Separated by some forty-plus years in time (Taylor’s debut album came out in 2006 while Plath’s poetry first got published around 1963), one perhaps would not imagine Sylvia Plath and Taylor Swift to have much in common. Yet, in their artistry, these two powerful female artists share certain similar threads, which, when woven together, help create the larger picture of women creating art in a patriarchal world with narratives that go against that world’s very basic notions.
In her 2020 song powerfully titled ‘Mad Woman’, Taylor sings — ‘And there’s nothin’ like a mad woman / What a shame she went mad / No one likes a mad woman / You made her like that’ — and needless to say, truer words have never been spoken. Since time immemorial, patriarchy has labelled a woman not conforming to their definitions, rules or laws a ‘mad woman’, often overlooking their own hand in driving them towards certain extremes.
Both Plath and Taylor have been victims of such attempts. Their lives have been scrutinised, and their work is torn apart under patriarchy’s dominating lenses. Plath and Taylor have been called all sorts of names — mad, crazy, insane, attention-seeking, childish, immature and more. All of that is just because both of these women have been able to be brave enough to take their personal experiences and weave lyrical masterpieces that combat the shame and judgement inflicted upon them and on women in general on a daily basis by the male-dominated world.
Many, over the years, have equated their whirlwind life events, “their men and bad habits,” as Taylor writes in her song titled ‘The Last Great American Dynasty’, but even beyond such surface similarities lies a more subtle connection, a connection only understandable through the personas they have crafted for themselves through their art.
Plath was a part of the Confessional movement in poetry that rose in prominence around the mid-20th century, but her writing was unique to her and varied from other Confessional writers like Lowell, considered the foremost of the Confessional poets. While Lowell’s confessional poetic writing meant confessing something personal realistically through a speaker very similar to his own self, Plath believed in creating exaggerated figures or types in her poems to confess something that was inspired by her real-life personal experiences.
Plath, the poet and Plath, the speaker, are distinctly different, and yet most critics fail to figure that out. Plath had herself mentioned, “I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind.”
As the critic M.D. Uroff writes, “Plath’s outraged speakers do not confess their misery so much as they vent it”. In her poem ‘Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper’, Plath writes how the ‘mad woman’ is “No novice / In those elaborate rituals / Which allay the malice / Of knotted table and crooked chair’ and so instead of a confession, the poem is more an elaboration upon insanity; the ‘mad woman’ trying to control her terrifying experiences with ritualistic precision.
Such is the capability of Plath’s writing that many have thought the ‘mad woman’ in the poem to be Plath, the brutal honesty of her lines rendering the persona an unlikeable quality, making readers equate it with Plath’s own personality. But while Plath does manipulate and control her personal experiences with an intelligent, artistic mind when writing, what distinguishes her from the “mad woman” is her use of the exaggeration the hyperbole in crafting the “mad woman’s” persona, a grotesque caricature of her own self.
It is seriously horrifying to see how many blatantly misogynistic comments have been directed at Plath and her writings over the years with a complete disregard for her art. Her death, her tumultuous relationship with her husband Ted Hughes, and her mental health all have been the centre of attention, and sadly her writings have been pushed to the background as mere evidence of her psychotic self. This fate has been similarly shared by Taylor and other women artists through the ages, and honestly, it’s a sad and brutal cycle.
Taylor Swift, an American singer and lyricist, had her roots in country music though she eventually transitioned into pop music over the years. Ever since she started out in her teenage years, she faced constant backlash and criticism that had little to do with her artistry and more about how the patriarchal world viewed her life and activities.
While men writing about their love lives is seen as romantic and natural, even if they are spouting nothing but excessive misogynistic statements, women writing about their love lives came to be viewed as immature, hysterical and unnecessary. Taylor, through her career, received a first-hand experience of such villainous portrayals of her personality.
In an interview, she says, “[From] 2012 to 2013, they thought I was dating too much because I dated two people in a year and a half, but whatever – we’ll leave it there,” It was just kind of excessive and, you know, at first it was hurtful and then I kind of found a little comedy in it. This character is so interesting, though, if you go and read these gossip sites and they describe how I am, [it’s] so opposite to my actual life.”
That is the point when she decided to write ‘Blank Space’ and Swift sums up the imaginary persona she decided to make the song about, “You know, I can get these guys. I’m just like a nightmare and I’m clingy and I’m awful and I throw fits and tantrums and there’s drama. But then they leave. They can’t stay away so they come back. But then I drive them away again. [I’m] emotionally fragile and just [this] unpredictable mess…I painted a whole picture of this character, she lives in a mansion with marble floors and she wears Dolce and Gabbana around the house. She wears animal print, unironically. And so I created this whole character, and I had fun doing it.”
And even then, people mistook her Blank Space mad persona to be her real identity. Instead of focusing on her incredible artistry, too much attention was given to her dating life.
So Taylor and Plath have both been termed the ‘Mad Woman’, and people try to box them into that category as and when they fit, but instead of succumbing, Plath and Taylor have constructed their own mad women personas through their art as subversion and mockery of patriarchal society’s perceptions of women and their art.
Also read: Book Review: The Bell Jar By Sylvia Plath
Sayeri Biswas recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. Whether it’s philosophically contemplating life or gushing about the most recent book/series she has indulged in, she is always up for a deep conversation. Literature is the great love of her life, and in the future, she hopes to continue talking about all art forms as passionately as she thinks about them. Sayeri can be found on Instagram and LinkedIn.
Featured image source: Rolling Stone