We Need To Talk About That Episode of Dickinson With Sylvia Plath
[Image description: A top-bottom meme-formatted image shows two shots from last night’s episode of Dickinson. The top features Sylvia Plath (Chloe Fineman) in a red bandeau headband, discussing mythologies of Emily Dickinson’s life. The bottom is Emily Dickinson (Hailey Steinfeld) and Lavinia Dickinson (Anna Baryshnikov) staring at her in disbelief.]
(And by “we” I clearly mean “I.”)
I like the show Dickinson a lot, and stand in full-throated support of any show with radical portrayals of queer/femme/BIPOC people, especially if one of those people happens to be Emily Dickinson, one of the most miscast woman writers of the 19th (or any) century. I like the actors on the show; I like the drugs. I like Wiz Khalifa as Death. I liked getting to see a young Emily Dickinson have a mind-bending orgasm in a narrow 19th century bed with her lover, and soon-to-be sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert. I like the pomo vibe and the hip-hop and the introduction of Black American characters as principals. I would watch Jane Krakowski read the phone book, so her turn as Mrs. Dickinson is beautiful to behold. The modern dialogue against the pre-Civil War/Civil War backdrop is jarring in the best way.
So I was excited when my friend Rich texted me last night that Sylvia Plath was going to have a cameo on an episode where Emily and Lavinia time-travel to the 1950s. I figured Sylvia would get a minor version of the same treatment Emily Dickinson gets-- a wild, contemporary reimagining of the mid-20th century writer who we miscast as the proto-Goth Girl, despite her having died about 17 years before Goth Girls were part of the zeitgeist or the vernacular. I tuned in immediately; when I told my husband about Sylvia’s presence on the show, my 10-year-old son tuned in with us, excited to see a living, breathing portrayal of the woman he’s been hearing about since before he could remember.
But Dickinson could not have gotten this one more wrong (my 10-year-old: “This is boring, I’m going to bed”). Plath is often the butt or the punchline of jokes about depression, suicide, gas, and hysterical women, like, “Why did Sylvia Plath cross the road? To be struck by an oncoming vehicle.” The jokes are never funny— but Dickinson is often genuinely funny. This is part of why I was hoping—since both Emily Dickinson’s and Sylvia Plath’s work is loaded with dark, enigmatic humor—that the episode would use humor as an exploration of the relationship between Plath and Dickinson. Instead, we saw a rock-a-billy Sylvia Plath, still a student at Smith College, sneak into the Dickinson homestead to “commune” with Emily’s spirit and make announcements about her recent shock therapy. Dickinson’s Plath is loud and shrill and performative, well-aware of the tropes we now use to condemn her—at one point she calls Emily Dickinson “the original sad girl,” as though the only possible way Sylvia Plath, a consummate student of poetry and poetics, would have related to Emily Dickinson would have been with a Ouija board and a script for Lithium.
Because there is a relationship between Plath and Dickinson. There are many possible explorations of their common lives, themes, geography, and aspirations. Dickinson was known first as a reclusive spinster, and now is more commonly understood as a gay woman who had to live closeted, a seemingly far cry from Sylvia Plath’s virulent heterosexuality and search for big love. But both of them were women who prioritized writing above all things-- in the episode in question, Emily has a fight with her lover, Sue, over her choice to not only keep her poems as her life’s top priority, but also to share them with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor at the Atlantic, in an attempt to validate her talent. Sylvia Plath broke off more than one relationship (including with Dick Norton, a man she at one time hoped to marry) because she knew they were men who could never accept her wanting a writing career that equaled her domestic life in import. When she married Ted Hughes, she did so in part because she knew he would never force her to make that choice, that he valued her art as much or more than anything else about her. And both Dickinson and Plath were from genteel Massachusetts, albeit 100 years apart. Sylvia, too, aspired toward the Atlantic as a place to publish her poems, and saw her goal achieved many times. They published “Pursuit,” the poem she wrote the morning after she met (and bit) Ted Hughes, among others.
Both poets are understood as “visionary,” but too often in a narrow, sexist way-- Dickinson has long been seen as equally death-obsessed as Sylvia Plath, albeit from a different standpoint: in their cultural short-hand, Plath has a death wish that causes us to read everything in her life and work backwards, through the lens of her suicide. Dickinson longs for death (in one of her most famous poems, invoked in the first season of Dickinson, she portrays capital-D Death as a caller in a carriage), but she’s willing to wait her turn. But the poem in question, while surely “about” the nature of death and a changeless eternity, is also a funny, snide critique of 19th-century courtship rituals and marriage, both of which Dickinson possibly understood as a form of creative death. Death is a suitor, and to receive him, she dons her best dress— one made of spiderwebs. And both women’s lives and work have been so thoroughly misread that their so-called longing for Death is only recently understood as a poet doing what poets have always done— engaging with metaphysical and philosophical questions about the meaning of life, god, death, the universe, sex, flowers, what-the-fuck-ever. When men do this, they’re great thinkers; when women do this, they’re over-thinkers.
Or in Plath’s case, overachievers. Almost every book I’ve read on our girl has a ready diagnosis for why she worked so hard at writing and life, if she just wanted to die. A wild guess: maybe she didn’t always want to die, and maybe she worked twice as hard as the men because no one was going to notice her if she didn’t. They did notice, but the hard work became yet another reason to mock her, because hey, if you’re a woman artist, especially a queer or a Black or a trans or (GOD FORBID) an old woman artist, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Since Dickinson is largely about these double-standards, I had high hopes their portrayal of Sylvia would steer clear of them; instead, we saw overachieving Sylvia dramatically recite “Mad Girl’s Love Song” to a mystified Lavinia and Emily, with the latter commenting on Plath’s “intense” energy, with the caveat that she is Emily Dickinson, so she GETS intense energy, but come on, Sylvia, you’re just TOO MUCH.
Because she is. Or rather, she was. Too much. On that show. It’s apparently too much to ask that a television show portray not one, but two women writers as clever, funny, real human beings, instead of screeching caricatures of what we have been told they are. I know this is a truly wild concept, but it is possible to write comedy featuring Sylvia Plath, and employing her brand of smart humor, rather than comedy where some lopped off version of her is the joke. Case in point: the image of Sylvia Plath as a goofball know-it-all trying to “contact” Emily Dickinson by breaking into her bedroom and communing with the dead fits in neatly with our image of her as a woman who wrote poems from beyond the grave. In reality, Plath wrote a long poem called “Dialogue Over A Ouija Board” about a husband and wife using their Ouija board to connect with spirits that ends up as a meditation on the nature of communion and communication, and being newly married, and finishes with the hope that, “When the lights go out/May two real people breathe in a real room.” Plath’s ability to get at the underlying, sometimes unbearable tensions in a situation and drive them to a fever pitch is one of the things that makes her work extraordinary, and one of the things popular notions of her abandon in favor of the mad poetess. Imagine the potential comedy of a Dickinson where Emily and Lavinia drop in on Sylvia and Ted in the midst of their Ouija board session, and observe Sylvia slyly moving the planchette— Yes, Teddy, remarkable, I have my eyes peeled for ectoplasm; how’s the meringue?
And it apparently too much to do some basic research on Sylvia Plath. A culture that believes Plath is only a mental case in red lipstick tells us we don’t have to bother to look her up— we just know who she was. Call me pedantic, but on a show that nails so many historical accuracies about Emily Dickinson, the writers might have bothered to note that Smith College isn’t in Amherst, it’s 30 minutes away in Northampton. And while Plath was certainly familiar with Dickinson’s work, Dickinson wasn’t what I would call an influence on Plath, especially when she was a college student obsessed with W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, and Louis MacNiece. Imagine an episode of Dickinson in which Sylvia meets her and wonders, Why haven’t I read more of her? Or at the very least, I feel like there’s more to her story than I’ve been told.
“Was Sylvia Plath really like that, honey?” my husband asked me this morning, as we did the baby hand-off. “Because if that was all I ever knew of her, I wouldn’t want to know more.” I assured him that no, she wasn’t, that I was in the midst of writing about exactly that problem. So many people know only one version of Sylvia Plath, that really has nothing to do with her, and the episode of Dickinson perpetuated that. Which is more than unfortunate, it’s a pretty major failing from a show that purports to blow up our notions of who and what Emily Dickinson was. Like it or not (and given how much of this is to do with white supremacy, I don’t like it at all), America’s two most famous woman poets are Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. A show devoted to Emily Dickinson just confirmed we only need to bother challenging notions of one of those women. God forbid, as Dickinson so famously wrote, “there’s a pair” of complex, brilliant women poets on one TV show. They’d advertise, you know.