health and Safety Inspector
Watson has bloomed into an enigma, defying stereotypes in the best way, yet struggling to garner widespread approval. First, she shot to stardom with her screen-stealing portrayal of the precocious Hermione. Then, she quietly pursued a college degree with nary a scandal. From there, Watson has gracefully stepped into a role as feminist spokesperson, beginning with her presentation to the United Nations several years ago.
Yet, Watson seems plagued by an inability to present with the typical starlet catastrophes. Instead, she focused on creative projects with nary a crash or burnout in sight. This un-called-for diligence and humanity, probably resulting from decent parenting, makes her a troll-able target. Thus, the Beauty and the Beast film, and subsequently Watson, became subject to critique.
To some, she presents a conundrum. She’s progressive and liberal. Yet, partnered with Disney project that hearkens back to anti-progressive tropes that this remake has tried to reinterpret for a modern audience. Throughout promotion, critics have questions what Watson is doing in the film. Watson herself has reviewed the role of the fairytales in our modern culture. The public, in general, seemed generally underwhelmed by both the film and its surrounding controversy. In fact, some bloggers seemed perplexed at the homophobic hype. So, I found myself asking, “Why did all Belle break loose?”
Although each incarnation of this “tale as old as time” attempts to ground the narrative within the current cultural climate, Belle’s journey is problematic for modern viewers. In the original story, a widower merchant raises his six children in a life of luxury. The most beloved daughter, Belle is both the most kind and the most beautiful. These recurring traits present in most European princess stories and typically dominate both the themes and story arcs.
Later, unfortunate circumstances send the merchant home from a business trip with no money, and the family’s lifestyle lessens with time. However, when the merchant finds that his fortune may be recovered, all of his children, except Belle, make lavish requests. Belle requests a single, perfect rose. This request is symbolic for her own purity and beauty.
However, the merchant’s journey is fruitless. He returns home during a storm, seeking shelter in a palace. The home of the titular Beast, the merchant finds inside both coldness and wealth. Disguised, the beast offers, shelter, comfort, and gifts. However, the merchant oversteps and steals the most perfect rose he can find in the Beast’s garden.
This results in a confrontation, wherein, the merchant opts to trade one of his daughters as a wife for the beast in return for the mistake.
When the merchant relays his plight to his children, Belle volunteers to pay her father’s debt and moves into captivity with the beast. From there, the story follows the general relationship arc seen in the modern versions. The Beast starts with aggressive, crass tactics to win over Belle. Then, they eventually form a bond that leads to a deeper relationship.
The original synopsis contains several elements common to princess stories that have questionably returned in the Disney retellings. First, beauty, kindness, submissiveness, and youth are all paramount traits in a fairytale woman. In fact, I have only read one fairytale (The Twelve Dancing Princesses) where the leading man has intentionally chosen the eldest as his mate. Second, daughters are used as tools to barter debts, restore a family’s name, or raise in social class. This is why the stories must often start with a tragic backstory to create the initial conflict. Third, princesses function as ambassadors of comfort, wonder, and beauty. In difficult situations, they make homes, attract magic or magical creatures, grow gardens, and raise attractive offspring. Therefore, the stories often end with a “happily ever after,” signaling that turbulence has been transformed to peace through love, marriage, and homemaking.
The Problem with Princesses
“Everything’s a story – You are a story – I am a story.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess
Capitalizing on our nostalgia, Disney (and other clever studios) are going to continue making fairytale films, live-action or otherwise. And critics will continue to voice skepticism. Yes, the stories have stood the test of time because they communicate universal truths about the human condition. Yes, the plots and many of the themes are oddly rooted in the conventions of the feudal system. No, we don’t need to crap on everything you loved from your childhood. No, we don’t need to just accept something because of tradition.
You see, the problem with fairytales is a problem with princesses as an archetype without modern analog. Currently, our political princesses have not lived fairytale lives. Some are generationally royal, and a few are social-climbers. They fill a political role and function like businesswomen and politicians. The required traits of a modern princess don’t align with the beauty, virginity, and submissiveness valued in the old tales.
Additionally, those traits also don’t lead to success, or even necessarily contentment, in the modern world. Yet, the stories we tell children, and the stories we cling to as young people, shape our view of the world, ourselves, and the future. Wishing for a fairytale ending? Now, that’s wishing for disaster.
The Stories We Need
As a child, I absorbed both the Disney tales and the historical versions. I relished the fantasy and found myself identifying with aspects of the characters. I wanted to be like them, beautiful, kind, loveable, and valued. I wanted to achieve a place in the world, like those heroines build by the end of each book.
But as I matured, those were not the stories I needed. By kindergarten, I needed to identify with the (petite) Luke Skywalker’s battle against the odds. In middle school, I appreciated the pluck of Amelia Earhart, even with her controversial (excluded from history books) relationships. In high school, I journeyed with Samwise Gamgee as he exhibited the courage of servant leadership. In college, I listened as Marya Hornbacher of Wasted told me I was allowed to take up space in the world. I watched as Betty Suarez of Ugly Betty, Camile Saroyan of Bones, and Echo of Dollhouse navigated male-dominated social structures. Each day, I found myself referencing Moses’ path to leadership or Gladys Aylward’s lifetime of sacrifice.
Later, when I found myself choosing a partner for life, I didn’t reference a Disney story. I considered the toxicity of Riley, Angel, Xander, and Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I weighed the dynamic of Clementine and Joel in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I listened to Regina Spektor as she sang Us. I considered Sylvia Plath as she asserted, “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.”
Defining my place in the world, so infrequently references the lessons from the Grim brother or Hans Christian Anderson. Instead, I need stories whose value, as humans, is not based in their loveliness or purity, but the actions they take to make the world a better place. As a Christian, I believe this means furthering the Gospel. In our society, I think we can benefit from a mutual care and respect for our fellow humans, even when they are imperfect or damaged.
All Girls are Princesses
I stand by Sarah in A Little Princess as she explains, “I am a princess. All girls are. Even if they live in tiny old attics. Even if they dress in rags, even if they aren’t pretty, or smart, or young. They’re still princesses.” In Sarah’s story, she begins boarding schools as the indulged child of a British officer. With time, she earns a reputation for being dreamy and charming. Later, her fortunes change as her father is reported dead, flipping her from the wealthiest student with the best room to the maid of the school living in the attic.
After the tragedy, the headmistress acts particularly cruel toward Sarah, from lingering jealousy and resentment. Even still, Sarah acts with dignity and treats others with respect. Although, at first, one would assume her princess persona was tied to her wealthy, the reader discovers her wonder and dignity are internalized values that she manifests through her actions in all circumstances. She explains, “Whatever comes cannot alter one thing. If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside. It would be easy to be a princess if I were dressed in cloth of gold, but it is a great deal more of a triumph to be one all the time when no one knows it.”
Which leads to the conclusion: If all of us are princesses, then actually, none of us are princesses. We all have equal value and it is our daily actions, not our titles, mates, or appearances, that define us. This understanding allows us to fit fairytales back into their natural place. At their best, fairytales explore admirable character traits such as humility, courage, or optimism. However, at times, their original settings warp deeper messages.
My Princess Project
As I considered whether the classic princesses can be the stories that we need, I reimagined them for the year 2017. With their traits and backgrounds, what would each of these young women do in our world? Below are my suggestions.
During her time living with the little people, Snow White’s eyes were opened to the necessity of oversight and regulation in the energy industry. This led her to a career in health and safety inspecting, to ensure the well-being of workers.
Once she left the Sultan’s palace, Jasmine caught the travel bug. Immersing herself in the stories of the people that populate small towns, she finds herself documenting the world, one article at a time.
As an avid junk collector, Ariel took her hobby to the next level by joining forces with a global eCommerce antiquing platform. Her propensity for exploring the provenance of items has led her to become the chief photographer for the website.
After trials in trying to start a restaurant, Tiana connected with a progressive business incubator. She travels the country, meeting with aspiring entrepreneurs to prepare them for their business pitches.
Her disrupted life as an orphan, and deep connection with animals, led Cinderella to join forces with the local humane society. As the adoption coordinator, she reviews applications and homes animals to ensure appropriate placement.
After retiring from her successful military career, Mulan became engaged several female political candiates that advocate for women’s rights. Her experiences help shape their campaign messages to support working women, as a necessary cornerstone of modern society.
Her dysfunctional relationship with her family of origin exposed Belle to the need for safe havens and intervention. As a social worker, specializing in cases of human trafficking, Belle supports and advocates for the rights of her clients.
What do you think of my princess project? Sound off in the comments.
Business regulation, food or otherwise is currently a hot topic, with literary origins. Often, when politicians talk about deregulation, they are referencing a time after the industrial revolution but, before current policies. Simultaneously, whenever people become aware of their consumption habits, questions about factory conditions. Within this history, the novel The Jungle by Upton Sinclair holds a position of infamy.
The contrast between the intention of the author and the reaction of to his novel, inspired me to read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I had first heard of the tome during an American history lesson for its contribution to food safety regulations. During Sinclair’s time, critics dismissed the author as a sensationalist. However, public outcry after the novel’s publishing fueled food regulations shortly after the Great Depression in America.
Inside the reader discovers squeamish sentences such as, “…and as for the other men, who worked in tank rooms full of steam, and in some of which there were open vats near the level of the floor, their peculiar trouble was that they fell into the vats; and when they were fished out, there was never enough of them left to be worth exhibiting,—sometimes they would be overlooked for days, till all but the bones of them had gone out to the world as Durham’s Pure Leaf Lard!” The Happy Meal experiment pales in comparison to these assertions.
“I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Upton Sinclair said in an interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine about The Jungle, 1906. Although the conditions of the meat packing facility are secondary to the drama of the main character’s trials, they became the focus after the novel was published. In reality, the novel is a melodrama detailing the underbelly of European immigration to America around the turn of the century. All of the characters meet horrible fates, notably including:
Dying in childbirth
Working as prostitutes
Sleeping on the streets
Being eaten to death by rats
The story begins with the main character, Jurgis, arriving in America with his young wife and extended family. They are tired, unskilled, and hopeful. Soon, they fall prey to Chicago’s harsh meat-packing district. Corruption and greed controls the city. Jurgis naively fights against it for most of the tale. Eventually, he caves in to the corruption as his family falls apart. His morality must be sacrificed for the sake of survival. His trials include:
The meat-packing factory
Becoming a hobo
Joining the graft
Working for the union
Turning on the union
Working as a con artist
It is in the socialist movement that Jurgis finds his passion for work and life again, although he still mourns his dead wife and children. At this point, the story concludes with a hopeful and determined protagonist.
Fear and Food Safety
These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit.
– The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Even though Jurgis does not spend the entire book working with meat, it remains the most jarring and referenced part of the story. The inhumanity of slaughtering animals, grinding up all their parts, and mixing toxic chemicals into the food of unsuspecting consumers is bleak. Also, food safety concerned privileged members of society. Even the elite need to eat. In an era of minimal oversight, pure capitalism devolved into nauseating greed.
“In 1904, Sinclair spent seven weeks in disguise, working undercover in Chicago’s meatpacking plants to research his political fiction exposé, The Jungle,” Wikipedia states. Contaminated food scandals are familiar to a modern reader. However, during the late 1800s, people assumed that their food was clean and safe, without added chemicals. In our generation, people can rightly assume that much of their food has been processed. Wikipedia notes that the novel, “…exposed conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry, causing a public uproar that contributed in part to the passage a few months later of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act.”
Quality of Life
As the story progresses, many of the main characters perish. Interestingly, the family traded a simple, healthy existence for a competitive life. Previously, they lived in a rural locale and worked with their hands. However, in coming to America, they found a situation that perpetuates poverty with a lower quality of life. At first, the family falls prey to ignorance, as big businesses and unscrupulous people take advantage of their naivety. Later, Jurgis understands that those same people act unethically for their own survival. As the story continues, the family finds that their simplicity and hardworking attitudes will not help them survive.
Other immigrants try to explain the phenomenon to the newcomers. Basically, the companies wear employees out. Then, hurt and unable to work, each employee succumbs to homelessness. Indeed, Jurgis’ family does fairly well until they start to one-by-one become injured by dangerous working conditions. The danger of living in America is contrasted by the situation in Lithuania.
Their children were not as well as they had been at home; but how could they know that there was no sewer to their house, and that the drainage of fifteen years was in a cesspool under it? How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides? When the children were not well at home, Teta Elzbieta would gather herbs and cure them; now she was obliged to go to the drugstore and buy extracts—and how was she to know that they were all adulterated? How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes? And even if they had known it, what good would it have done them, since there was no place within miles of them where any other sort was to be had?
– The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The lack of social programs compounds the issue as workplace injuries result in debt, prison, or death.
Chaos and Calamity
Throughout the story, Jurgis finds himself unable to cope when he is hurt or abused. He is continually falling prey to dangerous and difficult circumstances. Occasionally, a employees would disappear and people would wonder about their fate.
It was said by the boss at Durham’s that he had gotten his week’s money and left there. That might not be true, of course, for sometimes they would say that when a man had been killed; it was the easiest way out of it for all concerned. When, for instance, a man had fallen into one of the rendering tanks and had been made into pure leaf lard and peerless fertilizer, there was no use letting the fact out and making his family unhappy.
– The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
As the people are treated like animals, they begin to act like animals. Jurgis finds himself moving from a muscular, ethical family man to a scrawny creature that leaves his extended family to starve. The main woe of the book is that Jurgis is not unique. All of the meat workers behave like this, leading to larger social problems.
They lodged men and women on the same floor; and with the night there began a Saturnalia of debauchery—scenes such as never before had been witnessed in America. And as the women were the dregs from the brothels of Chicago, and the men were for the most part ignorant country Negroes, the nameless diseases of vice were soon rife; and this where food was being handled which was sent out to every corner of the civilized world.
– The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Believing America’s establishment has failed them, the immigrants begin to favor the new socialist movement. Jurgis, seeing how he has been ruined by the New World, begins to dream of a different life. The story ends on a positive note, as Jurgis bonds with fellow socialists and tries to resist the injustice around him.
Deregulation and Class Systems Today
In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.” – Lisa Miller, WHAT FOOD SAYS ABOUT CLASS IN AMERICA, Newsweek
Today, food is still one of the biggest indicators of class divide in America. Those of better means are more likely to have access to, and knowledge about, better food. Conversely, food deserts separate low income communities from healthy options. Starting with Paltrow’s SNAP gaffe a few years ago, several journalists experimented with living on food stamps or trying to stick to small food budgets. While talking heads debate whether it is possible to eat healthy on a low income, we can all agree that it is difficult. Eating healthy takes energy, knowledge, money, and time.
Personally, I believe the ability to make changes in this area is one of the distinctions between being broke versus being poor. Broke people have a way out of food deserts. Poor people cannot leave. For example, I started my adult life as low income with entry level pay and student debt. However, I was college-educated, growing in in my ability to earn, and knew that I would eventually have better access to healthy options. Even while I was technically living on the poverty line, I wasn’t systematically poor . This is why I have never classified myself poor even when I didn’t have much money.
From those experiences, I have started to understand that essential priorities often compete with other essential priorities. That strain, over a lifetime, becomes exhausting.
Limited resources and lack of access to healthy, affordable foods
Cycles of Food Deprivation and Overeating
High Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
Fewer Opportunities for Physical Activity
Greater Exposure to Marketing of Obesity-Promoting Products
Limited Access to Health Care
Because of our current climate of deregulation and recent push for smaller government, The Jungle maintains some relevance. Certainly, Sinclair’s style is alarmist. However, the story relates to modern discussion about food, work, and class in America. The emotions of Jurgis’ struggle mirror the emotions of modern low-income families, especially those trapped in a multi-generational cycle of poverty. The story still uncovers the same questions about our society and why it is structured to place barriers between our citizens and access to healthy food, safe working conditions, and fair wages.
Do you think The Jungle maintains any relevance today?
I was perpetually grief-stricken when I finished a book, and would slide down from my sitting position on the bed, put my cheek on the pillow and sigh for a long time. It seemed there would never be another book. It was all over, the book was dead. It lay in its bent cover by my hand. What was the use? Why bother dragging the weight of my small body down to dinner? Why move? Why breathe? The book had left me, and there was no reason to go on.― Marya Hornbacher, Wasted
Childhood is built through a series of unimportant moments. There were many books that I liked or loved but, this is not a list about them. This is a list of stories that affected me, deeply. Continue reading →
Every career field needs people with a heart to love and change the world for better. – Sarah Bell, Isn’t Fashion Selfish?
After reading Sarah Bell’s post, Isn’t Fashion Selfish?I was reminded of how the attitudes from the “Pink Ghetto” affect women in all industries. In her post, she talks about criticism for going into the fashion industry. While the point of her post isn’t sexism, I reminded me of some sexist undertones perpetuated by the “Pink Ghetto”. To summarize, women who reject the “Pink Ghetto” are often criticized as selfish because they aren’t traditional caregivers.