Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
placeholder article
placeholder article

Sylvia Plath is a Bad A** Who Unveiled Femininity of the 1950s

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UC Riverside chapter.

Imagine being one the first people to get to play with a new style of poetry, well that was Slyvia Plath–an absolute trailblazer and a total bad a**. Sylvia Plath was an American author of the 1950s’ who amazed audiences with her use of confessional poetry which was, at the time, a new and very personal style of poetry. She wrote with a deliberateness that would turn heads. Her work exposed the power imbalance between men and women where men, low and behold, would place themselves at the top. Two of her most notable works that echoed this frustration were the poems, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”.  These two poems illustrate how the women of the 1950s were perceived and how it affected them; she portrays this through conversations of gender and marital imbalance.

Let's Sweet Talk GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Let’s start with the poem “Daddy”, shall we? Plath used her personal experience with her father to echo the violence and oppression that women like her would face. In the poem, she compares her life with him to a foot in a shoe, “I have lived like a foot For thirty years…barely daring to breathe…”(ll. 3-5). To get into it, Plath was constantly fed ideas of how to be a “proper” woman. They were basically told to just be pretty and play housewives. And if you didn’t catch the title’s power dynamic, she doesn’t use “dad” or “father” because ‘daddy’ creates a tone of infantilization. Her comparison to a child shows his position of authority; with this power, men would strip women of their self-identity.

These women wished for independence, but this brought along another battle; one of marital imbalance, “every woman adores a fascist…the boot in the face”(ll. 48-50). By using the word “adores” she’s giving a connotation of endearment—with the explicit image of a boot in a face. She’s talking about the normalization of violence against women, how they were told to adore their oppressors and not to fight back. Another example of her need for independence is when she notes, “The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year…”(ll. 72-73). With this line, Plath was reflecting on how being a wife was draining her creativity. She was also emphasizing her lifelessness and her inability to oppose.

 - Find & Share on GIPHY

Moving on to the poem “Lady Lazarus”, Plath shows a woman’s role as an experience of misery. She writes, “Bright as a Nazi lampshade, My right foot A paperweight”(ll. 5-7). Here, she is comparing herself to household items to demonstrate how a woman’s role was synonymous with the domestic; they were nothing more than adornment pieces. Plath also lets us know that she is referring to not just some men but all of them, “Herr God, Herr Lucifer…”(ll. 79), the first word is German for sir, and in recognizing the spectrum to be anyone from God to Lucifer she is calling out all men for contributing to these ideals.

Plath also invokes death in her style of confessional poetry. When writing about being resurrected she notes it as, “‘A miracle!’ That knocks me out…”(ll. 55-57). The speaker, instead of praising the doctors and loved ones who saved her, antagonizes them. This makes evident that death was favorable when in competition with being captive to the gender role assigned to her. She further exacerbates this with the line, “pick the worms off me like stickley pearls…”(ll. 42). Death here is portrayed as a luxury rather than something to be afraid of. She makes it even more straightforward with this cool line, “and like the cat I have nine times to die…”(ll. 21). It was interesting because instead of talking about the number of lives she has left, she talks about the number of deaths. Living was robotic for many women and death was almost favorable because it would provide an escape to the monotonous world they were forced to live in.

Working Hard Helen Keller GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Plath’s fascination with the morbid is her attempt to dramatically highlight just what headspace someone like her who fell under the patriarchy of the 1950s would feel like. They were feelings of longing for something more while battling their own internalized misogyny because of the ideals imposed upon them. Both, “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” bring attention to conversations of gender and marital imbalance. These were all the different ways Sylvia Plath used her poems to unveil what femininity meant for the women of the 1950s.

Jay Telles

UC Riverside '22

Fourth-year English major with a love for social justice, fashion, and woman empowerment.