Women and mirrors - a narrative cliche?

There was much fuss and anger when Faber revealed their new 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar this year, mainly because of its cover which many felt was wildly inappropriate to its content: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/an-insult-to-women-everywhere--sylvia-plaths-the-bell-jar-gets-a-chick-lit-makeover-8477220.html.

Another writer in the Guardian argued that at least the publishers put a woman on the front of the book, because publishers hardly ever do that. I'm not sure where this writer has been for the last ten years - a single woman on the front cover is pretty much a staple these days: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2013/feb/09/faber-bell-jar-cover-sylvia-plath.




Part of the problem seems to have been the depiction of a woman looking into a make-up mirror. What vain creatures we are! What silly 1950s trollops, with our powder and lipstick and constant retouches in the palm-sized glass! As if we have nothing more important to do, than obsess over our appearance!
Several years ago (well, about twenty actually), I read this fabulous study by the wonderfully named Jenijoy LaBelle, called Herself Beheld: The Literature of the looking Glass. It began with a quote from one of Plath's own poems, Mirror: "Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me, Searching my reaches for what she really is..." and analysed various scenes in literature where women and girls sought their identity in a reflection of themselves. She found these scenes everywhere - in Walter de la Mare, in Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, in Angela Carter, Anita Brookner, Barbara Pym, Rebecca West, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Drabble, Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Rhys, Thomas Hardy, Lillian Hellman, Virginia Woolf, Kate O'Brien, Doris Lessing, Katherine Mansfield.

It is, she finds, very much a gendered relationship - "what women do with mirrors is clearly distinct from and psychically more important than what men do with mirrors", and finds very few examples of men in literature looking into mirrors at all anyway (she does cite Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man and Robert Graves's The Face in the Mirror', where men are looking into a mirror as they shave). One rare example is Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, where he gazes into the mirror on his mother's dressing table, just after he has written a love poem.

Mother-daughter relationships, which are so often featured in fiction by women, also dominate mirror scenes - young women look into mirrors and see their mothers looking back at them (in Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the 'mirror-daughter' Issy reflects her mother bedtime actions of smoothing cream over face. Is she copying her mother though, or trying to ward off the effects of time which will turn her into her mother?). Women worry about the ageing process more than men when they look in the mirror; in Edith Wharton's Summer, even young girls worry about it, as teenage Charity Royall does when, discovering she has been made pregnant, sees her face in the mirror, "white in the autumn dawn, with pinched cheeks and dark-ringed eyes, and all the marks of her state that she would never have noticed..."

A classic way to indicate mental breakdown is to have a female character gaze into a mirror and not recognise herself. Or have her see a ghostly version of herself standing in front of her. LaBelle argues that both states are dangerous, indicating "a deep disturbance in a woman's self-conception." Taking that mirroring relationship further into the realms of establishing identity finds us considering make-up in the same way - it is the process of creating an identity. There are lots of examples in fiction of women 'making up their faces' (also, increasingly over the last few years, examples of narrators recalling their mothers putting on make-up before a night out) - women can 'make' an identity for themselves in a way that men are far less able to do.

All of this creativity and identity is boon to a novelist, of course, How many of you have written mirror scenes in your own fiction? The focus on the female body need not be one of simple objectification, but a complex one of reflection and creation, and the mirror scene is a handy visual metaphor, too. But has it been overused? Are we much too immune to it now, scarcely even noticing it when it occurs? Do we expect the wiping-off of make-up, for instance, in front of a mirror, to indicate a woman's mental or social breakdown, as it does in everything from Dangerous Liaisons to adverts about cleaning your teeth? And is it an anti-feminist image that's out of sync with our times, as fuss over the Faber cover of The Bell Jar indicated?  

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