Schoolgirl’s Love Song
In his movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen picks up a copy of the poetry book Ariel by Sylvia Plath and remarks “oh, Sylvia Plath, interesting poetess, whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the schoolgirl mentality”. Ariel was meant to be Sylvia Plath’s second book of poetry, published two years after her death by suicide. Her writing was deeply autobiographical, as she dutifully kept daily journals and constantly published poems. Her work also documented her struggle with severe depression and bipolar disorder, undiagnosed in her lifetime as there was little medical knowledge, which shaped her identity not only as a poet, but also as a woman.
In high school, Plath spoke to my own burgeoning sense of femininity*. There were various, strict definitions of femininity screamed at me daily, in my school’s dress code, the words boys used against certain women, and, of course, the books I read. I remember reading “Mad Girl’s Love Song” one night in my bedroom, discovering for the first time that there were women unashamed of how they loved, despite the way society condemned their emotions. She did not mind being called a crazy woman, in fact, she reclaimed the term and labeled herself. As a young woman trying to navigate the world, quietly avoiding things that would mark me as overly-emotional or insane, Plath encouraged me to be a mad girl. I finally heard a woman’s voice not only proclaim her heartbreak and all the neuroticism that accompanies it, but also produce meaningful work from it. This poem and her novel The Bell Jar were different than any other voices I read in English class, because Plath refused to apologize for her own femininity, which was messy, romantic, and deeply affected by her own mental illness.
In Annie Hall, there is something sinister in Allen’s grasp on the book, as if he is holding a piece of Plath’s dead body while simultaneously critiquing the way other women perceive it. He accuses girls like myself of misinterpreting the Plath, of over-romanticizing her work and eventual suicide. Thus, Allen must categorize the women who identify with her, specifically with her mental illness, as unfit readers and in effect, place himself above them. Despite Plath herself being a woman, she seems to have transcended Allen’s conception of “schoolgirl”, perhaps because of her traditional literary success. This trend is not uncommon: women are constantly belittled for the space and voice they must viciously earn and then their female readers and fans are disparaged.
I wonder, then, if years before she was a famous poet, Allen would have labeled Plath a schoolgirl for her interest in poetry and critiqued the way she interpreted certain pieces. I wonder, too, if I’d have the confidence, incubated by the solidarity of other female artists’ work, to pursue my own creative writing if I had never stumbled upon Plath’s work in high school. I must constantly remind myself, even today, to reject this feeble notion of schoolgirls, and instead nurture my own mad girl, buried deep inside all of us.
*I use words like “femininity” “women” and “female” in this piece regarding my own personal experience alongside Plath’s. This is certainly not the narrative for all self-identifying women, only my own.