The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Searching for the Modern Girl | Editors' Introduction

Victoria Kuttainen
Jilly Lippmann

With her bobbed hair, signature red lipstick, daring image, and modern lifestyle, the Modern Girl is an icon of the roaring twenties and dirty thirties. But while the bright young things of England and the flappers of America remain alive in histories of the interwar period, their incarnations elsewhere around the world—everywhere they appeared—have almost disappeared from cultural memory. What's more, the longstanding media fascination with the flapper offers a study in contrast to the relative dearth of scholarly attention the Modern Girl has received until recently.

Almost a hundred years after her first appearance on the streets of Tokyo, Shanghai, Bombay, New York, Sydney, and London, the Modern Girl came to life anew in Miriam Silverberg’s now-famous 1991 essay on the Japanese incarnation of the figure, “The Modern Girl as Militant.” Nearly twenty years after that, the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group’s ground-breaking 2008 book re-introduced the Modern Girl to a broader array of scholars worldwide. Despite the persistent absence of this figure in some historiographies, the collection The Modern Girl Around the World proved that the Modern Girl appeared almost simultaneously everywhere around the world, through local manifestations in dynamic interactions with global modernity.

This special issue builds upon and expands this foundational work, connecting the Modern Girl, a gendered icon of vernacular modernity, to the expanded geographies of the new modernist studies. It also seeks to understand the cultural dynamics that have surrounded the Modern Girl, including her spectacular visibility in her own time and her relative invisibility since. Collectively, these essays reveal how the histories of the Modern Girl around the world are still being recovered: in Brazilian magazine print culture, in Canadian literature and history, in the journalistic debates and novels of the Weimar Republic, and in the transnational contours of film history. 

In line with this previous scholarship, throughout this special issue, contributors use the term “Girl.” It was the figure’s apparent youthfulness, in contrast to her apparently more serious and often politically engaged forebear, the New Woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which has cemented the use of this term. As the contributors to the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group have noted, the Modern Girl’s “girlishness” was just one aspect of her “troublesomeness” (Weinbaum et al. 9). The troublesomeness of this figure–both in her own time and subsequently–inspired this special issue, as a follow-up to our article on “The Troublesome Modern Girl” of Australia published in volume 15 of The Space Between

“What identified Modern Girls,” Weinbaum and her colleagues argue, “was their use of specific commodities and their explicit eroticism” (1). In contrast to the earlier figure of the New Woman, the Modern Girl of the interwar period appeared less concerned about politics, whether of suffrage or nationhood, and more absorbed by issues of personal agency. As we noted, “I\[i]n an intensifying commercial culture marked by a rapid proliferation of lifestyle choices, everywhere she appeared, the Modern Girl availed herself of new forms of subjectivity on offer through access to pleasure in a freshly conceived public sphere, tied to the marketplace and linked with cinema, jazz, fashion, glamour, and sex” (Lippmann and Kuttainen, par. 4). Through these avenues and other everyday commodities, young women experimented with ways in which self-styling afforded them purchase of new forms of social mobility and self-determination. But as Jill Julius Matthews has observed, it was “the young woman’s relation to the marketplace that excited most alarm” (19). 

Historically, the association with commodity culture meant that Modern Girls were often spurned as dupes of consumerism, but more recently scholars have begun to counter this vapid stereotype. Undoubtedly, access to the workplace and to self-styling offered the possibility of new freedoms, however compromised these freedoms may have been. As Alisa Freedman, Laura Miller, and Christine R. Yano argue in their 2005 book Modern Girls on the Go, the ambivalent, dynamic, and often contradictory incarnations of the Modern Girl disappear from view when she is determined by the “narrow interpretive frameworks through which girls’ lives and cultures have been historically understood, either as debased and devalued consumers of mass culture or as the victims of a system over which they had no control” (xii). The essays in this issue extend these efforts to broaden understandings of the Modern Girl in more nuanced frameworks. 

The Mulher Moderna of Brazil, which Danielle Stewart addresses in her article in this issue, “Feminists and Fashion Plates: The Brazilian Mulher Moderna in O Cruzeiro, 1928-1940,” was no mere dupe of consumerism, although she may have been transformed into one through magazines. She was deeply involved in political activism. As Stewart explains, the Mulher Moderna “embodied a regionally specific incarnation of the transnational Modern Girl” (3) that was—at least in the early twentieth century—both fashionably presented and politically engaged by the politics of Brazilian suffrage. Focusing on popularized depictions of the figure in O Cruzeiro, Brazil’s influential and popular illustrated weekly, Stewart traces shifting attitudes about the evolving roles of women in modern Brazil and of public perceptions of the feminist movement. Ultimately, Stewart finds that the more radical incarnation of the Mulher Moderna who dominated Brazilian society and print media in the early twentieth century was debased over time by the male editors of O Cruzeiro, who reduced her to a mere fashion plate. As Stewart explains, this glamorous poster girl served to promote, among other products, an ideal of white middle-class nationalism in one of the world’s most ethnically and racially diverse, as well as socio-economically divided, countries on earth.

“In all national contexts in which [the Modern Girl] appeared she was a contested figure and image, either an object of celebration or of attempted control,” Weinbaum and her co-authors have noted (15). If the nationalist agenda of O Cruzeiro suppressed images of and writing by politically active and racially diverse Modern Girls in favor of an icon of white bourgeois nationalism, in Canada—as Kathryn Franklin shows in her article in this issue—it was the consumeristic, bobbed-hair, fashion-savvy Modern Girl who was seen as an affront to traditional Canadian values. In “Is the Flapper a Menace? Miss Toronto, Delight, and the Making of the Modern Toronto Girl,” Franklin analyzes the rhetoric around the 1926 Miss Toronto Pageant alongside a reading of Mazo de la Roche’s Modern Girl-themed novel published that same year. Franklin argues that the 1926 beauty pageant, the first of its kind in Canada, served as an articulation point for feminine Canadian modernity. Franklin extends the appraisals by the judges of, and the crowds at, the 1926 pageant to gauge broader social attitudes about what kind of modern woman was deemed appropriately Canadian. Here Franklin follows the work of Jane Nicholas, who has also observed the way the image of the Canadian Modern Girl has been systematically overlooked by Canadian nationalist histories. As Vera Mackie has noted elsewhere in her discussion of Modern Girls, “‘[n]ew’ and ‘modern’ are the keywords of societies undergoing transformation, and women are often seen to embody the ‘new’ and the ‘modern’ in both positive and negative senses” (par. 2). This was certainly the case in Canadian society, as Franklin has pointed out, as judges spurned bob-styled contestants for a more traditionally coiffed, and traditionally minded, Modern Girl.

It was also true, in different ways, in the Weimar Republic, as two of our contributors show: the potential of German Modern Girls, called neue Frau, in the twenties and thirties has been largely lost to view due to the hypervisibility of fascist ideology at mid-century. In “Commodification, Corporeality, Crisis? Weimar Modern Girls, Image, and Aesthetic in Cultural Criticism,” Lilean Buhl considers how the Modern Girl became the focal point of discussions around the crisis of Germany’s first parliamentary democracy. In his survey of German commentary about the Weimar Modern Girl, Buhl demonstrates how discussions about the volatility and crisis of the republic played out through debates about the neue Frau. While there was no equivalent debate about a New Man or New Human, Buhl points out, it was the Modern Girl who became both an object and index of interwar Germany’s fascination with and anxiety about transnational influences, mass culture, and cultural decline. But while it has become conventional to understand Weimar in terms of crisis, and while conservative—and especially male—commentators predictably critiqued the  neue Frau as a symbol of its decadence, other cultural critics like female journalists and even some novelists acknowledged the ways the Modern Girl personified refreshing possibility. 

In “But now my outfit is complete: Weimar Modernism and Irmgard Keun’s Material Girls” Sovay Hansen further explores the paradoxical nature of the Modern Girl during the Weimar Republic. Her object of analysis is two of Weimar Germany’s bestselling Modern Girl novels, Gilgi: One of Us (1931) and The Artificial Silk Girl (1932). By placing these novels in dialogue with the expanded geographical range and broader stylistics of the new modernist studies, Hansen compellingly demonstrates that traditional understandings of modernity as focused on inward, subjective states were never the case in Weimar Germany. Hansen’s close readings of Keun’s Modern Girl novels show how “fashion and other objects are the material means by which their female protagonists pursue and articulate their desires” for agency. Within the context of New Objectivity, these novels make an important female-oriented contribution to a culture fascinated by the possibilities of surfaces.

As both a real figure and a representational strategy, then, the Modern Girl was both a mirror and a product of modern, feminine images that also appeared on the silver screen. Ann Dolinko and Bev Thurber’s article “Constructed Identity and Commodity Culture in My Lucky Star” discusses the 1938 Hollywood film in which Sonja Henie, the Norwegian world-champion figure-skater, is cast as an archetypal Modern Girl who delights American audiences. Dolinko and Thurber read the main character’s trajectory of arrival, development, and career success as a plot arc that parallels the star’s own transformation from ethnically Norwegian immigrant to emphatically white American celebrity. Dolinko and Thurber ultimately conclude that as the embodiment of activity and spectacle, this Modern Girl personifies both the possibilities of the modern working woman’s new life in America, and her containment through the Americanized trappings of commodity culture. 

Each of these articles illustrates the broader and more nuanced story of the transnational Modern Girl, in all her glory and obscurity, ambivalence and controversy, complexity and contradiction. Many of these articles also go some way toward explaining the subsequent disappearance of the Modern Girl from our historical view. All of these articles offer an account of the way her image was shaped, controlled, or fashioned: In the pages of O Cruzeiro we see the Modern Girl as a depoliticized fashion plate; in Canadian literature and culture we see the rejection of a type who embodied the wrong kind of Canadian modernity; in German periodical culture and literature we see the way the Modern Girl personified not just crisis, but also future possibility; and in the Scandinavian sensation of Sonja Henie on the American silver screen, we trace the transnational repackaging of immigrant femininity as American modernity for global dissemination, creating the image of a young, active, independent woman who manages both the possibilities and constraints of commodity capitalism. 

As Jane Nicholas argues in The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s, her 2015 study of the Canadian context: “The Modern Girl may seem too frivolous, too insignificant, too feminine, too American, and too elusive to count in the serious business of Canadian history. She may well be (in part) all of those things, but that is exactly why she is significant” (15). The articles in this special issue demonstrate the wider reach of that significance in relation to Modern Girls everywhere, not just to projects of national history, but also to broader understandings of global modernity. The Modern Girl might have been “too much” for some commentators, but she was also a powerful symbol of promise and possibility who offered in her own time new and different ways to be modern. In the words of Mazo de la Roche’s eponymous character, what a ‘de-light’ to find that she still offers to us now new and different understandings of modernity. 

We hope you enjoy this special issue as much as we have enjoyed bringing it to life. Like the Modern Girl herself, our collective attempts to revivify her offered refreshing alternative possibilities to our everyday horizons, but also demanded attention during adversity. How little we understood when we began this journey how much it would be affected by the crisis of our time: COVID-19. To the contributors, peer reviewers, and editors past and present of The Space Between, our sincere thanks. Janine Utell encouraged this issue from the very first, and Jennifer Nesbitt helped us realize its fullest potential: amongst us, have created some good trouble.

Works Cited

Freedman, Alisa, et al. Modern Girls on the Go: Gender, Mobility, and Labor in Japan. Stanford UP, 2013. 

Lippmann, Jilly, and Victoria Kuttainen. “The Troublesome Modern Girl: Jungfrau, National Literature, and the Vexations of Transnational Modernity.” The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945, vol. 15, 2019.

Mackie, Vera C., “New Women, Modern Girls and the Shifting Semiotics of Gender in Early Twentieth Century Japan.” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, vol. 32, 2013.

Matthews, Jill Julius. Dance Hall & Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity. Currency, 2005.

Nicholas, Jane. The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s. U of Toronto P, 2015.

Silverberg, Miriam. “The Modern Girl as Militant: Movement on the Streets.” Recreating Japanese Women: 1600–1945, edited by Gail Lee Bernstein, U of California P, 1991, pp. 239–66. 

Weinbaum, Alys, et al. The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Duke UP, 2008.                               

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