Dorothy Parker

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What is the meaning of Dorothy Parker's poem "The Flapper"?

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Dorothy Parker’s poem titled “The Flapper” is itself a somewhat flippant look at the “flapper” phenomenon that became especially influential in the United States in the 1920s. The word “flapper” seems often to have been associated, originally, with young girls whose hair flapped in the wind because it had not yet been “put up” into formal “hairdos.” However, “flapper” also had connotations connecting it with prostitution. Most “flappers” in the United States in the 1920s were not prostitutes, but they did often consider themselves “liberated” young women who took pleasure in makeup, dancing, drinking, smoking, and freer attitudes toward sex than most of their mothers and grandmothers.

Parker sometimes wrote much more harshly about flappers than she does in this poem. In “The Flapper” she seems mainly to describe the phenomenon and to poke gentle fun at it. The opening lines of the poem are revealing:

The Playful flapper here we see, 
The fairest of the fair.

The flapper is here described almost as if she were a museum exhibit. She is “Playful” – a word that can suggest fun-loving but also superficial and immature. She the “fairest of the fair,” a phrase that can suggest real beauty while also burlesquing the kind of language found in fairy-tales. In any case, this phrasing, along with the phrasing of the first line, can suggest that flappers are somewhat shallow, lacking any serious focus or significant purpose in life.

Parker’s humor is especially apparent in lines 3-4:

She's not what Grandma used to be, -- 
You might say, au contraire.

Here the tone is a splendidly comic mixture of the colloquial and the high-falutin’. Parker is not taking her subject especially seriously, perhaps because such women do not take themselves very seriously and do not merit serious thought.  The next few lines (5-8) lead to an even more comic climax:

Her girlish ways may make a stir,
Her manners cause a scene, 
But there is no more harm in her 
Than in a submarine.

Only Dorothy Parker could have written the final line of this stanza, and no one could have predicted it. Flappers may attract attention because they are superficially different from the norm, but Parker herself attracts attention because of her unusual wit and intellectual inventiveness.

Flappers are next humorously compared to aggressive athletes, knocking down men on the dance floor as an athlete on a sports field might knock down members of an opposing team. Parker is obviously having fun with her subject, and the poem is likely to provoke chuckles or at least amused smiles in most of its readers.

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