History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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History Pop Culture

I adore ’20s aesthetic, but its depiction in pop culture is deeply troubling

Remember the months leading up to this year, where everyone was ready to pull out all the stops to ensure our generation gets to live through our own Roaring ’20s with endless parties and extravagance? And how quickly that went south when the year began? 

Oh, the ’20s. There’s no period in history that has been so loved by writers, filmmakers, musicians, and, of course, audiences. A century later, we still fawn over for in the glitz and glamor.

I cannot pass a thrift store or vintage outlet without looking at the cloche hats and beaded gloves without wondering what it would be like to live as a flapper girl, a whole new world ahead of her. It has long been an idealized aesthetic for me. Maybe that’s because the romantic image of a pining Gatsby is at the forefront of our memory of the ’20s.



The fact that the latest Great Gatsby adaptation, starring Leonardo Di Caprio, has consistently been available on Netflix since 2014 is a sure sign that everyone is feeling nostalgic for that long-gone period. What better time than now, then, as we live through our own ’20s of the 2000s, to pick apart the way this period has been glamorized in pop culture and entertainment. Despite having tragically dark elements that lurk in its corners.

There are countless movies and TV shows set in this era, as well as themed costume parties, but can we ever excuse this period of history? Racial oppression, the mistreatment of women, there is so much that happens behind the glamour. For that reason, I can’t bear to entertain anything that doesn’t at least hint at the dark parts of this sought-after aesthetic.

Of course, at the center of it all is The Great Gatsby with its flapper girls, pearls, and swinging jazz music. Who doesn’t dream of dancing the night away at one of Gatsby’s extravagant parties or being yearned for by the man himself? This story has long been my guilty pleasure.

The reason behind my guilt is that it completely overlooks any of the questionable and outright terrible parts of that society. Other than the class divisions that spurred the tragic love story, the story neglects entire populations of people. There’s a cleverly titled review of the book, “I Love The Great Gatsby, Even if it Doesn’t Love Me Back”, in which a self-proclaimed “small town, Black girl” tries to see herself in the story she loves but feels so alienated.

None of the named characters in any of the adaptations are people of color. It is almost like people of color would be anachronistic to the time setting, which is unfortunately what most producers for period pieces seem to believe. Blackness has no presence in this time period, they seem to say. The Gatsby story acts like race doesn’t exist, despite the rising xenophobic sentiment among the American public during the particular time period following the First World War.

[Image Description: An African American flapper girl sits on a chair, wearing a fur hat, coat with feathery trim and extravagant dress.] Via See Jane Sparkle
[Image Description: An African American flapper girl sits on a chair, wearing a fur hat, coat with feathery trim and extravagant dress.] Via See Jane Sparkle

And why should the story acknowledge any of that? It doesn’t seem to interfere at all in the lives of the white central characters. Even though they enjoy the jazz and Charleston dance, they’ve disentangled those things from their roots in the Black community.

Wrapping the story in a Jay-Z soundtrack doesn’t negate the fact that it is devoid of any African American representation. As for its treatment of women, the Roaring ’20s was a time of increased sexual liberation for women. There was a gradual public acknowledgment (not exactly acceptance) that sexual desire was not only limited to men, that women possessed strong sexualities.

In the growing urban environments, men and women mingled much more freely with less supervision. Automobiles were becoming a staple to American society, serving as a private place for young couples. “Brothels on wheels”, a court judge called them – not as a humorous quip but a condemnation. Because, at the end of the day, women were still conditioned to accept that fulfillment came from adeptly performing their duties as a housewife. 

It’s too easy of an excuse to say that “the times were different” during the ’20s. As if it was only recently that we gained awareness of intolerance and how to present it on screen. If F. Scott Fitzgerald couldn’t see the importance of including the surrounding society in his story, maybe his work can be written off as a product of its time.

[Image Description: A vintage portrait of two women smiling at the camera, dressed in flapper style.] Via See Jane Sparkle
[Image Description: A vintage portrait of two women smiling at the camera, dressed in flapper style.] Via See Jane Sparkle

But how did the 2013 adaptation miss that whole part of history? Is historical accuracy second to aesthetic? Or even worse, the classic argument of supposed historical accuracy, the claim that ‘those groups didn’t exist within those circles’, that it would be “untruthful” to try to weave in diverse characters to historical time periods. 

That’s laughable, of course. But many are still surprised when they see the – frankly, stunning – photographs of African American or Mexican American flapper girls. Pop culture’s adoration for this story and this period is concerning because it has been flagrantly whitewashing history

Representing an era like the ’20s just for the aesthetic is just lazy. On top of that, it is a form of historical erasure. Telling a story is a responsibility. For many people, watching The Great Gatsby will be their only exposure to the 1920’s time period. They’ll hear the jazz and see the beautiful men and women in all their extravagance and pine for the time period, wishing they were part of it. But the reality is far from the truth.

[Image description: Black flappers enjoying a football game at Howard University, 1920.] via Pinterest
[Image description: Black flappers enjoying a football game at Howard University, 1920.] via Pinterest

It’s like a century from now, someone told the story of our Roaring ’20s, focusing on nothing but two (white, privileged) lovers split apart by the pandemic. No mention of the Black Lives Matter movement, the reformations, or any other international affair.

Doesn’t that feel so thoroughly disappointing? 

You would think, surely there has to be a more complex way to memorialize this time by…

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