The Greek pantheon has a particular relevance to America in the 1920s—driven by a lightning bolt wielding Zeus, industry and urban life flourished with the large scale introduction of electricity; Zeus’s jealous wife Hera wielded a power of her own as women gained suffrage with the Nineteenth Amendment; automobiles and telephones connected the country with the speed of the fleet footed Hermes; despite Prohibition, Dionysus orchestrated what became a seemingly endless bacchanalian romp.
In the most famous of Greek myths, three goddesses fell into a dispute over which of them was the most beautiful: the politically powerful Hera, the seductive Aphrodite, and the cold and clever Athena. The epics of Homer—the times’ greatest poet—stem from this myth. Homer and his stories have come to represent an age (the Homeric Age) in a similar way that F. Scott Fitzgerald and his stories have come to represent the 1920s. Fitzgerald is credited with dubbing the 1920s “the Jazz Age.” Besides this similar nomenclature (significant because it shows the propensity for fiction authors to understand an era as a whole), the mythological system of the Homeric Age and the illusion of the Jazz Age have further, more substantive parallels.
The impetus of the story of the Trojan War is a struggle between mythological women to determine their place in their Olympian society—when taken to Paris, the question of beauty became a political battle. Underlying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels and the society they represent is a similar struggle. The goddess “types” (political, beautiful, and cerebral; and even married, free-loving, and virgin) were in contention within the composition of the 1920 female type as well: THE FLAPPER.
THE FLAPPER was both a fictionalization and an actualization. If this seems confusing and contradictory, it is because it is contradictory and confusing. THE FLAPPER was modem, and she therefore embodied many inconsistencies that plague the modem era, specifically continuing tradition and breaking with it, developing a dependence on materialism and asserting independence, and establishing an individual identity through conformity. The mythologizing agents who defined THE FLAPPER are familiar to the modem world: the film industry with the inherent ability to manipulate reality and present it as credible and the advertising industry that also distorts the distinction between desire and attainability. Intimately tied to film of the period, and arguably more influential than it, was literature—particularly the literature of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Thus, the primary sources for understanding THE FLAPPER are a confusion of fiction and reality.
Just because THE FLAPPER is difficult to define does not mean she is impossible to define. Furthermore, just because she is ensconced in myth does not mean that she does not have highly significant historical and intellectual implications. Some of the most fundamental characteristics of modem culture are revealed through the examination of THE FLAPPER. In the groundbreaking book When They Severed Earth From Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth, Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber argue that myths have an extreme importance in society and are encoded with truths. By applying their theory to understanding THE FLAPPER’S modem myth, THE FLAPPER will be analyzed in a way that fits her into a serious historical and intellectual conversation. It is necessary to peel away the layers of gimmick, myth, and advertising like so much cosmetic paint in order to understand the important gender revolution behind THE FLAPPER.
In defining THE FLAPPER, we are answering the question “Who is THE FLAPPER?” In answering this question, a two-fold examination will take place: the first approach will be to answer the question “Who is the flapper?” and to define her as a type—to examine the characteristics of the real American women who were part of the turn of the century movement. The second is to answer the question “Who is The Flapper?” and to chose an individual as the representative of American Flappers.
Prince William of Sweden gave a typically shallow definition of a flapper to a New York Times special correspondent in 1927: “A flapper is a young girl, intelligent and good looking. She has bobbed hair and wears short skirts, smokes cigarettes and dances the Charleston and Black Bottom.” While these things are true, the superficiality of the definition implies a simplicity in THE FLAPPER’S nature that is absent in reality. A better understanding of THE FLAPPER is as a modem woman whose importance lies in her elimination of a gender-partitioned society and whose seriousness lies in her ability to have fun. To a modem audience, the radicalism of these notions is easily underestimated. But in the context of the beginning of the twentieth century, the modernism of THE FLAPPER was astonishing. This assertion is true of both “the flapper” and “The Flapper,” Zelda Fitzgerald.