Contact Us Find Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Subscribe to our RSS Feed


1. Modern Youth

In 1927 a clergyman addressing college students in Atlanta described modern girls as "hell cats with muddy minds." Three days later the letter of an outraged mother appeared in the Atlanta Constitution. "If this is his opinion of the young girls today," she fumed, he has been "unfortunate in the class he has met." Any "mental muddiness," she insisted, resided in the clergyman and not in the young people she knew.1 This episode captures the contentious "modern youth" debate of the Twenties that stirred much hand-wringing and tut-tutting amidst calls for calm and perspective.

Collected commentary on the modern youth PDF file
They're worse than any previous generation; no, they're about the same, no better, no worse. They're irretrievably corrupted by modernity; no, they're not—they're exploring what modernity has to offer, just as we did in our youth. Let's enter the fray.

  • Collected commentary. "Modern youth" is studied, berated, and praised in this commentary from editorials, headlines, cartoons, humor, fiction, a sociological study, a clergyman's reflections, and musings from the Jazz Age spokesman, F. Scott Fitzgerald. Selections can be divided among students for research and classroom discussion. What characteristics of modern youth—real and assumed—received the most attention? Why? How does the Twenties' discussion about young people resemble today's? How does it differ? (11 pp.)

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair," short story, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920. In one of his earliest published works, Fitzgerald delivered a blistering portrait of college-age women aspiring to popularity and modern womanhood—as they were redefining it for a new age. Savvy and self-assured Marjorie guides her clueless cousin Bernice in the wiles of modern courtship—pushing her to the ultimate act of rebellion, bobbing her hair. (In legend, the Egyptian queen Berenice cuts her long ravishing hair, which then disappears.) Bernice exacts her revenge. Pay attention to Fitzgerald's young men in the story, too, and their own courtship wiles and perplexities. (19 pp.) UNIV. OF SOUTH CAROLINA PRESS

  • The Flapper, silent film, 1920. Although Variety aptly called it the "fluffiest sort of fluff," The Flapper is worth a view for its depiction of the teenaged generation that would come of age in the Roaring Twenties. Sent to a strict boarding school, sixteen-year-old Genevieve (Ginger) King vows to get worldly experience "as fast as I can" to appeal to an older man who dismissed her as "a kid of that sap-headed pin-feathered age." Hang in there: the film is more fun to watch that you'd expect, even with the contrived plot entangling Ginger in a jewelry heist. Catch the tone of the witty intertitles (the black-panel text). What attitude toward Ginger do the filmmakers evoke? What characteristics define Ginger as a "flapper"? What triumph leads her to abandon her vamp affectations and return to innocent girlhood? Where will Ginger be at decade's end? Pivotal scenes for classroom discussion are emboldened in the list below. [85:28] INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE
    7:00 Ginger arrives at the boarding school and learns her hometown friend Bill attends a nearby military academy.
    26:00 Ginger meets Richard Channing after a sleigh mishap.
    32:00 Ginger prepares for the country club dance.
    40:00 Ginger is retrieved from the dance by the school headmistress.
    51:00 Tricked into hiding stolen jewels, Ginger arrives in "the wicked city" of New York.
    55:00 Ginger sees Channing and vows to become the "woman of experience" who would attract him.
    66:00 Returning home to Florida, Ginger makes her grand entrance as a modern flapper.
    71:00 Having apparently convinced Channing of her transformation, she is free to return to her teenaged self.
    73:00 Ginger's wiles and the jewel thieves' plot entrap her in suspicion.
    80:00 All ends well as the thieves are captured and Ginger returns to her sweetheart Bill.
  • Our Dancing Daughters, 1928; Our Modern Maidens, 1929 (clips). With these two films Joan Crawford joined Clara Bow, the "It girl," as the quintessential Hollywood flapper—high-spirited, fun-loving, self-determined, and embracing everything modern. Quite different from Olive Thomas's little-girl-turned-vamp of The Flapper. In both films Crawford's character competes with another woman for her man, remaining virtuous and idealistic to the end (with Maidens offering more risqué themes and dancing than Daughters). View the clips from these films to compare them with The Flapper (and through DVDs, the many other flapper movies of the 1920s). How did the Hollywood image of modern youth change over the decade? To what extent did the image reflect reality? TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES

Discussion Questions

  1. Choose one of these pairs of persons/characters and write a dialogue in which they discuss "modern youth" of the 1920s. Decide what question or issue will be the focus of their discussion, whether they will agree or disagree on major points, and how the dialogue will conclude. Consider adding a third person toward the end of the dialogue—a famous young person from the 1920s or another decade, a person who would most challenge the speakers' conclusions, or you.
    Ginger (The Flapper) and Diana (Our Dancing Daughters) fictional teenaged girls
    Ginger (The Flapper) and Bernice ("Bernice Bobs Her Hair") fictional teenaged girls
    George Babbitt and Senator King (The Flapper) fictional teenagers' fathers
    F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis novelists depicting youth
    Reinhold Niebuhr and Robert S. Lynd adults studying youth
    Young people of Muncie
      and Terre Haute, Indiana
      (collected commentary)
    and Young people depicted in
      Joan Crawford's films
    real and fictional youth
  2. Combine the selections in this section with Herbert Blumer's 1933 study of films' influence on youth, Movies and Conduct. What insight did young people of the 1920s have on their role and identity in changing times?
  3. Citing evidence from these resources, summarize how middle-class midwestern young people differed from the eastern society youth depicted in films and Fitzgerald stories? How widespread were the cynicism, indifference, and boredom dramatized in fiction?
Collected commentary____
  1. Contrast the statements by members of the older and younger generations on modern youth. How did F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Carter, Jr., Regina Malone, and others explain their generation to their elders? Are they apologetic, cynical, angry, rebellious?
  2. Contrast the commentary of adults who are critical or supportive of modern youth. What can you surmise about the reasons for their differing opinions?
  3. Write a summary of the Middletown survey on the "Sources of Disagreement between 348 Boys and 382 Girls and Their Parents." Present the summary as pie or bar charts, a PowerPoint presentation emphasizing conclusions, an essay hypothesizing results of a similar poll today, a youth-parent dialogue, etc.
  4. Succinctly state the difference of opinion between Anne Temple and Regina Malone in the Forum article, "Has Youth Deteriorated?" What have youth lost from an earlier age, according to Temple? What have youth gained from their revolt, according to Malone? On what points do they agree?
  5. Characterize George Babbitt's response to his son's friends in the selection from Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. What guidance might Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr have offered Babbitt?
  6. Why did Chicago Tribune cartoonist John McCutcheon title his 1924 cartoon "The Happy Family"? Is it a happy family, in his view? What response did he hope to evoke in his readers?
  7. What is New Yorker's urbane take on modern youth, as seen in the two cartoons? How does it differ from McCutcheon's in "The Happy Family"?
Fitzgerald, "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"____
  1. Describe the relationship of cousins Bernice and Marjorie. How old are they? Why was Bernice's "parent-arranged visit" a chore for Marjorie?
  2. How does Marjorie represent the modern young woman? Why is she the "sphinx of sphinxes"?
  3. How does Bernice represent the old-fashioned girl? Why is she "hard material to work with"?
  4. To Marjorie, what qualities of a "popular" girl did Bernice lack?
  5. To Bernice, what "blessedly feminine" qualities did Marjorie lack?
  6. To Marjorie, why were those feminine qualities "ghastly inefficiencies" that lead to "colorless marriages"?
  7. Why does Marjorie reject "common kindness" as a young woman's virtue? And, if so, then why should a girl "be nice" to unpopular young men? How would Marjorie's mother judge this advice?
  8. Why is "charm" essential, as Marjorie defines it? How does it allow a woman to be taken seriously by men?
  9. How successful is Bernice in following Marjorie's directives on charm, conversation, and manipulating men's feelings?
  10. Why does Marjorie, who has not bobbed her hair, encourage Bernice to bob hers?
  11. Why does Bernice feel like "Marie Antoinette bound for the guillotine" as she heads to the barber shop with Marjorie and her friends? Why was bobbing her hair the "test supreme of her sportsmanship"?
  12. How does Bernice get revenge for Marjorie's calling her bluff about bobbing her hair? Later, why did she not accept Marjorie's apology?
  13. Strive to imagine the "new look" in Bernice's eyes as she commits to her revenge—the "set look" she had worn in the barber's chair, a look that "carried consequences"? What is Fitzgerald setting up with this paragraph, just six short paragraphs before the end of the story?
  14. Compose the note that Bernice writes to Marjorie's mother before she leaves in the night.
  15. How did Fitzgerald feel about young women like Marjorie and Bernice? How did he direct our opinion about them in the story? Is our opinion to change during the story, or not?
  16. Why was a girl's decision to bob her hair a rebellious act? Why did Bernice call it "unmoral"? Why did Mrs. Deyo call it an "abomination"? Study the 1926 satire of Kipling's 1895 poem "If" (see the collected commentary) and read The New Woman of the 1920s: Debating Bobbed Hair (History Matters).
  17. Research the legend of Queen Berenice's hair and its disappearance (see Supplemental Sites below). Does Fitzgerald allude to the legend in other ways?
  18. How did Fitzgerald dramatize these two features of Twenties youth through character, dialogue, and narrative? Identify specific portions of the story.
  19. Expand on the following dialogue between Bernice and Marjorie to write an essay on the Victorian and Jazz Age concepts of womanhood.
  20. After reading the story, how would you interpret Fitzgerald's line: "At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide." Add a middle phrase: "At thirty, they are . . . " that reflects Fitzgerald's perspective on modern youth.
  21. Continue the story to end at one of these points. How would the story change with an extended ending?
  22. Debate the proposition that Fitzgerald ended the story at the perfect point.
Silent films____
  1. Compare the depiction of the modern "flapper" in The Flapper, released in 1920, and Our Dancing Daughters, released eight years later. Which resembles our standard image of the Jazz Age flapper? How and why is the other film's depiction quite different?
  2. Based on the three clips from Our Dancing Daughters, which character, Diana or Ann, would you predict to be the "good" flapper at the end of the film?
  3. What signifies Ginger's goodness at the end of The Flapper?
  4. Contrast Diana's and Ann's relationships with their mothers in Daughters. Which relationship resembles Marjorie's with her mother in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair"? Why?
  5. Where is Ginger's mother in The Flapper? Why do you think the scriptwriters excluded a mother from the story?
  6. Is Ginger's hair bobbed, in The Flapper? Is Diana's or Ann's, in Daughters?
  7. Compare Joan Crawford's characters in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). How does her character in Maidens depict the modern woman more than the young flapper? How is the difference reflected in her risqué dancing in the films?
  8. If you have access to DVD releases of Clara Bow's flapper films, compare her "It Girl" with Crawford's sophisticated society-girl flapper. How broad did the meaning of flapper become? Why?
  9. Compare the college girls' advice on winning men in Maidens (the "Lunch Is Poured" clip) with Marjorie's advice to Bernice in "Bernice Bobs Her Hair." How would their mothers reply to Billie's statement: "Love is a battle, dearie! Every woman for herself . . . and Heaven help the men!"?

Framing Questions

  • How was modernity defined in the Twenties? What did "becoming modern" mean to the nation as a whole? to people in their personal lives?
  • What aspects of modernity were welcomed, resisted, or unrecognized in the Twenties? Why?
  • How were the social and political divisions of the period reflected in the debates over modernity?
  • In what ways is the decade's experience with modernity familiar and resonant today?


Collected commentary
"Bernice Bobs Her Hair"

11 pp.
19 pp.
     View online.
30 pp.

Supplemental Sites

"Is the Younger Generation in Peril?" The Forum, May 14, 1921

"Bernice Bobs Her Hair," study guide (

Legend of Berenice's Hair (Binocular Universe)

F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary (University of South Carolina Press)

Olive Thomas in The Flapper (Silents Are Golden/Tim Lussier)

"If," poem by Rudyard Kipling, 1895 (Wikipedia)

Primary sources in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).

1"Revivalist Calls Modern Girls 'Hell Cats with Muddy Minds,'" The Atlanta Constitution, March 2, 1927. Bessie T. Fortson, letter to the editor, The Atlanta Constitution, March 5, 1927.

– Marathon dancers taking a rest near the Bimini Baths, Los Angeles, California, photograph, n.d. [1920s] (detail). Los Angeles Public Library, 00032801. Reproduced by permission.
– John Held, Jr., Dancin' in the Jazz Age, gouache/tempura, 1920 (detail). Springville Museum of Art, Springville, Utah. Reproduced by permission.
– Nate Collier, "Something on the Hip: Yesterday/Today," cartoon, The New Yorker, March 14, 1925. Reproduced by permission.
– Still from The Flapper, silent film, 1920; courtesy of Internet Moving Image Archive.
– Still from Our Dancing Daughters, silent film, 1928; courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.
– John T. McCutcheon, "The Happy Family," political cartoon, Chicago Tribune, April 13, 1924 (details). Reproduced by permission; digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
– "Sees Modern Youth Facing Great Trials," headline, The New York Times, December 6, 1926 (detail). Permission request in process; digital image courtesy of ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.