Second Wave | Sierra Louie

Revered to this day as a beacon of feminism, Sylvia Plath has served as a cultural symbol for women coming to understand domesticity, gender roles, motherhood, and mental illness. Commonly seen as a martyr of second-wave feminism, Plath must now be reexamined within our modern context, questioning whether we should continue to celebrate the ideals set forward by her image. More specifically, we must weigh her feminist views against her more regressive ideas about race and ask ourselves whether the two can coexist. 

Upon my first reading of Plath’s novel The Bell Jar, I was met with blatantly racist rhetoric that I assumed was commonplace at the time of the book’s publication in 1963. Similarly, looking into a variety of her personal journal entries, anti-Semitic remarks stained the pages, though were not surprising given the language used in her well-known poem “Daddy.” While this language may have been considered acceptable within the ideals of Plath’s time, in our modern age, racism and anti-Semitism can no longer be tolerated as intersectional feminism stretches beyond the Eurocentric ideals of “equality” that once defined the term. For this reason, I have reframed Plath’s writing, taking direct excerpts from The Bell Jar and diary entries that seemed the most ignorant. The format of these inner pages drew explicit inspiration from Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays which utilized and parodied pre-existing fascist language, tapping into my wish to inverse the original ideals assigned to Plath’s work. While explicitly quoting Plath within the confines of this new book, I hoped to draw attention to the contrasting ideals of her supposed feminist writing and the actuality of her racist language. With praise of her progressive views outlined on the back cover, her writing is placed in direct opposition. Despite the discomfort of reading words like those I have highlighted, I think that it is important to address what has been said, especially being that Plath continues to be celebrated today. While it might feel better to simply never read her offensive remarks, at this stage, erasure and censorship of this material might only insinuate that it never happened. Instead, this piece asks that we evaluate Plath under different circumstances and aims to ensure that this kind of rhetoric is not made acceptable in other written works, especially when tied to issues of equality. Ultimately, I used the writer’s medium to undermine original intent and feminist praise that we must now reconsider. Reframed as a digital book for an online age that houses much of our modern activism, our present modes of viewing prompt questions and engagement.

Plath’s writing highlights how our views evolve over time to the point that our media must follow these changes. However, this begs the question as to why her works continue to be so celebrated, not only as feats of the English language, but as monuments to feminism itself. Perhaps, there is room to consider whether our feminism is as advanced and intersectional as we currently believe it is. Instead, we may still be preaching Western ideals through mainstream media and academic teaching that continues to prop up Plath as an icon while revering her craft. In our modern age, it may be more useful to put these words to rest and look to the works of underrepresented and marginalized voices that can speak more accurately to our present definitions of feminism.