“Bernice Bobs Her Hair” is largely a discussion of the value of femininity, and of what society expects of a young woman in 1920s America. Nearly every character in this story, major or minor, holds some opinion on the matter—and both Bernice and Marjorie evaluate themselves against the traditional feminine standard, to different conclusions. Fitzgerald uses this very difference to underscore the struggle that teenage girls faced in 1920: that is, being forced to define themselves as a demographic while lacking the maturity to do so in a healthy way. The older model of femininity, represented by Marjorie’s mother, Mrs. Harvey, values women who are delicate, quiet, and marriage-minded. By the 1920s, this approach had become useless in preparing young women for the world. However, the new model that Marjorie represents—aiming to shock, amuse, and allure as many boys as possible—tends to reward only personalities like hers, and offers only shallow rewards at that. Bernice can find no comfortable place between these two extremes, and both sides threaten unpleasant consequences if she fails to conform. Ultimately, Fitzgerald doesn’t propose a solution to this problem, but shows, in Bernice, the impossibility of perfectly conforming to society’s standards of femininity.
At the beginning of the story, it’s clear that Bernice has inherited her view of womanhood—one which prioritizes quiet grace and delicacy above all else—from her mother’s generation, and that it fails to serve her among her peers. Mrs. Harvey speaks rather highly of Bernice, yet none of her praise resonates with her daughter’s generation. In Part II, Mrs. Harvey lauds Bernice for being demure and ladylike, “pretty” and “sweet,” and able to cook—but Marjorie scoffs at all of this. She knows that these “feminine” qualities win Bernice no positive attention from her peers, not even kindness beyond the bare minimum of courtesy. They consider Bernice an old-fashioned bore, and mock her behind her back. She impresses a middle-aged woman, but not her own peers.
Bernice’s idea of femininity is informed by fiction more than anything else. For example, when appealing to Marjorie’s sympathy, Bernice quotes Little Women (1868), thinking it a worthy example of camaraderie between girls because Louisa May Alcott’s characters were “models for our mothers.” Though Bernice’s feminine ideal is not necessarily bad, it is disconnected from reality, and it grows more so with each passing year. Her faux pas with Warren on the dance floor, getting flustered and offended at his attempt to flirt, speaks to how ill-prepared she is for real-life social situations. Her outdated model of femininity, ostensibly meant to help young women find and please husbands, has left her unable to communicate with boys her age.
Marjorie, meanwhile, rejects traditional femininity on the very grounds that it doesn’t reflect her social reality. Though her concerns are ultimately shallow—popularity, attention, sex, and so on—her objections are well-reasoned, and clearly based in a higher sense of women’s individual worth than what Bernice was taught. As cruel as it is, Marjorie’s stance that ladylike girls like Bernice are jealous, full of “whining criticisms of girls like me who really do have a good time,” nonetheless reflects the reality that she is successful while traditionally feminine girls are not. Marjorie dismisses the “inane females” modeled by Little Women, and moreover says that “our mothers were all very well in their way, but they know very little about their daughters’ problems.” In other words, while traditional femininity may have been appropriate for past generations, it now falls flat. By contrast, the qualities that Marjorie values, such as wit and fashion sense, contribute directly to her social success. Where tradition tells women to suppress their egos, Marjorie develops hers—and as a result, though she is vain and often insincere, she is also confident and self-sufficient.
When she follows Marjorie into the public spotlight, Bernice’s social status becomes wrapped up in one of her most feminine qualities: her hair. In her conflict over whether to bob her hair, either decision would be succumbing to pressure to conform to a certain model of femininity—and she only feels completely free when this feminine status symbol is lost entirely, and any expectations with it.
Initially, Bernice disapproves of bob haircuts just like her mother’s generation does; her opinion is informed by theirs. She “collapse[s] backwards upon the bed” when Marjorie suggests it the first time, and calls it “unmoral” even as she jokes about it. Later, Mrs. Harvey is aghast at the sight of Bernice’s haircut, as her friend Mrs. Deyo has devoted considerable time to a public denouncement of bobbed hair. It is implied that she never expected such a thing from Bernice, who has always conformed to traditional ladylike ways.
When Bernice finally agrees to cut her hair, she does so specifically to spite Marjorie and avoid shame. Though “she had known it would be ugly as sin,” she commits to the haircut regardless because Marjorie has goaded her to it, escalating the situation to the point that Bernice couldn’t change her mind without losing face. In that moment, conforming to her peers’ expectations of a fashionable young woman is more important to Bernice than the certain reality that longer hair looks better on her.
When her hair is ruined and she has no more dignity to lose, Bernice feels free to take revenge against Marjorie—and perhaps more tellingly, to laugh and show her emotions in an unladylike way, “no longer restraining herself.” Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting that absolute freedom exists only outside of arbitrary gender norms, though he does not go so far as to advocate the abolition of these norms. Rather, he frames the trials leading up to this moment as an inevitable part of a girl’s coming of age. Bernice, like Marjorie and Mrs. Harvey and all the other female characters, must navigate society’s broad expectations of women for the rest of her life, even if she can enjoy the occasional moment of freedom.
Gender and Femininity ThemeTracker
Gender and Femininity Quotes in Bernice Bobs Her Hair
No matter how brilliant or beautiful a girl may be, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of foxtrotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.
Warren fidgeted. Then with a sudden charitable impulse he decided to try part of his line on her. He turned and looked at her eyes.
“You’ve got an awfully kissable mouth,” he began quietly.
Marjorie never giggled, was never frightened, seldom embarrassed, and in fact had very few of the qualities which Bernice considered appropriately and blessedly feminine.
“Sarah Hopkins refers to Genevieve and Roberta and me as gardenia girls! I'll bet she'd give ten years of her life and her European education to be a gardenia girl and have three or four men in love with her and be cut in on every few feet at dances.”
“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.”
“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!”
“I hate dainty minds […] 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.”
“Do you believe in bobbed hair?” asked G. Reece in the same undertone.
“I think it’s unmoral,” affirmed Bernice gravely. “But, of course, you’ve either got to amuse people or feed ‘em or shock ‘em.”
It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.
It was ugly as sin—she had known it would be ugly as sin. Her face’s chief charm had been a Madonna-like simplicity. Now that was gone and she was—well, frightfully mediocre—not stagy; only ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.
“Why, child,” cried Mrs. Harvey, “in her paper on ‘The Foibles of the Younger Generation’ that she read at the last meeting of the Thursday Club she devoted fifteen minutes to bobbed hair. It’s her pet abomination.”