youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds
May 5, 2013 5:12 PM   Subscribe

'The Great Gatsby' Still Gets Flappers Wrong “The Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends—it needs only crowds.”
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants (83 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some interesting stuff about the history of flappers in there, but the forced connection with Gatsby (new movie's out! gotta stir the pot of controversy!) is just silly, and this is the silliest sentence in the whole thing:

“The Great Gatsby” was not a hit when it came out; at that point, being scandalized over flappers was already passé.

Right, because that's all anybody noticed in the book, that it was about flappers. You know, I've seen a lot of reductive analyses of The Great Gatsby (and a lot of not-so-reductive ones), but I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've seen it reduced to a commentary on flappers. I suspect F. Scott, even in the midst of his depression, would have had a laugh over it.
posted by languagehat at 5:26 PM on May 5, 2013 [24 favorites]


I said it before and I'll say it agan, people where fucking terrified and horrified by flappers. They might as well have been an invading alien race if you read contemporary accounts of them.
posted by The Whelk at 5:38 PM on May 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


"Look what might happen," [Fitzgerald] seems to worry, "if we keep letting women drive cars!"

I... Whaaaaaat?
posted by verb at 5:40 PM on May 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


So she's saying they were a crowd of young people asserting their self-confidence, independence, and individuality by all dressing and acting the same way? Truly a singular moment in history.
posted by straight at 5:46 PM on May 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


And how can books be about different things if they're all written in English?!
posted by shakespeherian at 5:49 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


There areamerican women alive out there who never learned how to drive because driving a car was totally,100% not What Women Do. That driving a car was beyond the pale of the outer edge of femininity is mentioned in writings of the time a lot.
posted by The Whelk at 6:01 PM on May 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


". . . Let me drive.”

Anthony looked at her suspiciously.

“You swear you’re a good driver?”

“Since I was fourteen.”

He stopped the car cautiously at the side of the road and they changed seats. Then with a horrible grinding noise the car was put in gear, Gloria adding an accompaniment of laughter which seemed to Anthony disquieting and in the worst possible taste.

“Here we go!” she yelled. “Whoo-oop!”

Their heads snapped back like marionettes on a single wire as the car leaped ahead and curved retchingly about a standing milk-wagon, whose driver stood up on his seat and bellowed after them. In the immemorial tradition of the road Anthony retorted with a few brief epigrams as to the grossness of the milk-delivering profession. He cut his remarks short, however, and turned to Gloria with the growing conviction that he had made a grave mistake in relinquishing control and that Gloria was a driver of many eccentricities and of infinite carelessness.

“Remember now!” he warned her nervously, “the man said we oughtn’t to go over twenty miles an hour for the first five thousand miles.”

She nodded briefly, but evidently intending to accomplish the prohibitive distance as quickly as possible, slightly increased her speed. A moment later he made another attempt.

“See that sign? Do you want to get us pinched?”

“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” cried Gloria in exasperation, “you always exaggerate things so!”

“Well, I don’t want to get arrested.”

“Who’s arresting you? You’re so persistent — just like you were about my cough medicine last night.”

“It was for your own good.”

“Ha! I might as well be living with mama.”

“What a thing to say to me!”

A standing policeman swerved into view, was hastily passed.

“See him?” demanded Anthony.

“Oh, you drive me crazy! He didn’t arrest us, did he?”

“When he does it’ll be too late,” countered Anthony brilliantly.

Her reply was scornful, almost injured.

“Why, this old thing won’t go over thirty-five.”

“It isn’t old.”

“It is in spirit.”

That afternoon the car joined the laundry-bags and Gloria’s appetite as one of the trinity of contention. He warned her of railroad tracks; he pointed out approaching automobiles; finally he insisted on taking the wheel and a furious, insulted Gloria sat silently beside him between the towns of Larchmont and Rye.


-- Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned
posted by jaguar at 6:14 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


“The novel abounds in minor female characters whose dress and activities identify them as incarnations of the New Woman, and they are portrayed as clones of a single, negative character type: shallow, exhibitionist, revolting, and deceitful. For example, at Gatsby’s parties we see insincere, ‘enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names,’ as well as numerous narcissistic attention-seekers in various stages of drunken hysteria. We meet, for example, a young woman who ‘dumps’ down a cocktail ‘for courage’ and ‘dances out alone on the canvass to perform’; ‘a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter’; … a drunken young girl who has her ‘head stuck in the pool’ to stop her from screaming; and two drunken young wives who refuse to leave the party until their husbands, tired of the women’s verbal abuse, ‘lifted [them] kicking into the night.’”

This seems like a pretty accurate description of drunk young women out for a night on the town, in any era.

I'm worried that Luhrman's Gatsby is going to be super-shallow.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:15 PM on May 5, 2013


I can almost guarantee you this writer didn't talk to anyone over 40 as research.

You know, some flappers are still alive...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:16 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I would say that all of Fitzgerald's novels "portray [women] through the eyes of men." Partly because he's a male author and so it's kind of unavoidable, but there is certainly more than a hint of misogyny (mostly in a Madonna/whore complex sort of way) in all his works that I've read. I still love him as an author, but acting as if everyone thinks of him as an unbiased historical source is weird. I actually suspect a lot of people take inspiration from his work, and Gatsby in particular, specifically because he took the fashions of the time and reflected them through his romanticism.
posted by jaguar at 6:20 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


This is a film with Florence + The Machine and Gotye on the soundtrack. I don't think historical accuracy is even a proximate goal.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 6:28 PM on May 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


I was guessing flappers originated in England right after WWI, partly in response to the loss of ~1 million young men and the incapacitation of many others, but they actually emerged much earlier:
The slang word flapper, describing a young woman, is sometimes supposed to refer to a young bird flapping its wings while learning to fly. However, it may derive from an earlier use in northern England to mean teenage girl, referring to one whose hair is not yet put up and whose plaited pigtail flapped on her back;[2] or from an older word meaning prostitute.[3]

The slang word "flap" is known to have been used for a young prostitute as early as 1631.[4] By the 1890s the word "flapper" was emerging in England as popular slang both for a very young prostitute,[5][6] and in a more general—and less derogatory sense—of any lively mid-teenage girl.[7]

The word appeared in print in the United Kingdom as early as 1903 and United States 1904, when novelist Desmond Coke used it in his college story of Oxford life, Sandford of Merton: "There's a stunning flapper".[8] In 1907 English actor George Graves explained it to Americans as theatrical slang for acrobatic young female stage performers.[9]
posted by jamjam at 6:42 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I'm not really sure that flappers was the entire point of Gatsby. At any rate, this sentence from the NYT review guarantees I will not be seeing it:
"The film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire and opens on Friday, was shot in 3-D and includes such non-Fitzgeraldian elements as a soundtrack produced in collaboration with Jay-Z and songs by Beyoncé, Fergie and Jack White; a lengthy near-orgy near the beginning and party scenes that might have taken place at the old Studio 54; and a framing story that has the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway, writing “The Great Gatsby” while being treated for “morbid alcoholism” at a sanitarium modeled after the Menninger Clinic."
posted by skycrashesdown at 6:44 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


You know, some flappers are still alive...

Hold up, there. Flappers were a phenomenon of young womanhood in the 1920s, and the lifestyle ended with the market crash of 1929. So the youngest flappers would have been born no later than maybe 1915. Women in their late 90s in good condition to interview are not thick on the ground. And the book is set in 1922 - almost nobody who experienced that era of flapper life firsthand is still alive.

I'm worried that Luhrman's Gatsby is going to be super-shallow.

It's a Luhrmann movie - it will be lushly beautiful, expensively and anachronistically scored, and gorgeously filmed and costumed, and boy, will it be shallow. But I didn't find the novel all that deep, either - it's about sex, money, power, and conflict, which are not ideas it takes a terribly nuanced approach to communicate.
posted by gingerest at 6:59 PM on May 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


This piece, which has a lot of good in it, name-checks Emily Spivack, who writes the Smithosnian's "Threaded," a fashion history blog. It's an awesome blog and I recommend it. Emily actually spoke at my museum in January about flappers, and her talk was fantastic. Even though I knew something about the period already, she really put it into context, breaking down the social factors that were in place that allowed this explosion of independence and modernity for women. It was pointed, clear, fun, and image-rich and made me an instant fan of what she does. Here's the start of her History of the Flapper series, linked in the FPP.

In many ways, it continues to amaze me how incredibly and unapologetically forward-driving the pop culture of the 1920s was, what an insanely sharp break with that which went before. Once you get a sense of that, much that happened in the 20th century looks like backtracking.

I'm pretty tolerant of the Luhrmann approach, and I hope I won't hate the movie. I loved his Romeo + Juliet, not because it's the best adaptation ever of Romeo and Juliet, but because it is what it is - hybridized, glitzy, over the top, high on design, whimsical. It's not that he's trying to recreate material, he's riffing on it. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I hope it works here. It's hard to tell from the early responses whether people hate it because it's unsuccessful on its own terms, or hate it because they just hate Baz Luhrmann, or hate it because they were expecting a straight-up retelling of the book.
posted by Miko at 7:13 PM on May 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


One of the difficulties with “Gatsby,” Mr. Luhrmann went on, is that the title character is a sort of cipher. There’s not much actual description of him in the book — other than that he’s “an elegant young roughneck” and that his “elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd” — so readers tend to project their own versions.

After I read the book in high school, I drafted a stage adaptation of Gatsby. The central gimmick was that Gatsby (ideally played by a charismatic, physically expressive actor; a dancer, even) would only mouth his lines. Nick would deliver his words for him.
posted by Iridic at 7:17 PM on May 5, 2013 [11 favorites]




Interesting how this illustrates the way youth movements have long since peaked among the "cool" people by the time the mainstream media notices them -- here's Zelda Fitzgerald, who was by all accounts the hippest of the hip, writing a "Eulogy for the Flapper" in 1922. In other words: so over, you guys.

Also, yes, at the time, people really did read Fitzgerald's novels as commentary on youth culture. (The Great American Novel part came a little later.) If you scroll down from Zelda's article, you'll see an interview with Fitzgerald from 1921 that refers to "the publication of his now famous flapper tale, This Side of Paradise." And This Side of Paradise was a huge hit precisely because people thought it captured the zeitgeist; from that perspective, it does make sense to speculate that The Great Gatsby's considerably more muted original reception was partly because at that point people thought they'd seen it before. (And from Fitzgerald himself!)

Speaking of which, here's an original NYT review, which, besides calling The Great Gatsby "a mystical, glamourous story of today," compares it several times to The Turn of the Screw. (!!!) Also, let's all pause and be thankful that book reviews aren't written like this anymore.
posted by ostro at 7:25 PM on May 5, 2013




My Aunt Pearl was a flapper in Nova Scotia, if you can believe it, confounding her kindhearted father no end. She moved to Boston with her family, became a caterer (King Gilette was a frequent customer), never married, and did her best to corrupt four generations of women in my family, being chief co-conspirator with my Grandma. She almost hit a hundred before passing on.

She'd tell us stories about walking five miles just to hitch a ride to the dance, in the dark and the snow... galoshes undone, as that was The Way.

This wasn't something happening only in the Big Cities of the time - it was universal and global. It wouldn't be until the 1960s when society and culture in the US changed so abruptly and fundamentally again.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:30 PM on May 5, 2013 [26 favorites]


And while I can get why the movie is going for "beautiful to the modern eye" over "authentic" -- to give us a visceral sense of the glamor and envy-worthiness of the whole thing, I guess -- it's still kind of a shame, because the 1920s were in so many ways both the foundation of modern popular culture and incredibly, incredibly alien, and I would love to see that on screen.

Compared to that, it's kind of disappointing to see that picture of Carey Mulligan with her cute bob and makeup that's 100% 2013. It would be both incredibly jarring and incredibly awesome to see a whole cast of modern actors in those frighteningly sharp little 1920s cupid's-bow lips.
posted by ostro at 7:42 PM on May 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


My Aunt Pearl was a flapper in Nova Scotia, if you can believe it, confounding her kindhearted father no end. She moved to Boston with her family, became a caterer (King Gilette was a frequent customer), never married, and did her best to corrupt four generations of women in my family, being chief co-conspirator with my Grandma. She almost hit a hundred before passing on.

That's wonderful, Slap*Happy; she sounds like tremendous fun.

Auntie Mame was a flapper, wasn't she?

I loved that book.
posted by jamjam at 8:05 PM on May 5, 2013


There are actually some scans of "The Flapper" magazine mentioned in the article floating around the web.

Here are excerpts from the June 1922 issue.

Here is a flickr set with a number of the covers.

I'm not quite sure what to make of it. It looks equal parts counter culture, commercialism and satire.

That said, this bit describing their beauty contest is pretty progressive: "... Beauty isn't everything in this contest. You don't have to be beautiful to be a flapper, and if you aren't a flapper you wouldn't be considered beautiful. So there!"

Of course god knows what kind of editorializing is going on with the sections they're showing. I wish I could find some scans of the full magazine.
posted by pknodle at 8:06 PM on May 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


"Flappers rejected the dramatic, hyper-feminine S-shaped Edwardian silhouette created by tight, time-consuming corsets for sheath dresses that gave them boxy boyish shapes. In fact, this straight up-and-down figure was so extreme that curvier women went out of their way to squeeze into girdles and bandage their breasts flat."

The flappers were great, and obviously it was about much more than fashion. That being said, I always thought their fashions were kind of ugly. It's strange that in the periods where American women have made significant progress toward equality, the fashions have tended to make them look androgynous or even downright mannish, from the flappers to the boxy dress/Annie Hall stuff in the 1960s and 70s. In both eras, the super-scrawny, no-boobs/no hips look was regarded as the ideal, to the extent that women with curves would go to great lengths to make themselves look like they were built like teenage boys.

You would think that as women gained more power, they would have been all about celebrating the bodies they've got, instead of chasing an ideal that seems to exclude so many of them. If an individual woman wants to cut her hair, bind her breasts and wear a tie, if it's empowering for her, that's her choice. But for entire generations of women to equate female power with looking more like a man, that's really puzzling to me.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, but I have no plans to see this movie. After Moulin Rouge, I've seen all the Luhrman I need for this lifetime. Just thinking about the first 15 minutes of that movie makes me tired and cranky.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:17 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


After I read the book in high school, I drafted a stage adaptation of Gatsby. The central gimmick was that Gatsby (ideally played by a charismatic, physically expressive actor; a dancer, even) would only mouth his lines. Nick would deliver his words for him.

I knew I loved you.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:21 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's wonderful, Slap*Happy; she sounds like tremendous fun.

On my Mom's dresser there is only one family photo. It's a framed print of my Grandma, with the "Terminator" style sunglasses-over-glasses, and a huge Polident smile. She's a thousand feet in the air, and tho you can't see it, it's her hands on the yoke.

"I want to fly," she had told my Aunt Pearl.
"Lovely, my dear, lovely! You must fly!" Aunt Pearl replied.

And so she did.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:22 PM on May 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


But for entire generations of women to equate female power with looking more like a man, that's really puzzling to me.

Not to me. Classes of people seeking to move up tend to copy the manners and habits of those who'd already made it. Power was associated with masculinity, and fashion that celebrated power for women was going to play down overtly-feminine markers like breasts and curves, because those were still associated with domesticity.

This actually still goes on. Power-seeking women tend to be slimmer, more-toned, and not terribly large-breasted, and wear suits, which do not really go well on women's bodies, but do say "power and seriousness."
posted by emjaybee at 8:25 PM on May 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


As far as capturing what regular folk thought about flappers, I think Fitzgerald's Bernice Bobs Her Hair nails it really well.
posted by padraigin at 8:32 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


*flaps*
posted by jonmc at 8:33 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The part about African-American flappers was quite interesting to me, because I know a bit about flapper culture but had never thought of how it interacted with, say, the Harlem Renaissance. (Which says more about the limits of the history I've read than about anything else.)
posted by immlass at 8:52 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Flappers rejected the dramatic, hyper-feminine S-shaped Edwardian silhouette created by tight, time-consuming corsets for sheath dresses that gave them boxy boyish shapes. In fact, this straight up-and-down figure was so extreme that curvier women went out of their way to squeeze into girdles and bandage their breasts flat."

The flappers were great, and obviously it was about much more than fashion. That being said, I always thought their fashions were kind of ugly.


I'm just beginning to learn about 1920s fashion (and the eras that edge it) and the silhouette is actually much more varied than you would think. In the early 20s in particular you have much fuller skirts paired with simple bodices and hemlines that are all over the shop.

So you might think that this typifies 1920s fashion. But if you search on eBay or pinterest, or if you look at photos of 1920s couture (look at the 1924 Lanvin halfway down the page)... well you'll see much more diversity in the silhouette.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 9:04 PM on May 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


Also, I actually got to try on a 1920s corset/ girdle once that had been made for a woman about my size. It seemed to be more about creating a smooth line than anything else - and it was actually pretty comfortable! Clearly not everyone who was altering their silhouette was going with the extreme binding that we read about.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 9:06 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


On my Mom's dresser there is only one family photo. It's a framed print of my Grandma, with the "Terminator" style sunglasses-over-glasses, and a huge Polident smile. She's a thousand feet in the air, and tho you can't see it, it's her hands on the yoke.

"I want to fly," she had told my Aunt Pearl.
"Lovely, my dear, lovely! You must fly!" Aunt Pearl replied.

And so she did.


Slap*Happy, what a absolutely wonderful ancestor! I approve immensely of her corrupting influence :)
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 9:13 PM on May 5, 2013


The flappers were awesome, enjoyed the article.

If it's okay to talk about the movie coming up, is it just me or does the color palette look just awful? I've been seeing a similar look in disney movies like Snow White and Seven huntsman. Super saturated and unnatural lighting. I can almost see the green screen..
posted by meta87 at 9:39 PM on May 5, 2013


"is it just me or does the color palette look just awful?"

You're referring to the dreaded orange and teal. (Warning: ever since this was pointed out to me, I've grown to hate it so much I can hardly watch movie trailers anymore.) Combine it with an over-reliance on CGI, and far too many modern movies look like paintings you'd find decorating a cheap hotel room.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:20 PM on May 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hah I've felt the same way since seeing that link. This is even on top of that though... Like they're taking it too a whole new level of color suckatude.
posted by meta87 at 10:40 PM on May 5, 2013


You would think that as women gained more power, they would have been all about celebrating the bodies they've got, instead of chasing an ideal that seems to exclude so many of them. If an individual woman wants to cut her hair, bind her breasts and wear a tie, if it's empowering for her, that's her choice. But for entire generations of women to equate female power with looking more like a man, that's really puzzling to me.--Ursula Hitler

I'm not so sure it was an attempt to look like men as to reject the over-exaggerated and constraining look (and lives) of their parents and grandparents generations. My grandmother was a flapper. She told my sister how she tied a towel around her breasts to flatten out her figure. From old pictures she looked very pretty if not curvaceous. We found flapper dresses in her closet after she passed away and they were soft and feminine. And she lived a very exciting life, even learning to fly a bi-wing from a Hollywood stunt pilot.
posted by eye of newt at 10:56 PM on May 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I really don't think they did look like men. The fashions really revealed their legs and arms, they were the first to shave their legs, wore lots of beads and silks and soft colors, wore necklaces and bangles galore. It was an aesthetic shift, but not an attempt to look like men.
posted by Miko at 11:14 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It was largely a shift to look like you could go out dancing, not stay at home. It was fun, fast, lively and bright and totally at odds when what women *should* be, half Kewpie doll and half Matron. All those limbs and silk and beads and jewellery! It is was freaking terrifying.
posted by The Whelk at 11:21 PM on May 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


And athleticism played a big part in the development of this style, too. Much is made of the liberating power of the bicycle, having an impact already by the 1880s and 90s, but as women got interested in more and more forms of physical exercise - and increased leisure time was available, and school curricula encouraged it - they needed clothing you could move in, which was very much not long skirts, long sleeves, high collars and waists and ribcages tight enough to restrict breathing. It was really in the 20s that women started to participate in sports at amateur and pro levels, doing new things like playing tennis, swimming, running track, horse racing, diving, etc. The first women's track event was added to the Olypmics in 1928. You can check out this timeline to see all the sports organizations that were founded to promote equal access to sports, and all the "firsts" logged by women in the 10s and 20s.
posted by Miko at 11:33 PM on May 5, 2013




TIL Flappers danced "the Lindsey hop". Can we get a fact check in article three, please?
posted by dabitch at 12:34 AM on May 6, 2013


"I really don't think they did look like men."

Not masculine men, no. But compared to what came before, they were going for a very androgynous look, sort of adolescent boy-ish. Short hair, droopy sack dresses to hide the hips, and strapped-down boobs were definitely a reaction against traditional femininity.

Again, I'm not knocking what the flappers achieved. They made enormous progress in just a few years, and had fun doing it. But as somebody who enjoys all the traditional accoutrements of girly girlhood, it's always baffled me why there's this long-standing thing in America where empowered woman = super-skinny, boobless, short-haired woman in a boxy dress. Why should it? I mean, of course it can, if that's what the individual woman wants. But why is that such a widespread thing in history? Why is that seemingly the default? It seems like there's an assumption that curvy women somehow don't deserve to be taken as seriously, that to really get shit done you absolutely cannot have an hourglass figure.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:09 AM on May 6, 2013


a lengthy near-orgy near the beginning and party scenes that might have taken place at the old Studio 54

I wondered if this was simply Luhrmannian excess myself, and while that may still be true, it appears that unlike prior adaptations he is explicitly incorporating aspects of the prior version of the novel, a draft known as Trimalchio -- a figure from the Satyricon which essentially provides the template for the modern interpretation of the Roman orgy.
posted by dhartung at 2:55 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love the flapper look... but I think that came from years of interest in both vintage fashion and styles that would suit my already boyish boxy figure.

Seriously sick of people knocking various body shapes.
posted by _paegan_ at 4:13 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


Criticising a Baz Luhrmann movie still for having anachronistic clothes makes me wonder if the author has ever seen a Luhrmann film.
posted by kariebookish at 4:55 AM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


In many ways, it continues to amaze me how incredibly and unapologetically forward-driving the pop culture of the 1920s was, what an insanely sharp break with that which went before.

The Great War, the War to End all Wars, had destroyed the validity of the old, Edwardian world, had destroyed the idea that a conservative, whiggish progress was possible. The twenties were all about finding new ways to understand the world, to create something new because the old was shown to be deadly flawed.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:23 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm looking forward to the Gatsby movie, as I think Luhrmann's flicks tend to be flashy & shallow in a very smart way. Romeo & Juliet, with all its L.A. glitz, captures something about rich Italian teenagers (and rich young people in general) that a more somber version would miss entirely, the way that high style and violence are inextricable. And while Moulin Rouge isn't much of a love story, it's a fascinating movie about love stories, which I think is exactly the point---every story beat is slathered in layers of commentary and remove so it functions as a kind of postmodern ark, containing two of every trope.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:44 AM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Great War, the War to End all Wars, had destroyed the validity of the old, Edwardian world, had destroyed the idea that a conservative, whiggish progress was possible. The twenties were all about finding new ways to understand the world, to create something new because the old was shown to be deadly flawed.

Seconding this. I actually heard this in connection to surrealist art and Dada - that World War I had been an enormous mindfuck of a gamechanger for everyone, and people may have reacted in different ways but what they were reacting to was a sense that "holy shit the world just plain does not make sense any more". Those who were more pessimistic made surrealist art with nightmare imagery that echoed some of the horror they'd seen in wartime or some of the horrors that came after; others jumped on the chance to make the world over new; and some (because there were people who were like Gatsby) took the attitude that if the world made no sense, then fuck finding meaning, let's just have fun if that's all there is. Weird as it may sound to bring the Cold War into this, I recognize that mindset pretty well - the Arms Race made no sense to any of us, and while some got moody and sat around listening to The Smiths, others just decided "fuck it, nothing matters" and went all synth-pop.

After I read the book in high school, I drafted a stage adaptation of Gatsby. The central gimmick was that Gatsby (ideally played by a charismatic, physically expressive actor; a dancer, even) would only mouth his lines. Nick would deliver his words for him.

I want to cuddle this idea to my bosom and I couldn't even tell you why. It's just so...theater.

And I want an Aunt Pearl now.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:00 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Michael North has a fantastic book called "Reading 1922" - the year in which The Waste Land and Ulysses were published, the tomb of Tutankhamen was discovered - and Gatsby was set. 1922 was a bumper year - one of those years which we can look back at and go "yes, that was the year it all became clear". Gatsby is about being modern and inventing yourself because authenticity is dead. All experience is shallow and a mimicry of what came before.

I think it's so well-timed of Luhrmann to bring Gatsby to the big screen because I think we are living through such a sea change ourselves - technology and war outpacing the old way of living and we have to cobble together meaning through fragments shored against our ruins. We are reinventing ourselves bypassing outdated modes of authenticity via technology that is constantly outpacing us. I cannot wait to see if Luhrmann captures that (ironically through an art form closely linked to Modernism itself).
posted by kariebookish at 6:50 AM on May 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


> But I didn't find the novel all that deep, either - it's about sex, money, power, and conflict, which are not ideas it takes a terribly nuanced approach to communicate.

Reducing novels to ideas is not a whole lot better than reducing them to flappers. Many people (like Nabokov) would tell you novels are not about ideas at all, any more than poems are. If literature (real literature, "news that stays news" in Pound's words) is "about" anything, it's about how to create literature. In any event, if you didn't find Gatsby deep, you must have stuck to the shallow end of the pool.
posted by languagehat at 7:09 AM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


World War I is typically where cultural historians date the beginning of all modernity, for all the reasons cited above, as well as technology, transportation, urbanization, and the beginning of the wane of the industrial revolution.

Not masculine men, no. But compared to what came before, they were going for a very androgynous look, sort of adolescent boy-ish.

I don't find it androgynous. Really, if you set images of woman from that period alongside images of men from the period, you don't get the two confused. Styles change. I question your association of silhouette with empowerment; you cite the 60s and 70s as times of "boyish" fashion, but you have to look at that alongside liberation (not "you must dress like a man" but "you are now free to wear clothes as comfortable as you wish, any clothes that appeal to you"), the rise of informality and casual dress (grown people, unless they were Beats, didn't wear jeans anywhere but work until the 60s), the need for the invention of office-appropriate standards of dress for women in executive positions, etc. And during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, right alongside styles of dress you might consider masculine, there was no shortage of models and stars who embodied the curvier feminine ideal. Also, you might be underestimating the sexual power of baring arms and legs, which was something pretty exhilerating after a century in which they were almost always supposed to be concealed. This was exhibitionistic and definitely noticed as a sexy display of feminine physique. The dark-rimmed eyes, cupid's bow mouth and bob haircut focused attention on the face and especially the seductive and flirtatious qualities of the eyes. I think it's a real stretch to call flappers "Androgynous" because the silhouette they aimed for was more lean; mostly, it was the athleticism I mentioned above and the reaction to the exaggerated bust of the 1910s that gave rise to this rebound - not a desire to look like boys.

Body silhouettes go in and out of fashion just like patterns, colors, fabrics. The interaction of the fast-moving interests of popular fashion and activism surrounding women's liberation can be interesting - dress reform has almost always had a role in women's movements, because restrictive forms of dress and standards of conformity can be oppressive , but I think the rule you are trying to apply, that all dress associated with women's movements, is much too simple.
posted by Miko at 8:08 AM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


Go with me a second:

I think, actually, that Gatsby may be similar to David Hare's play (which then became a movie) Plenty. They're both set in the aftermath of one of the world wars (World War I with Gatsby, World War II with Plenty) and both concern veterans of those wars (Gatsby and Nick both were veterans; while in Plenty, the lead is an Englishwoman who'd been a spy for the French Resistance).

And both deal with people who are kind of flailing after their wars. In Plenty, the play keeps jumping back and forth between the main characters' war experiences - when she was dealing with life-or-death issues - and her postwar life, where she ends up with an unsatisfying series of jobs and lovers and wishes at the one hand that she could "move on" but on the other stuck with a life that seems hollow in comparison. And in Gatsby, both Nick and Gatsby are veterans trying to fit in with a high-powered, party-boy lifestyle - maybe because they too are having a hard time adjusting after the heightened life during wartime. Nick finally snaps out of it, though, at the end.

The mention of the war is a throwaway - but I wonder how much of that informed Gatsby after all, now that I think about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:16 AM on May 6, 2013 [3 favorites]


An interesting idea. He was in the Army but the war ended before he was sent overseas, so he wouldn't really be writing from his own PTSD perspective. However, nobody could remain untouched by the incredibly deadly war, only exceeded in casualties by the Civil War and then World War II. It was certainly in the zeitgeist and I think has to be read as subtext for any work of the 20s. Good thought.
posted by Miko at 8:26 AM on May 6, 2013


I'm not thinking PTSD, actually, more like...the opposite, I think? The feeling that the stuff you were doing during wartime actually mattered in a way that post-war actions really don't. It's more apparent in Plenty, actually - where the main character, Susan, ends up working in advertising for a while, and struggles with how it feels kind of hollow to be spending your time coming up with showcasey ad campaigns for Bovril when five short years ago you were spending your time trying to liberate Paris.

I don't know if that's the same as PTSD - it strikes me that PTSD is all about people having unwanted flashbacks to the stress from the war, where I'm talking more about people who thought the war was better because the stakes were higher, and they're trying to struggle with missing that heightened reality.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:35 AM on May 6, 2013


Yeah, war is an emotionally dramatic time where every decision is heightened and people think on much more immediate timelines rather than dwelling in abstractions of the far future, such as life plans, etc. I do think a sense of restlessness, lost-ness is part of the complex of postwar reactions - whether that should be called part of PTSD, I'll reserve judgment on, because that does deal with expressions of trauma, mainly. So I see the distinction you make but still think it's a letdown from the heightened states of emotion, the focus on the immediate, and the letting go of long-term goals, to go back to a lazy, disorganized, more complex and more routine and dull daily reality.
posted by Miko at 8:57 AM on May 6, 2013


I'm confused, Miko - are you disagreeing with the "It's not PTSD" diagnosis, or the notion that that sort of "letdown/back to reality" is not PTSD?

Either way, I think we're on the same page but just different paragraphs so it's probably moot anyway.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:58 AM on May 6, 2013


I'm basically saying that something happens to people in the 'letdown' after war, and it often manifests in depression and alcoholism (both rampant, for instance, after WWII), but that I'm not enough of a psychologist to determine whether you'd call that part of PTSD or not. I think it could be, but I'm not sure how restricted the definition of PTSD is to extreme bouts of anxiety, etc. In my life experience I've seen the term used to apply to people whose symptoms were milder, and used to describe reactions far beyond just flashbacks, etc., but as I said, I am not sure from a clinical perspective what would be included or not. The symptoms are pretty broadly defined.

In short I do think we agree, war has lots of psychological/emotional effects on lots of people who participate in lots of ways, and the presence of the war must certainly play a part in the way these characters were drawn. I guess I'm just saying that I'm not sure the letdown/lost/at-loose-ends/nihilistic/depressive set of behaviors is something "opposite" to PTSD, or in fact could be a version of it. There would be effects that are similar to PTSD symptoms but fall short of pathology in their intensity, and those would just be what we'd call something like cultural responses. But it's a quibble, you make a good point regardless.
posted by Miko at 9:10 AM on May 6, 2013


Gotcha - I always processed "PTSD" as being restricted to the shell-shocked, has-flashbacks-and-panic-attacks kind of reaction rather than that overall general feeling of what's-the-point wellschmerz, which may explain my confusion as well.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:27 AM on May 6, 2013


A friend of mine called it "The Day after Christmas" feeling.
posted by jaguar at 10:35 AM on May 6, 2013


Look at this fucking flapper.
posted by hanoixan at 12:31 PM on May 6, 2013


Related, re: Brooks Brothers ad campaign and people who throw Gatsby parties and unironically assign their students assignments about 'finding their own green light':

Did anyone actually read “The Great Gatsby”?
posted by MCMikeNamara at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2013 [2 favorites]


World War I is typically where cultural historians date the beginning of all modernity, for all the reasons cited above, as well as technology, transportation, urbanization, and the beginning of the wane of the industrial revolution.

I've usually seen this as the 19th century started in 1789 and went until 1914, while the 20th started in 1918 and only lasted until 1989.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:44 PM on May 6, 2013


I've usually seen this as the 19th century started in 1789 and went until 1914, while the 20th started in 1918 and only lasted until 1989.

"On or about December 1910, human character changed" - Virginia Woolf.

Other people date it to 1909 when Ezra Pound published Personae. Maybe it was 1913 when Stravinskij's The Rite of Spring caused a riot when it was first performed. You could argue it was 1902 with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Maybe it is a bit silly to try and pin it on a specific year. I personally think it started happening a few good years before the Great War, but The Great War certainly crystallised the cultural change for many people.
posted by kariebookish at 1:53 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


My paternal grandmother was a flapper, and in her old age, she confided to me about some of the things she did before she married (late), and even after. I won't break her confidence, just say: absolutely nothing radical we have seen in the last decade was not already done during the 20's and early 30's.
Most people her age and class were skinny. Fullness was a privilege reserved for the very wealthy. So the "feminine" figure popular before 1918 was achieved by padding as much as by corsetry. The flapper style celebrated their real appearance, rather than an unatainable ideal. Her post ww2 ideal was Audrey Hepburn, whom she resembled uncannily (though obviously, she was older).
However, she was always more about her intellectual and social activities than her looks. She worked, she had sofisicated parties and she was extremely well-read.
My ten years younger maternal grandmother was a curvy, Lana Turner type glamour girl, not least because she ate butter by the spoonful. A promise of the new wealth and opportunity after the depression, but in many ways a less independent personality. Just as smart but always confined within her "mad-men" life-style.
Some eras are really more accomodating for women, now and then and 2000 years back.
posted by mumimor at 2:05 PM on May 6, 2013 [5 favorites]




"Seriously sick of people knocking various body shapes."

Not sure if this was meant to apply to me, but if so, I wasn't trying to knock anybody's body type. Quite the reverse. (Maybe I'm being paranoid, but if it wasn't meant for me, I don't know who it was aimed at.) There's nothing wrong with somebody being naturally flat-chested and skinny. I would argue that there is something wrong with a movement (or a culture at large) that encourages women to be ashamed of their curves to such an extent that they try to hide them by strapping themselves down and wearing baggy clothes. If an individual woman wants to strap herself down and wear baggy stuff, that's her choice. I'm talking about the larger issue of her being shamed into doing it.

As for the larger discussion, I'm afraid I'll have to agree to disagree with some of the people here. I don't mean to be dismissive, but this has reached the point where I look at the discussion and wonder, "How much of my dwindling time on this planet do I want to devote to arguing about this?" I trust that many of you know the feeling. I am by no means a fan of that XKCD comic strip, but he really did nail something with the phrase "Someone is WRONG on the internet!"
posted by Ursula Hitler at 3:36 PM on May 6, 2013


If an individual woman wants to strap herself down and wear baggy stuff, that's her choice. I'm talking about the larger issue of her being shamed into doing it.

What about looking at the woman who strapped herself down and is wearing a baggy dress, and saying to yourself "wow, she looks awesome! How do I get that look?"

I don't mean to oversimplify that complex relationship between conforming to an ideal and making individual choices, but at least some, if not the majority, of the fashion choices women made in the 20s - especially such daring, fuck-the-standards sorts of choices - were made because the women wanted to make them.

I personally think it started happening a few good years before the Great War

There's a saying about this "when did it start exactly" thing that I'm forgetting, something like 'there are no clean breaks in history' or something. You can find seeds of the future and detritus from the past in any moment.
posted by Miko at 8:16 PM on May 6, 2013


Reducing novels to ideas is not a whole lot better than reducing them to flappers. Many people (like Nabokov) would tell you novels are not about ideas at all, any more than poems are. If literature (real literature, "news that stays news" in Pound's words) is "about" anything, it's about how to create literature. In any event, if you didn't find Gatsby deep, you must have stuck to the shallow end of the pool.

Now, now, there's no need to get huffy. I'm clearly defining "deep" differently than you are. I wasn't saying it's not a great novel.

What I meant is that this novel is not so abstract or conceptually driven that it couldn't be adapted to film by a reasonably sensitive and talented director. Luhrmann does have talent. But the evidence provided by MCMikeNamara suggests that, as Charlesmagne in Sweatpants feared, Luhrmann is going to sacrifice the source material for the most superficial possible cinematic interpretation, which will be brightly colored pablum.

I maintain that the story, the setting, and the central characters are amenable to screen adaptation, although the way Fitzgerald foregrounded Gatsby, Buchanan and their social setting was to develop Daisy and the rest of the characters only to the degree necessary to advance the plot, something I suspect a well-established actress wouldn't tolerate. The prose can't be translated, no, more's the pity. But that doesn't preclude a worthwhile film adaptation.

I think if Luhrmann had the right people advising him and holding him in check, this could be a great adaptation. It just probably won't be, because it would take the kind of people who could have said, "NO," to George Lucas, and the movie world is demonstrably underpopulated with those.
posted by gingerest at 10:46 PM on May 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


> What I meant is that this novel is not so abstract or conceptually driven that it couldn't be adapted to film by a reasonably sensitive and talented director.

Ah, OK. Sorry for misunderstanding you, and I agree entirely.

> I think if Luhrmann had the right people advising him and holding him in check, this could be a great adaptation. It just probably won't be, because it would take the kind of people who could have said, "NO," to George Lucas, and the movie world is demonstrably underpopulated with those.

I don't think anyone on earth could keep Baz Luhrmann from making a Baz Luhrmann movie, and that's OK with me, the Luhrmann movie is a thing all its own and enjoyable for what it is. It won't be a great adaptation in the sense that matters to fans of Fitzgerald, but that's OK too—there will be others, and maybe we'll get lucky one day.
posted by languagehat at 8:58 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm actually toying with seeing it, and inviting a jazz-age loving friend, for the show and dazzle and glitter of it all (a very Gatsby thing). However, Gatsby is this friend's favorite book, and I suspect he may want to boycott it out of Baz fear (he is VERY opinionated on Matters Of Art).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:10 AM on May 7, 2013


The NYTimes had a good piece on the movie in Sunday's arts section, which I finally got around to reading this morning. An excerpt:
Mr. Luhrmann and his wife are obsessive researchers, the sort of people, she explained, who would almost rather do the homework than make the movie. By now they can both quote by heart great chunks not only of “Gatsby” but of “Trimalchio,” Fitzgerald’s earlier draft, and Mr. Luhrmann’s Web site offers a reading list that amounts to a grad school seminar on Fitzgerald. Between them they have a textual or historical justification for just about everything in the movie.

Inflatable zebras in the swimming pool? Absolutely. Ms. Martin has period photographs. The scholars who insist that it was a Rolls that ran over Myrtle Wilson, and not, as in the movie, a Dusenberg? They don’t know their cars, and they haven’t looked carefully enough at the text. The metallic Prada gown that Daisy wears to one of Gatsby’s parties? That style was just coming in. People have a mistaken notion of ‘20s fashion. It’s not just flapper dresses. And there is hip-hop music in the film, Mr. Luhrmann said, because hip-hop now is what jazz was then. The collaboration with Jay-Z came about because of a chance meeting, he explained, but all along he had thought that “whatever jazz is now, it’s revered — it’s an older music,” and he wanted audiences to feel the excitement that readers would have felt in the ‘20s.

“Jazz in 1922,” when the novel is set, “was being referred to as an African-American fad,” he said. “Why would Fitzgerald put such ephemeral stuff, actual song lyrics, in his book? Because it made it immediate and visceral and exciting for the reader. And when you think of an African-American street music today that is visceral and exciting and is making a big impression on popular culture, that’s hip-hop.”
I can't wait to see it.
posted by Miko at 7:43 AM on May 9, 2013


I just saw it. Can we make with the spoiler-laden reviews yet?
posted by Miko at 7:56 PM on May 10, 2013


Are there aspects which are spoil-able? I'm assuming anyone who cares has read the book.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:34 PM on May 10, 2013


I almost feel like the framing device is a gimme to English teachers to weed out kids who just saw the movie.
posted by The Whelk at 9:43 PM on May 10, 2013


And then you'll get that one kid (you know which one) who keeps describing the languid pace of the book and Gatsby's resemblance to Robert Redford.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:56 PM on May 10, 2013


Gatsby's resemblance to Robert Redford

Gatsby is a member of S.H.I.E.L.D.? I did not see that coming.
posted by homunculus at 10:02 PM on May 10, 2013


"Mr. Gatsby We're putting a team together."

OMG QUICK GET ME THE NAMES OF THE BEST AMERICAN FICTIONAL PERIOD CHARACTERS FOR A LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY ROARING TWENTY'S LITERATURE.

Auntie Mame is of course, a GIVEN.
posted by The Whelk at 10:08 PM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]




Are there aspects which are spoil-able? I'm assuming anyone who cares has read the book.

I got this same question on MetaChat. It's a book practically everyone has read, but don't you think there is something to spoil when the entire premise of remaking it is to apply the Luhrmann visual/auditory/stylistic flair? Perhaps that's the wrong use of the term spoiler, but how much do you want to read about specific costumes, performances, casting, scenes, sets, musical score elements, etc., before seeing it yourself? Isn't that part of the surprise? If you expect absolutely no surprise, is there any reason to see it at all? There's a reason to make adaptations of things that have been adapated before, and that's because you're going to do something to the material that wasn't done before.
posted by Miko at 6:28 AM on May 11, 2013


I mean, there is a big difference from saying "Daisy wears a metallic dress" and SEEING said metallic dress.
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on May 11, 2013




Hark a Vagrant's version of Gatsby.
posted by Miko at 8:15 AM on May 12, 2013


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