Master of None screenshot. (YouTube)

New York, 60 Years Later: Sexual Health and Coming of Age in The Bell Jar and Netflix’s Master of None

Master of None, the new Netflix TV show created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang (best known for their work on NBC show Parks and Recreation), has created a lot of buzz in the blogosphere. Ansari and Yang’s show is insightful and original, and benefits from its diverse cast of characters and willingness to depict struggles that Asians and Asian-Americans face in American society. Television critics Phil Yu, Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, and Sandra Song have detailed both the important racial barriers the show breaks down, as well as its limits, in its portrayal of an Asian-American romantic lead.

Master of None is the story of Dev Shah (played by Ansari), a 30-year-old New Yorker who works as an actor. The show follows Shah and his group of friends as they navigate the problems of modern life. One of the central themes of the show is Shah’s romantic relationships and the ways he tries to balance them with the rest of his hopes and desires. In a twist of modern television meeting classic literature, Shah’s character development parallels the main character in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. In many ways, Shah shares characteristics with Esther Greenwood, the white female protagonist in Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel about a young woman working as a guest editor for the summer at Ladies Day magazine in New York. The novel follows Esther as she suffers a mental breakdown after the internship, attempts suicide, and finally receives mental health care at an asylum. The Bell Jar is explicitly referenced in the finale of Master of None. In this episode, Dev asks his father Ramesh (portrayed by Ansari’s real-life father, Shoukath Ansari), for advice about what to do in his relationship. Ramesh tells his son that he’s like Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, sitting in front of the (metaphorical) fig tree. Dev goes into a bookstore, and we hear him read this passage from the novel aloud:

Master of None screenshot of Dev Shah reading Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar. (fashion-and-film/Tumblr)
Master of None screenshot of Dev Shah reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. (fashion-and-film/Tumblr)
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.1

Though Shah and Greenwood are separated by fifty years, and Master of None does not substantively discuss mental illness, there are significant similarities in how they make their way as young adults in New York City. Shah and Greenwood are both young — 30 and 19, respectively — and preoccupied with the question of what they want out of life. For Shah, the fig tree comes to represent his ambivalence about pursuing a long-term romantic relationship, marriage, and children in addition to further exploring his passions. During the scene in which he reads the passage out loud, we see Shah in various situations on the screen — with different lovers; with children; visiting faraway places. The choices multiply, until the screen is filled with many images of Shah in different situations. He is unclear about which “fig” to choose. His conversation with his father reveals that his indecision is paralyzing. Similarly, Greenwood’s “figs” rot and fall to the ground because she cannot decide which to choose. The resolution to The Bell Jar suggests that Greenwood has chosen at least two of the “figs” (she implies that she has a baby and is the narrator in the written novel; she does obtain the “happy home” and “writer” figs from her metaphor). In Master of None, we don’t get to see the same array of “figs” that Greenwood provides, but the end of the final episode of the season does offer some resolution as to which “figs” Shah chooses. Perhaps more of Shah’s “figs” will be introduced if the show is picked up for a second season.

Sexual health is a common thread in both Master of None and The Bell Jar, with the fig tree playing an important symbol in both. Decisions about Shah’s and Greenwood’s careers, friendships, romantic relationships, and desires (or not) to have children permeate the novel and the show. One of Greenwood’s “figs” includes a home with a husband and children; the catalyst for Shah’s conversation with his father is a conflict Shah has with his romantic partner about the status of their relationship. In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is concerned about the prospect of accidentally getting pregnant. She limits her partner choice because she is worried about being forced into an unhappy marriage if she were to get pregnant. Once Esther meets a compassionate doctor, she is fitted for a diaphragm. In the 1950s and 60s, birth control options included the diaphragm and other barrier method forms of birth control, which Nursing Clio’s own Lizzie Reis has previously described. Esther’s birth control is freeing for her — it allows her to decide to lose her virginity without fearing she will find herself pregnant.

In another parallel to Greenwood’s story, in the very first scene of Master of None, a condom breaks and Shah and his date, Rachel (Noël Wells), discuss whether or not pre-ejaculate might contain semen, and thus, if emergency contraception is necessary. The two decide to Google the answer on their iPhones while still in bed; a trip to a local pharmacy ensues. At the pharmacy, a comedic scene plays out. One particularly funny line occurs when Dev asks the pharmacist if the pill he hands them is a “good brand.” The pharmacist flatly replies, “It’s the best and only brand.” This is actually not quite true-to-life: in addition to the Plan B One Step pill portrayed on screen, Ella, another “morning-after” contraceptive pill, was approved by the FDA in 2010, and other pills, such as Next Choice and Take Action, are available. A copper intrauterine device (Paraguard) can also be used as emergency contraception. However, the joke works because Plan B’s distinctive box is visible as Dev and Rachel leave the pharmacy (and the title of the episode is “Plan B”).

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(master–of-none/Tumblr)

Both the show and the book parse sexual identity, but in very different ways. While recovering in the asylum, Esther Greenwood meets an old friend of hers from home, Joan. Esther discovers Joan in bed with another woman and finds herself disgusted by the idea of a lesbian relationship. In the novel, Joan is presented as a foil for Esther; her rejection of Joan’s friendship could be interpreted as her embrace of heteronormativity in her own life. Meanwhile, Master of None provides a much richer portrait of queerness. Denise (Lena Waithe) is a black lesbian character and part of Dev’s core friend group. Queer women of color are all too scarce on television, and Denise’s romantic relationships are seamlessly knitted into the group’s discussions of relationships and sex. Denise also provides much-needed perspective to her friends and Dev, particularly when Dev has a realization that women deal with sexual harassment on a daily basis in the episode “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

[Language warning] Clip from Master of None — “Ladies and Gentlemen: Social Media.” (Netflix/YouTube)

Both Master of None and The Bell Jar are semi-autobiographical works. There are many similarities between Esther Greenwood and Plath: Plath spent the summer of 1953 as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York, and unfortunately, shared some of the same mental health struggles as Greenwood. Sadly, Plath committed suicide in 1963, just a month after The Bell Jar was released in the United Kingdom. Similarly, Shah seems to share some of the characteristics of his creator. Shah is an Indian-American actor (unlike Ansari, Shah’s most notable work comes from commercials); both Ansari and Shah share a love of food and pasta, in particular. Some of the events depicted in the show reflect Ansari’s real life. For example, we watch as Shah’s father is forced to eat in a hospital cafeteria instead of being taken out to dinner in a flashback scene, which Ansari said in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) is based on a racist incident his father experienced as a young doctor.

Master of None reminded me that Plath’s novel — and her life — were about more than just pain. Recently, I read through Elizabeth Winder’s book, Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. Winder describes Plath’s world during the summer in which she served as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine. The Plath that Winder describes gets to be someone beyond the poster girl for teenage angst that she has become in contemporary discourse. Winder’s Plath eats caviar by the bowl, enjoys getting her hair done, and drinks vodka at parties with friends. Dating practices, in particular, share some similarities in both The Bell Jar and Master of None. Both center parties and bars as venues for key scenes for meeting and going on dates with romantic partners, for instance. Through Winder’s work, and through the invocation of The Bell Jar in Master of None, Plath’s life is not reduced to her illness.

In the show, Plath, who has remained an important figure in women’s and feminist studies, is brought into a world that has substantively changed, yet also remained eerily familiar. The experiences chronicled by the women in the “Ladies and Gentlemen” episode, which includes a stark portrayal of sexual harassment, makes this point particularly clear. Master of None allows us to see Plath’s world in a new light, and it also allows us to see Dev Shah’s character (and Ansari, as the actor) in roles that aren’t commonly portrayed by Indian American and Asian men more generally. Despite the ways in which being a young, single person in New York have changed in 50 years, Dev Shah’s reading of The Bell Jar in Master of None allows Plath to be relatable and ultimately, inspiring, to a young man with similar dreams, fears, and questions living in New York City a half century later.

All 10 episodes of Master of None can currently be streamed via Netflix.

Further Reading

Aziz Ansari, Modern Romance. New York: Penguin Press, 2015.

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 [1971].

Elizabeth Winder, Pain, Parties, Word: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. New York: Harper Collins, 2013.

Notes

  1. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Harper Perennial, 2005 [1971]), 77. Return to text.

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