This essay within the framework of the ‘Big Blonde’ will argue that although women in America were given the right to vote during the 1920s, they were still struggling for social and economic equality with men.
New York City was a place of male control and power, where a woman was considered a second-class citizen at best. A woman was a source of entertainment for the men; showing that any importance woman might have had relied heavily upon the men they were affiliated with. While many women endorsed the career of a homemaker, there were also the protagonists of the time who made an attempt to expand their equality.
In A Big Blonde, Dorothy Parker tells the story of such a woman, Hazel Morse who has the potential of her male counterpart though due her gender is made to feel that her self-worth and ability is just not good enough, and like most women of the time would have to prove herself. An analogy quite common in the 20’s, which was enforced with absolute conviction with no room for any doubts that perhaps women might just be better, or able enough to do things that had been traditionally allocated and inherently representative of men.
Compelled to represent her in a different way. She resorts to superficiality in presenting herself in a manner that a male dominated society would find attractive. Done so, in the name of acceptance, or being a ‘good sport’ how ‘Parker’ would have put it. Women were paying the price of such acceptance dearly for simply the right to fit in and find their marks of equality, as long as such a price was paid, the acceptance would remain.
This story clearly illustrates the controversy that surrounded gender roles, and the hardships women had to face to find an equal place in society. How they had been trapped by either domesticity or placed in a society where a corresponding mask was needed for the corresponding occasion. As harsh as it may sound such a situation could only be described as a faï¿½ade by both sexes, men to keep women unquestioning and confined to such roles of the wife, the mother, or an entertainer hosting parties and so on. Supposedly depend upon your class affiliation. No matter what the case women to certain an extent brought this upon themselves through their unquestioning posture towards such confinement and striving for no real impetus in changing things. In this particular era merely resorting to making the most of what they did have, giving themselves a certain sense of importance within the confines of their world.
Which for most women may have initially been exciting, though certainly must have been difficult to maintain and overtime may have caused an identity crisis amongst large numbers of women, uncertain of where they stand within society, a then male dominated society. Pushing women to either search for stronger means of liberation or dissolve into their created identity. The story continues of how Hazel gets tired of living this lie and when she begins to feel relaxed with the trust and acceptance she has received, she allows herself to release her inhibitions. Her husband Herbie is angered to discover his wife’s new personality and behaves as though he has encountered not his wife, but a stranger.
“Herbie thought he had married his ideal woman a big breasted, fun loving blonde. Never did it occur to him that there could be anything more to Hazel than that.”1
By this, we may understand that when the woman displayed their emotions and sadness, they would most certainly be disregarded as unknowns for simply being themselves. Through Hazel Morse, Parker tells the story of many women who are in search of contentment and total liberation but who may never find it.
Hopefully this exercise will shed some light on the grey areas and in general the controversy that surrounded gender roles in the 1920s. Principally due to the inequality and double standards of sexes. Where one party is easily accepted while the other must struggle for acceptance when rebelling against conformist conventions.
The 1920s America is often considered to be an era of fun and liberation, where women easily entered social circles and enjoyed new freedoms. But inadvertently freedoms that came at a price, which still had not guaranteed a total release from the restraints of the time.
Which are picked up by Parker and articulated through the experiences of her protagonist Morse. The title itself draws our attention to her physical appearance and the cultural significance of such attributes that we associate with her attractiveness, especially to men and how they perceive her and through such perceptions create somewhat stereotypical expectations. Hazel’s blondness interprets a distinct femininity and carries sexual implications. However, she enjoys the attention and popularity amongst men:
Popularity seemed to be worth all the work you had to put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun, she was a good sport. Men liked a good sport.2
The city culture is depicted as male dominated and while the men held stable jobs, women were expected to be a source of many things, one of which was entertainment. They were not encouraged to be educated for possible fear that this would give women greater financial independence, thus self reliance and freedom as Darwin’s theory of women’s inferiority would suggest:
In The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that, “Man is more powerful in body and mind than woman, and in the savage state he keeps her in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal; therefore it is not surprising that he should have gained the power and selection.”3 Evolution was in the hands of men, and women were basically passive. As a result, women had evolved less and were more primitive, for which reason women were dominated by instincts and emotions.4
We may understand that although women were given the right to vote and liberated, they were still underestimated and expected to fail due to their alleged primitive disposition. However, the event of World War I had given women an opportunity to gain some financial independence and social freedom, which were further expanded during the 1920s when women made many changes in the social arena introducing bobbed-hair cuts, going without corsets, scantier underwear and knee-length skirts; also enjoying drinking, smoking and sexual freedom. The former taboo was now openly displayed and available, and men readily assisted women in expressing their freedom. Parker shows how men enforced ‘such’ liberation and how they would indeed benefit from the new standards for socialising and sexuality. Men, who had been at war, now returned to their daily jobs and those in professional occupations could clearly afford a lavish lifestyle. Though true happiness had no price, men had found that every other pleasantry did. Those who supplied these pleasantries did so at the cost of any real freedom to express themselves.
Parker portrays the male characters in her story as men who have money and who can afford to take care of the financial welfare of a woman or women in their lives. They are sketched as men of importance, who are hard-working and often due to their professional success are regarded as good men who possess correct moral conduct. But Parker shows how this is not always true, how these men have loose morals and their understanding of a woman’s worth is to be a source for their benefit and enjoyment. The young male doctor, who lives in Hazel’s apartment building, is engaged in a vaguely sexual encounter with a prostitute who is there to help him unwind after a ‘hard day’. This man of authority is just like the many other men, who use this high stature of influence and power to their advantage, to fully explore and engage themselves in a physical manner without any true interest in trying to discover any real emotions.
Although women in its initially enjoyed this attention, they soon realised that they found no contentment in this lifestyle. It also proves exhausting, as Hazel Morse’s begins to feel. Her ‘duty’ to find a husband and keep him happy is half fulfilled when she marries Herbie, who wants a wife that is fun and enjoyable. His expectations of married life are different to that of his wife’s. For Hazel, who has been a ‘good sport’ for too long and exhausted of this faï¿½ade, gladly receives marriage as an alternative to the life she knew. Feeling relaxed in her settlement, Hazel releases her internal experience, she wants to explain her exhaustion and sadness but does not find any comfort, instead is abandoned because she is no longer fun to be with. The other men Hazel encounters are also strikingly similar to Herbie, who only enjoy her company when she is cheerful and willing. Here we see again how she is not wanted when she is in low spirits:
She was instantly unattractive when she was low in spirits. Once, at Jimmy’s when she couldn’t make herself lively, Ed had walked out and left her. “Why the hell don’t you stay at home and not go spoiling everybody’s evening?” he had roared.5
Why was it necessary for her to ‘make herself lively’? Hazel did not have this expectation of people, this is evident from her relationships; she would devote all her energy and persona to please others, possibly like many women of the time. This was one of the reasons why she was so unhappy and depressed. She needed to feel loved and accepted for who she was; she wanted to be appreciated as an individual and not just in terms of a category. This itself was enough to cause a sense of insecurity and depression in a male dominated world. Where the men are depicted as unstable and not always reliable, who would most certainly lose interest in her? During the 1920s, depression was more common among women than men, and this still remains a fact today. American women are twice as more likely to suffer from depression than men:
More than 19 million Americans suffer from depression yearly and women are twice as likely as men to experience a major depressive episode. Depression may occur at any age during a woman’s life with certain events like puberty, pregnancy, per menopause, trauma, substance abuse and quality of relationships increasing the risk, according to the leading authorities on the etiologies and treatments for depression.6
From this we may understand that our individual history, formed by our own personal experiences is what shapes our state of mind. We may question whether women are more likely to suffer from depression because of some of their own weaknesses, or those in the conditions in which they live? On the other hand, are these weaknesses in their surroundings created through the ones within themselves? We may apply these questions to Parker’s women both in the story and in the general, who have a superficial appearance of liberation. This newfound freedom and rebellious lifestyle becomes psychologically strenuous and exhausting. A much-needed escape is required from a situation partially created by the weaknesses in themselves and in the conditions in which they live.
The depressed person can barely envisage circumstances that would improve her condition. For the depressed person sees not so much the world, but herself at fault. For her, the ‘way out’, the ‘solution’ is usually seen as death. Dead, she will no longer have to suffer and endure this hopeless: changeless, endless emptiness.7
We can compare this analysis of depression to women like Hazel Morse, who are looking for a way out and with a belief that the fault lies within them, and so the only escape is to escape from oneself. The rewards for being fun and cheerful are no longer enjoyed anymore, instead life has become dull and sad and “all sorrows become her sorrows”. Hazel realises her sadness, which causes an involuntary recognition of the pain of those around her:
As she slowly crossed Sixth Avenue, consciously dragging one foot past the other, a big, scarred horse pulling a rickety express-wagon crashed to its knees before her. The driver swore and screamed and lashed the beast insanely, bringing the whip back over his shoulder for every blow, while the horse struggled to get a footing on the slippery asphalt.8
A metaphorical connection is drawn for Hazel and the horse, how they are both on a journey of someone else’s pleasure and purpose. How they are both exhausted by the heavy loads they must carry without appreciation, and they must suffer silently in a world that has no understanding of their emotions or regards for their feelings.
The controversy that surrounded gender roles was due to the inequality imposed upon women. They wanted to enjoy the lifestyle that the men enjoyed and with an equal acceptance, they wanted to drink and smoke and have sexual relationships just like men, where the men rebelled against social conventions, the women wanted to rebel too. However, this rebellion was a lot easier for men, at times not even a rebellion but a normal part of their inheritance, habitually bestowed upon them, simply due to their gender.
Men perceived women as a source of pleasure or a homemaker at most. A lot of the characterisations of the 20’s were stereotyped and based on an opinion that women can be judged by their appearance. For example, a blonde is often perceived to be dumb, dizzy and happy. For reasons, which were quite common, back then, to name a few, weaknesses, depression, over-indulgence in alcohol, and principally obedience by women to such conformist ideas. As women back then knew what was required of them and did what they where told in a male dominated world. Which in all fairness to the 20’s in a certain sense can be true even of today though such things are not referenced to as openly, though still exist in more inconspicuous manner. Due to the gender discrimination and equality laws that have been enact and imposed upon both sexes to prevent such categorisations. Though not to say such representations do not exist anymore.
Saying that, I would also like to point to the fact that the 20’s were considered to be a period dominated by women. Not entirely sure in what context such a statement could be appropriated, though if where to base an opinion on extracts and literature of the time it would suggest that the period did give them social, economic and sexual freedom. Although the women enjoyed these liberties, men equally enjoyed them too. I think sources from that period that point to such liberties are corresponding with the past when women’s roles were very much confined even more so than the present. In no way am I saying that the 20’s was a model of gender equality as the world has come a long way since then and is still evolving. Though what is interesting is the price women had to pay for the supposed freedoms they did enjoy. Something Parker makes repeated reference to through writing about male representations of women how they held an idea that women were there as a means for their entertainment. But the women who contributed in fulfilling these expectations stretched this idea further. It was these expectations that created the controversy in gender roles.