Study Guide

Bernice Bobs Her Hair Women and Femininity

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Women and Femininity

The balcony was inside. It consisted of the circle of wicker chairs that lined the wall of the combination clubroom and ballroom. At these Saturday-night dances it was largely feminine; a great babel of middle-aged ladies with sharp eyes and icy hearts behind lorgnettes and large bosoms. (2)

Here, Fitzgerald pokes fun at what he depicts as the fundamentally judgmental nature of women, specifically aging ones.

Warren was nineteen and rather pitying with those of his friends who hadn't gone East to college. But, like most boys, he bragged tremendously about the girls of his city when he was away from it. There was Genevieve Ormonde, who regularly made the rounds of dances, house-parties, and football games at Princeton, Yale, Williams, and Cornell; there was black-eyed Roberta Dillon, who was quite as famous to her own generation as Hiram Johnson or Ty Cobb; and, of course, there was Marjorie Harvey, who besides having a fairylike face and a dazzling, bewildering tongue was already justly celebrated for having turned five cart-wheels in succession during the last pump-and-slipper dance at New Haven. (7)

In this world, socialites are celebrities – we get the feeling that a woman is judged purely on the merit of her social successes.

Much as Warren worshipped Marjorie, he had to admit that Cousin Bernice was sorta dopeless. She was pretty, with dark hair and high color, but she was no fun on a party. Every Saturday night he danced a long arduous duty dance with her to please Marjorie, but he had never been anything but bored in her company. (9)

We all know, as Cyndi Lauper tells us, that "girls just wanna have fun." What Fitzgerald informs us of here is that men just want girls to be fun – even if a girl if gorgeous, she doesn't stand a chance if she can't entertain.

When Marjorie and Bernice reached home at half after midnight they said good night at the top of the stairs. Though cousins, they were not intimates. As a matter of fact Marjorie had no female intimates--she considered girls stupid. Bernice on the contrary all through this parent-arranged visit had rather longed to exchange those confidences flavored with giggles and tears that she considered an indispensable factor in all feminine intercourse. But in this respect she found Marjorie rather cold; felt somehow the same difficulty in talking to her that she had in talking to men. Marjorie never giggled, was never frightened, seldom embarrassed, and in fact had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately and blessedly feminine. (25)

Here, Fitzgerald clearly defines the difference between Marjorie and Bernice – their conceptions of what a woman should be are dramatically, irreconcilably different. While Marjorie is bored by old-fashioned ideas of idealized femininity, Bernice clings to them.

As Bernice busied herself with tooth-brush and paste this night she wondered for the hundredth time why she never had any attention when she was away from home. That her family were the wealthiest in Eau Claire; that her mother entertained tremendously, gave little dinners for her daughter before all dances and bought her a car of her own to drive round in, never occurred to her as factors in her home-town social success. Like most girls she had been brought up on the warm milk prepared by Annie Fellows Johnston and on novels in which the female was beloved because of certain mysterious womanly qualities, always mentioned but never displayed. (26)

We get a privileged view into Bernice's outdated notions of femininity here – clearly, she's a result of her extremely sheltered and – dare we say it? – extremely spoiled upbringing.

"I think it's that crazy Indian blood in Bernice," continued Marjorie. "Maybe she's a reversion to type. Indian women all just sat round and never said anything." (34)

Marjorie's disparaging comment about "Indian women" plays in to her general disdain for other women on the whole, as well as old-fashioned definitions of womanhood.

"Don't you think common kindness –"

"Oh, please don't quote `Little Women'!" cried Marjorie impatiently. "That's out of style."

"You think so?"

"Heavens, yes! What modern girl could live like those inane females?"

"They were the models for our mothers."

Marjorie laughed.

"Yes, they were – not! Besides, our mothers were all very well in their way, but they know very little about their daughters' problems."

Bernice drew herself up.

"Please don't talk about my mother."

Marjorie laughed.

"I don't think I mentioned her." (50-53)

Marjorie's disdain for the older generation – and their belief in the Victorian standards of female propriety – emerges clearly here. She clearly doesn't think the old rules of feminine conduct apply to her or to her generation, and Bernice's identification with "those inane females" makes her even less comprehensible to her modern cousin.

"I think you're hard and selfish, and you haven't a feminine quality in you."

"Oh, my Lord!" cried Marjorie in desperation. "You little nut! Girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities. What a blow it must be when a man with imagination marries the beautiful bundle of clothes that he's been building ideals round, and finds that she's just a weak, whining, cowardly mass of affectations!"

Bernice's mouth had slipped half open.

"The womanly woman!" continued Marjorie. "Her whole early life is occupied in whining criticisms of girls like me who really do have a good time."

Bernice's jaw descended farther as Marjorie's voice rose.

"There's some excuse for an ugly girl whining. If I'd been irretrievably ugly I'd never have forgiven my parents for bringing me into the world. But you're starting life without any handicap –" Marjorie's little fist clinched. "If you expect me to weep with you you'll be disappointed. Go or stay, just as you like." And picking up her letters she left the room. (55-57)

We can almost see Bernice's mind being blown here. Marjorie's insulting condemnation of the old-fashioned notion of "the womanly woman" is basically a personal attack – she doesn't believe in the same kind of outdated image of femininity that Bernice believes in, the image that Bernice has been striving to attain her entire life.

Bernice raised the brows in question.

"Do you mean to say that men notice eyebrows?"

"Yes – subconsciously. And when you go home you ought to have your teeth straightened a little. It's almost imperceptible, still – "

"But I thought," interrupted Bernice in bewilderment, "that you despised little dainty feminine things like that."

"I hate dainty minds," answered Marjorie. "But a girl has to be dainty in person. If she looks like a million dollars she can talk about Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations and get away with it." (60)

Marjorie outlines the delicate dance between tradition and modernity the successful socialite has to play – she must tread the odd line between traditionally feminine physical beauty and traditionally masculine independence of mind.

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