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Wish I Had Me a Sylvia Plath

Jackie Wang’s excellent post today over at HTMLGiant on, among other things, how certain kinds of young women exaggerate and perform their emotional craziness and general melancholy, reminded me of something that’s bothered me for a long time. Why are men (and other women) so attracted to emotionally or mentally unstable women? And why the double standard? Because I certainly don’t know many people attracted to emotionally fucked-up men.

This seems particularly true in regards to art, whether subjects or artists or both. Music, paintings, poetry, fiction, sculpture, plays–so often they’re about and/or inspired by the unstable, tragic-but-beautiful muse. I’m guilty of this, too, both in my writing and in my life. I’ve written these women, many times. They’re so fun to write, the Sylvia Plaths, the Bertha Masons, the Edna St. Vincent Millays, the Catherine Earnshaws (though come to think of it, Heathcliff was a little unstable, too.)  They’re even fun to be, when you’re not quite them. When I was in college, studying theatre, I definitely exaggerated the hell out of a slight melancholic tendency and was able to attract a certain type of guy–writers or painters, usually, serious, smoked Lucky Strikes, wore a lot of black, loved the Sylvia Plath-type but, I discovered, treated them more like furniture than people.  Like lawn ornaments.

Why is it that we love these women so? Are so fascinated with them? Wish their madness upon them in our literature, art and song? Is it because their madness gives them a kind of seriousness that we feel other women lack? Is it because their madness coveys a tragic glow, a sort of candle-in-the-wind quality that excites and saddens us, reminds us of our own mortality and comforts us with our own ordinariness? Or what?

Also, do we do a great disservice to women when we so often portray them in this manner? Do we encourage women to be impulsive, reckless, self-mutilating? Or is this relatively harmless, just another shared fantasy, like the hot schoolteacher and the naughty librarian? What is this obsession with the Sylvia Plaths? Why don’t we have the same hots for the Robert Lowells?

Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

15 thoughts on “Wish I Had Me a Sylvia Plath

  1. Wait! I was with you until I thought of some other male figures besides Heathcliff. Kurt Cobain! Joaquin Phoenix! Keanu Reeves makes me want to save him every time I see sad Keanus. But I totally know where you’re coming from on this. . . . And can’t wait to see what others have to say about it.

    1. Oh, true. Kurt Cobain, yes, yes. Absolutely. And yep, it’s from the Ryan Adams song. I guess there is, like, every sad emo dude in the world. Nick Drake, yes. And Keanu, I do want to help him, especially in that horrid movie about time travel that may have been a Nicholas Sparks book or something.

      But I feel like those dudes aren’t really sexy, more like a little boy that you want to protect. Still, Miss Molly, I may be splitting hairs. You may have totally called me on the distinction.

      Which then still begs the question: Why are we so fascinated with general emotional fucked-up-ed-ness?

  2. This right here:

    “Because I certainly don’t know many people attracted to emotionally fucked-up men.”

    Really? You’ve never been interested in an eccentric, bad boy, big drinking, pot smoking dude? I’m sure there are a TON of women out there who are into men like this, for the fun, the adventure, the unexpected things that happen, and to try and “fix them”.

    Hemingway? DFW? Raymond Carver? HST? Chandler? Poe? Kerouac? Faulkner? Bukowski?

    In music, Morrissey (Smiths)? Robert Smith (Cure)? SO many.

    I’ve definitely dated some crazy women in my life, and it was mostly when I was young. There’s definitely some appeal in independent thinkers, male or female, that do their own thing, go by their own rules, and are open to anything – drinking, drugs, sex. I dated a bi-sexual nymphomaniac in my 20s, and she had some serious issues. But it was crazy fun, at first, we did so many wild things, but in the end it was pretty dark and sad, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t drawn to damaged goods. Especially good looking ones.

    But, I’d say, as we get older, the drama gets old. Maybe this is just a phase that every rebellious young man and woman must go through.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think that either sex holds the monopoly on being screwed up, or in being attracted to screw-ups.

      Although I do think that society is more forgiving of male screw-ups—considers it more acceptable.

    2. Okay, okay! You guys win. Men and women are equally attractive in their fucked-up-ed-ness. :) But I can safely say I’ve never been drawn to these dudes. Somber dudes, maybe, for a tiny while…but never unstable. And since then, only dudes with a terrific sense of humor and a good sense of proportion in measuring life.

      Yeah, ‘fixing’ people is a big one. Many people think they can save someone, fix them, make them whole. Noble, but mostly fruitless–especially if you’re drawn to them* because* they’re messed up. Then you can only be poison to them, I suspect.

      1. I think, too, people often have (surprisingly) low self-esteem. They may be stuck with someone who isn’t ideal, but they say to themselves, “Well, this is the best I can do; nobody’s perfect.” (But the truth is that people can usually have they want—they just don’t insist on it.)

        People also just get used to things, even terrible situations. Ask anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship.

        Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people about why they’re in the situations they’re in (relationships, jobs, cities, bad habits or bad situations, etc.), and I hear these two things over and over again. It takes a lot of energy to change one’s life.

        I see it again and again in teaching, too. Every teacher has had a student who doesn’t work (for whatever reason), but who keeps telling her-/himself, “OK, tomorrow I’ll stop putting my work off; I’ll do better; I’ll turn things around.” But barring any real shift in their motivation, tomorrow never comes, and they fail.

    3. I love this: “I dated a bi-sexual nymphomaniac in my 20s, and she had some serious issues. But it was crazy fun, at first, we did so many wild things, but in the end it was pretty dark and sad, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t drawn to damaged goods. Especially good looking ones.”

      And find this just so totally–ringing true timbres and hilarious: “but that doesn’t mean people aren’t drawn to damaged goods. Especially good looking ones.”

      That could be part of the mind but not bone for Lowell–he’s not yummy looking, certainly not gorgeous like Plath was/is. Well I guess I am thinking of the cover of his selected, in which he is just really not happening; but the photos of him and Bishop in Rio are totes adorable, true.

  3. Because I certainly don’t know many people attracted to emotionally fucked-up men.

    I’m sorry to say I don’t know what you’re talking about. I know literally dozens of intelligent, ambitious, beautiful young women who are wasting time being trapped in long-term relationships with unmotivated, uncommunicative men who won’t commit to finding real jobs or being in real relationships. And when I ask them why they’re doing this, it’s often the case that they’re trying to help said guy out. You know—caring for him. “He needs me…”

    I think that we (i.e., the misogynist society-at-large) have very different ideas of what it means for a man to be fucked-up, as opposed to women. Fucked-up women are “hysterical,” insane crazy psycho-bitches. They’re strongly marked as being “wrong,” out of the ordinary. Whereas fucked-up men—the guy who can’t commit to an adult relationship, or communicate with his partner, etc.—are pretty typical, normal, ordinary guys—just “a bit immature.” Or hipsters, or “slackers.” They’re celebrated in the popular culture! (“Men will be boys…”)

    Just another guy who needs a woman to take care of him. To motivate him! …To save him!

    …All this speaking as someone who’s spent plenty of time being a fucked-up guy himself…
    Cheers, Adam

  4. You’re nuts. Keanu is totally sexy!

    But yeah, I used to be into emotional wrecks but hopefully not anymore. It was because I thought I had the power to save, redeem, salvage. Plus, you know, those types are interesting. Normal and ordinary are boring and safe (thank goodness!).

      1. @molly – LOL…there’s something to be said for closing down the bars, running around a city, waking up with a stranger, all of that…i mean, jeez, we need to get our material from SOME place, right? keanu, sexy? DUH, for sure

        adam – hey, was great seeing you at Quimby’s – how’d you do that quote thing, too?

        also, there’s always the idea that if you date/see somebody that is more messed up than you are, then you don’t feel so bad about yourself – and there’s always some sort of power struggle in any relationship, some are just more S/M than others

  5. I wonder, taking the premise that it’s rare to find people salivating for men who are hot messes as a given even as of course it’s disputable, if this is in large part a phenomenon of Heterosexuality–society seems to love looking at Girls/Good-Looking Women, and this gaze seems to be deemed more than less OK by many (though yes there are many critiques of this dynamic!); but I wonder if looking at Boys (as in Calvin Klein era Marky Mark not ten year olds)/Men (who will be boys, too), regardless of the sex/sexuality of the watcher, is just too proximate male Homosexuality for it to be as seemingly deep-rooted. I realize my thinking here is sketchy, and that any attempt to flesh out my reasoning would likely crash; but, is it just me or is there a good possibility that if male and not Heterosexual maleness were the cultural baseline for so much culture, that there would, in part, be a very different kind of spotlight on bros, and particularly one which had a penchant for turning them into markedly aesthetic visual spectacle. Like even the honed, honeylicious chests of Men’s Health seem, to me, to be dimly lit compared to the va-va-voom atmospherics of Maxim. I think I swerved from the post, but maybe bits will click or fray in interesting ways.

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