F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” centers on the social life of two wealthy young females in the 1920’s. Marjorie Harvey is one of the most popular girls in town; her cousin Bernice is visiting for the summer. Bernice, although pretty, is “sorta dopeless.” She is a “poor conversationalist” and is socially awkward. Marjorie begrudgingly agrees to help Bernice become socially adept. After a few “lessons,” Bernice begins to win the affections of all the young gentlemen, including Marjorie’s beau, Warren. In a jealous battle of wits, Marjorie dares Bernice to “bob her hair”, a hairstyle seen as audacious, “immoral” and representative of a dangerous lifestyle. Bernice cuts her hair, thinking that she has won, but discovers that the dare was more of a trap, leading her to social ruin. In an emboldened act of revenge, Bernice cuts of Marjorie’s beautiful long hair while she sleeps and leaves town.
What does Fitzgerald’s story tell us about femininity? The piece gives us interesting insight into how women related (or failed to relate) to each other into this time period. We can also learn about male attitudes towards women through the male author, who writes from a female perspective.
From the viewpoint of the characters in the story, we learn that femininity in this community is not defined only by beauty. Men are most attracted to the girls who are witty, clever “social butterflies”. Fitzgerald writes that “No matter who beautiful or brilliant a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate.” Warren and Marjorie list Bernice’s poor conversation skills among her faults; Marjorie complains to her mother than it doesn’t matter “how pretty and sweet she is, and how she can cook! What of it? She has a bum time. Men don’t like her.” (Fitzgerald, 3, 5). Marjorie herself is described as “having a fairylike face and a dazzling, bewildering tongue” (Fitzgerald, 2, emphasis added). These references to the importance of social life are further supported by Fitzgerald’s descriptions of social events; he describes the summer dance in the opening scene as “largely feminine,” with the “clatter of young feminine voices soar[ing] over the burst of clapping” (Fitzgerald, 1). In the realm of this story, femininity requires both beauty and superior social skills.
Within this realm, Bernice and Marjorie represent two ends of the spectrum. Marjorie is witty and outgoing. Bernice admits that she “felt somehow the same difficulty in talking to her that she had in talking to men…[Marjorie] in fact had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately and blessedly feminine” (Fitzgerald, 4). Marjorie speaks boldly and unabashedly; she is neither emotional nor empathetic. Bernice, conversely, embodies a traditional femininity: she is beautiful, demure, and well-mannered. Marjorie insultingly calls her “the womanly woman” and lectures that “girls like you are responsible for all the tiresome colorless marriages; all those ghastly inefficiencies that pass as feminine qualities” (Fitzgerald, 8). Bernice is sensitive, conservative, and shy; she cries when Marjorie insults her social skills.
Bernice is portrayed as a traditional feminine woman, while Marjorie appears to represent a newly defined, more masculine woman. Her new “masculine femininity” is seen as acceptable—she is extremely popular and adored by all men (Fitzgerald, 2). Not only does Marjorie represent the “new woman,” but she is also a “giver” of this new femininity through her lessons to Bernice. However, by the end of the story, these roles seem to be reversed.
In the time period of the 1920’s, the bob was considered a “wild” flapper hairstyle, meant for promiscuous, improper women (Bernice herself calls it “unmoral” [sic]). It was also masculine; “bobbed” haircuts were given in a men’s barber shop, not a women’s salon. “Bobbing” one’s hair was not only a hairstyle; it was a lifestyle.
By bobbing her hair, Bernice puts on masculinity. She sees the dare from Marjorie as “the test supreme of her sportsmanship” and is determined not to let Marjorie get the best of her (Fitzgerald, 15). After realizing that the dare was an “outrageous trap” equivalent to social suicide, Bernice snaps and cuts off Marjorie’s braids in an act of revenge. In this act, she sheds the demure, well-mannered femininity in exchange for a “new look” of masculinity, which goes even further than Marjorie’s “masculine femininity” (Fitzgerald, 19). By cutting Marjorie’s hair (forcing her to get a bobbed hairstyle as well), Bernice also becomes a “giver” of this masculinity. However, Fitzgerald implies that Bernice’s actions will lead to disgrace in her family and social life.
What does this say about femininity? Fitzgerald seems to welcome the “masculine femininity” that Marjorie represents—her character, although portrayed as heartless, is the most popular in the community. However, he implies that there is a thin line between acceptable “masculine femininity” and socially unacceptable masculinity for women. Bernice crosses this line, and is met with an ugly reality: her friends desert her, her family is disgraced, and her love interest turns cold.
Yet Bernice is the sympathetic character in the story. Her final act makes her something of a hero. Bernice becomes empowered in a sense; she loses her timidity and stands up for herself. Fitzgerald writes this as an admirable trait. Bernice’s masculinity is both admirable and socially disgraceful, while Marjorie’s assumption of masculine traits onto her femininity guarantees her popularity. What’s Fitzgerald saying?
Although Fitzgerald seems to be advocating new definitions of femininity, his portrayal of gender in the story upholds the social preference of masculinity over femininity. Marjorie moves up the social ladder when she takes on some masculine characteristics, such as wit and boldness. But she is careful to remain in the realm of femininity. Bernice follows in her footsteps, adopting masculine trait and gaining popularity. However, by bobbing her hair, she takes on physical masculinity and steps outside the feminine territory.
Therefore, in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” Fitzgerald is not truly encouraging new definitions of femininity, but rather reaffirming traditional gender roles, placing femininity subordinate to masculinity.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Flappers and Philosophers. New York: Scribners, 1922. Available http://www.sc.edu/fitzgerald/bernice/bernice.html