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Fitzgerald's Bernice and Feminism

Updated on October 1, 2020

If you're raising an eyebrow at the title, keep in mind that while feminism didn't have its name in 1920 the concept is hundreds of years old. From Christine de Pizan's books denouncing misogyny and the war of the sexes to Mary Wollstoncraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women to the Suffragettes in the early 1900s, women have always found their own ways to challenge the patriarchal views of society and change the way people viewed gender roles. The flapper movement is just one of many landmarks in feminist history.

But this change didn't go unchallenged. Those of the previous era protested women cutting their hair short and wearing dresses that could have passed for an underslip, flitting from man to man at parties where the jazz played loudly and the alcohol flowed freely. But while a lot of these complaints came from the previous generation, some younger women seemed to resist the change as well. The titular heroine of Bernice Bobs Her Hair was one of those women.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story is more a commentary on how different parts of society viewed the changing roles of women. The title character is a highly conservative wallflower who follows her mother's values to the letter; sweet, gentle and everything a "lady" should be while her cousin is a wild party girl who despairs at watching Bernice do nothing but talk about the weather to men who try to chat her up. Of course Marjorie's mother doesn't see the problem when her daughter vents to her:

"She's absolutely hopeless!" It was Marjorie's voice. "Oh, I know what you're going to say! So many people have told you how pretty and sweet she is, and how she can cook!What of it? She has a bum time. Men don't like her."
"What's a little cheap popularity?" Mrs. Harvey sounded annoyed.
"It's everything when you're eighteen," said Marjorie emphatically. "I've done my best. I've been polite and I've made men dance with her, but they just won't stand being bored. When I think of that gorgeous coloring wasted on such a ninny, and think what Martha Carey could do with it--oh!"
"There's no courtesy these days." (Fitzgerald, page 3, section II)

Mrs. Harvey has no use for the changing values of society, especially those of young girls. In her day, all the most beloved women were the kind who could be the best wives and mothers, not who could dance with the most men and garner the biggest crowds at parties. But that's not how the fast-paced world of the 1920s is; it would be one thing for mothers and grandmothers not to understand, but to Marjorie, for a girl like Bernice born in the same era as her to feel the same way is something akin to a sin.

Sour Grapes?

Bernice, it seems, has spent her whole life parroting her mother's values to the point where Marjorie is almost certain the girl regularly consoles herself with the belief that her cousin is "too gay and fickle and will come to a bad end". While Bernice doesn't say exactly that, she says something close during an argument with Marjorie later that night:

"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." (Fitzgerald, page 5, section III)

"Sour Grapes," Marjorie called it earlier in the conversation with her mother. Bernice's distate for the new woman of the era is treated as though she were bitter and jealous of her cousin's popularity while she stuck out like a sore thumb. Is Bernice truly jealous, though? Some might say yes, it's common for the have-nots to criticize the haves out of bitterness; the working-class mother who can't afford a trip to Europe or fancy toys will tell her children those things are only for "spoiled rich kids" as a way of covering her guilt at not being able to provide or her own anger at not being able to have such nice things.

On the other hand, "you're just jealous" is often criticized as a criticism. The writer whose work isn't very good but gets rave reviews who denounces their critics as "just jealous" even if their criticisms are valid and say nothing about the popularity of the work, only the quality. The girl who tries to tell her friend her boyfriend is cheating on her only to be brushed off with "you're just mad because you don't have a boyfriend". The sibling who points out that the A+ their older brother got was an easy win, only for their brother or their parents to chide "now, now, there's no need to be bitter, you'll have your day in the sun".

Bernice does indeed harbor a streak of bitterness. Back in her home city of Eau Claire, she's one of the most beloved girls because she's sweet and old-fashioned. Her family is one of the wealthiest, she has everything she could want, the environment is where she's most comfortable. But even her home doesn't quite live up to the ideals she was raised on:

Bernice felt a vague pain that she was not at present engaged in being popular. She did not know that had it not been for Marjorie's campaigning she would have danced the entire evening with one man; but she knew that even in Eau Claire other girls with less position and less pulchritude were given a much bigger rush. She attributed this to something subtly unscrupulous in those girls. It had never worried her, and if it had her mother would have assured her that the other girls cheapened themselves and that men really respected girls like Bernice. (Fitzgerald, page 3, section II)

She knows she's unpopular, knows she's hopeless; overhearing Marjorie's complaint to her aunt only drives the point home further. But when she tries to console herself with her beliefs, Marjorie's reaction is a slap in the face. It's painful enough for Bernice to realize how hopelessly out of touch she is, but Marjorie's criticism of her drives her to a certain point of despair before she gives in and allows Marjorie to give her a makeover.

A brief downfall, then a slow rise

To Marjorie, Bernice succumbing to the social trends of the day is liberation, a sign that Bernice is coming out of her shell and into her own as a new woman. But when Bernice attracts the attention of her cousin's favorite boytoy Warren McIntyre, Marjorie becomes jealous. Now, she doesn't actually like Warren the way he likes her, she only liked having someone admire and dote on her. Now that he likes Bernice better, she's angry.

So she tricks Bernice into bobbing her hair, and of course it looks awful. Her newfound popularity is doomed, Mrs. Harvey laments that no man will have Bernice now, and all Marjorie can do is smugly braid her long, luxurious hair. She'd known short hair would look awful on Bernice, but she knew Bernice at this point would do anything to be popular. She has Warren back now, at her beck and call, and Bernice plans to leave the next day.

Did it ever occur to Marjorie that her plan might have some drawbacks? That if she made Bernice over Bernice might become more popular than her? Not likely. Marjorie Harvey is someone who acts on intinct, doing whatever she feels in the moment, giving no thought to the consequences of her actions. That night, something snaps inside Bernice, and not only does she decide to leave her cousin's house hours earlier than she planned, but while Marjorie sleeps she sneaks into her room and chops off those long, luxurious braids. Tossing them on Warren's porch, she chuckles and runs towards the train station, filled with a new sense of self. Bobbing her hair was a disaster, but in a sense it brought her true liberation.

In her lack of foresight, Marjorie certainly didn't see this coming. We don't see her reaction upon waking up and finding herself "scalped", but one can only imagine the fit she threw. And even if she figured out right away that Bernice was the culprit, Bernice is miles away by this point and there's nothing Marjorie can do but hopefully realize that actions such as hers have consequences.

The moral of this story? True feminism is about choice, women taking action for themselves. Not conforming to what someone else wants, be it their old-fashioned mothers or their bossy wild-child cousins. Bernice may never be a true party girl, and she may no longer be the paragon of true womanhood. But in walking out of the Harvey household and taking revenge on her selfish cousin, she's taken the first step towards being her own person. It's unknown what the future holds for Bernice, but with this one small bit of agency she's free not only from the shackles of the old ways, but from Marjorie's grip.

Regarding Feminism

It's not too rare to find old-fashioned values or lessons that translate well in today's society, and this is an important one. Even today, different schools of feminism can't agree on what's truly "feminist". Some think the stay-at-home wife and mother is a relic of the past, that women who stay home are bowing to the values of yesteryear and letting "the man" keep them down, while others defend femininity and domesticity with an almost zealous fervor, to the point of criticizing career women.

Even young girls aren't immune to this; Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me" makes a big deal of the poor tomboy heroine painting her crush's cheerleader girlfriend as a shallow, awful person. "I'm not like the other girls" is uttered so often by girls who see themselves as superior for not wearing makeup and playing sports or video games instead of shopping. Fans of girl-oriented media are quick to criticize stories where heroines display any femininity whatsoever. A girl could single-handedly save the day and remain competent and well-rounded till the end, but the moment she chooses to express love for a male she's seen as a failure in the eyes of her detractors.

Feminism is not a monolith, but all schools should be able to agree that it's about choice. If a woman wants to get married, have children and stay at home to raise them why should it have any impact on a woman who becomes a cop of a truck driver? Marjorie's accusation of Bernice being responsible for the "colorless" marriages may have been apt for the time, but today it's reminiscent of career women who accuse stay-at-home mothers of "setting back feminism x number of years". Granted, we can argue that Bernice's own shot at Marjorie criticizing her "lack of femininity" was unfair, but was she referring to the parties and the dancing her cousin indulged in, or the way her cousin treated her overall? In the latter case, can we assume that if Marjorie respected Bernice's choices, Bernice would return the favor? Perhaps in this day and age, but when feminism was so new, women who clung to the old ways could be pushy in trying to keep them.

Either way, it's not hard to sympathize with Bernice regardless of her motives or reasoning; the poor girl spends nearly the whole story refusing to take action for herself, letting others lead her around by the nose. First her mother, then Marjorie. Is it any wonder her first act as a truly independent woman is to do something as extreme as to chop her sleeping cousin's hair off? Such actions would be considered assault today, but for Bernice, it was her first step towards true freedom.


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