At the first glance, Katy Telling’s pamphlet Bell Jar Barbie reads like a physical manifestation of a Valium-infused surrealist dream of a 1950s housewife. The twelve-page mini book is printed on a similar shade of pink as the Smith memo papers Plath wrote The Bell Jar and many of her poems, creating a magical-poetic synthesis between Telling’s experimental work and Plath’s novel. As the title implies, the pamphlet is filled with images of Barbies who remind the reader of the guest editors at the women’s magazine Esther Greenwood spends her time in New York, locked in a single-sex hotel. Esther states at the beginning of The Bell Jar that “These girls looked awfully bored to me … Girls like that make me sick”. In Telling’s zine, the Barbies, dolls, and cut-out women from post-war adverts mimic Esther’s sentiment: they are fashion figures with dull eyes and shiny hair and no personalities. We see Plath’s head appear several times over the pink pages which contrasts the Barbies: she looks alive, and her eyes express curiosity and thoughtfulness.
Besides the visual appeals, Bell Jar Barbie delivers textual allusions to Plath’s novel. On the fourth page of the pamphlet, Telling offers a “Sylvia Plath cocktail recipe”, which includes two ingredients: vodka and ice, referencing the scene from the novel when Esther Greenwood orders the drink: “I began to think vodka was my drink at last”. Drinking and humour merge with decisions (or indecisions) about dating and misogyny, while Plath gazes at you from the pages and you might want to ask: “What would Sylvia Plath do?”. While the zine is mainly inspired by Plath’s novel, there are many references to her poetry, from the bees sequence to “Surgeon at 2 a.m.” and “The Applicant”, and also Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters. The pamphlet is a journey from self-irony to self-assertation via the works and image of Sylvia Plath.
From “THE POETRY GODDESS WORSHIP” to “I no longer embrace these patriarchal, patronizing themes. / In love or literary fiction”, Bell Jar Barbie navigates life in which Plath appears as a poetic fairy godmother – or “divine madonna” as Telling alludes to her. The pamphlet made me think about how significant the traditional feminine looks and the colour pink are in the visual representations of The Bell Jar, particularly in many of the covers by Faber.Bell Jar Barbie: A Poetic Rituals Mini Book is for anyone to read who is interested in rethinking what Plath’s novel means in our contemporary culture, what signifies gender, and why the bell jar can never leave us, or Esther. Katy Telling’s pamphlet invites you and places you under the bell jar. Like Esther, you feel claustrophobic and alone with all these pretty pink pages, for poetry being the only rescuer.
Dr. Dorka Tamas studied Sylvia Plath and the supernatural at the University of Exeter. You can read more of Dr. Tamas’ work at https://theplathwitchcraft.wordpress.com/ or follow on Twitter at twitter.com/dorkatamas.