Bernice vs. Marjorie: An Epic Rap Battle
In the intricate social dance of courtship, wiser, experienced veterans often urge awkward newcomers to “just be yourself.” A typical cynic regarding human nature, F. Scott Fitzgerald advises otherwise. In a letter to his younger sister, Annabel, he writes, “Expression, that is facial expression, is one of your weakest points. A girl of your good looks and at your age ought to have almost perfect control of her face. It ought to almost be like a mask” – a show to the outside world, a performance of one’s charming social self, divorced from one’s true vulnerable character (Turnbull 67).
Likewise, the scenes in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” are all about performance. “The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have,” Marjorie instructs Bernice, in the same vein along which Fitzgerald advises his inexpressive sister (Fitzgerald 35). The story begins with an analogy that compares society functions to the stage: a judgmental middle-aged audience watches young people dance in the ballroom, “this critical circle…not close enough to the stage to see the actors’ faces and catch the subtler byplay” (26). The characters themselves are constant performers on the social stage, trained in the art of charm and artifice while interacting with a social other. When Marjorie learns that her derogatory comments have been overheard, she “was startled, but she showed only a faintly heightened color and her voice was quite even when she spoke” (32). Bernice, post-training, makes disingenuous claims of getting her hair bobbed, telling a captive audience, “Of course I’m charging admission, but if you’ll all come down and encourage me I’ll issue passes for the inside seats” (Fitzgerald 37).
In Fitzgerald’s fiction, as in social reality, appearance definitely matters. Instructing his sister to groom her eyebrows and “cultivate deliberate physical grace,” he writes:
You see if you get anywhere and you feel you look alright then there’s one worry over and one bolt shot for self-confidence—and the person you’re with, man, boy, woman, whether it’s Aunt Millie or Jack Allen or myself likes to feel that the person they’re sponsoring is at least externally a credit. (Turnbull 68)
Growing up as the “Ugly Chinese-Japanese Girl” (I’m Vietnamese) in a predominantly white small town, I know that, for people of color, certain physical features are less easy to “cultivate.” Strangers called me unattractive for not conforming to white beauty ideals, my nose “too flat,” my eyes “too small,” my body “too skinny.” Race, in fact, plays a role in distinguishing Bernice from Marjorie, who assumes her cousin’s “crazy Indian blood” makes Bernice a “reversion to type,” an Indian woman who “just sat round and never said anything” (31). When she finally does speak her mind at the story’s riveting conclusion, Bernice, having just depilated her cousin, shouts, “Scalp the selfish thing!”—a reversion, not to the silent Indian woman, but to the image of the scalping savage (47). The problem of Native American stereotypes abound in historical and literary representation—but in mixed-race Bernice’s case, it’s not clear whether her “reversion to type” at the end is genuine or performative. Is “Bernice the Indian” a product of Bernice the white girl’s internally racist stereotyping, performing the role of a “crazy Indian” not to a social other, but to her white self? Or is Bernice the Native American genuinely embracing Marjorie’s racist convictions to fire them right back her, as if to smugly say, “You’re right. I am a crazy Indian. That’s why I cut all your hair off.”
Thus does external appearance, at times, become indicative of interior life, or at least, one’s interpretation of the interior life of a social other. Something as seemingly trivial as hair plays a disproportionate role in social perception. At the first suggestion of Bernice bobbing her hair, her peers “paused in their conversations and were listening”— her controversial hypothetical hairstyle choice is enough for G. Reece Stoddard to ask her to dance (37). “Hair” is more than a surface attribute—the way it’s styled is often perceived by onlookers to be indicative of one’s deeper personal identity, whether long—revealing a conservative “Madonna-like simplicity”—or bobbed and “ridiculous, like a Greenwich villager who had left her spectacles at home” (43-44). In Japan, and most of Asia, black hair is considered the norm; an Asian with blonde hair (I know all too well) is considered a “delinquent.” Likewise, with the comeback of natural hair during the Black Power Movement, an afro represented liberation and genuine pride in one’s race, while straightened locks could be seen as an indicator of whitewashed conservatism.
II. Goals and Methodologies
If I was interested in playwriting (and I’m not), a stage production of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” would seem like an obvious choice, with the sheer amount of theatrical metaphors scattered throughout the text. But since the characters are so performative themselves, the audience would not have access to their inner lives, which, for example, Fitzgerald reveals when Marjorie “was startled” in spite of her calm appearance. A faithful, naturalistic adaptation of the story to the stage would lose the effect of internal/external contrast: part of the story’s appeal in written form is the reader’s dual, simultaneous access to both performer and the real person behind the mask.
The second problem I have with the stage is the inherent pretentiousness of the medium, the world of “theater” primarily marketed to white liberal intellectual elites. Rap music, on the other hand, appeals to a wider, more diverse audience, and can be used to convey ideological complexity without theater’s classist pretensions. In high school, I performed a rap about the French Revolution; I rapped an anti-slavery speech while playing abolitionist Charles Sumner, before my friend, an angry Preston Brooks, beat me over the head with a cane. Part of Hamilton’s appeal is its ability to take the lives of dead white men and adapt American history for a diverse, modern audience, performing the past in a medium that is socially relevant to the present.
For my senior project, I would like to film a series of rap battles
- between Bernice and Marjorie,
- between “Marjorie” and Marjorie,
- and between “Bernice” and Bernice.
Since films have access to editing software, I can use split-screen whenever a character raps against her social “persona,” so the actress playing Marjorie and “Marjorie” can appear onscreen at the same time. This simultaneous doubling would be impossible to perform in a live theater (I don’t know anyone who can replicate in two and rap against themselves).
Both Marjorie and Bernice are white (I assume she is more white than Native American). However, when casting the actresses who will be performing in this rap battle, I want Marjorie to be played by me (because, like the character, I have blonde hair), and I want Bernice to be played by a black actress who, like Bernice, has dark hair. The reason: in 2010, rapper Wiz Khalifa released a chart-topping single called “Black and Yellow,” written in celebration of his hometown of Pittsburgh. Because Bernice is black (and I am yellow), it would be interesting for our rap lyrics (pre-written and rehearsed, of course) to address the social expectations that come with the color of our skin, in contrast with our actual interior lives. As an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s story, each successive rap battle between Marjorie and Bernice would be faithful to the plot and the characters’ established personalities—but the racial and social contexts have changed. Bobbing one’s hair is no longer seen as an act of radical liberalism—but keeping your hair in an afro, as opposed to straightening it with hair relaxers, expresses nonconformity with whitewashed ideals. Set in the 21st century, with a black protagonist, the story is now “Bernice Kinks Her Hair,” retold through a series of rap battles between black Bernice and her Asian cousin.
But it’s in the battles between their interior and exterior selves that we can truly represent the duality and depth of these characters. In his ethnographic work, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois writes:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (2-3)
In battling against a social other, black Bernice and Asian Marjorie’s insults can introduce, accept, or deny the stereotypes that they, and society, impose on each other—similar to Marjorie’s imposition of Native American stereotypes on Bernice, and her later acceptance of it. But when they battle against themselves, each half of the double-consciousness vies for attention: Marjorie the popular Americanized Asian she shows to the outside world, vs. Marjorie the stereotypical Asian nerd who has anything but a dainty mind—she can talk about “Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations” because she studies just about everything. Bernice the popular (still-straight-haired) black woman she becomes after her personality “makeover,” vs. the real Bernice, the timid, kind girl who wears her hair naturally.
III. Field Survey
Like Hamilton, in which white historical figures were played by people of color, my adaptation of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” reimagines literary plots through the under-represented perspectives of minority characters. Despite my aversion to adapting the story for the stage, there are many plays I could reread to better understand the craft of cross-demographic adaptation. My favorite contemporary play, An Octoroon, by black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, was an adaptation of The Octoroon, an 1859 play by white playwright Dion Boucicault. Using often irreverent 21st century references and dialogue, Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon brilliantly addresses and reverses the racial stereotypes portrayed in the original melodrama. The play also pulls off a racial fluidity that I want to achieve: after the Black Playwright character dons whiteface, he plays both the White Hero and White Villain in his reinterpretation of the original play, a commentary on doubleness and the minority pressure to whitewash oneself for social perception. In terms of structuring, filming, and framing the rap battles, I could look to a YouTube channel, Epic Rap Battles of History, for guidance. The channel pits historical and pop culture characters against each other, reimagining historical conflict the way I want to reimagine the conflict between literary characters. Of course, my research would not be complete without a scholarly article on Hamilton: “Who Tells our Story: Intersectional Temporalities in Hamilton: An American Musical.” The reinterpretation of the past through the present medium of rap music is also explained in Samir Meghelli’s article, “Remixing the Historical Record: Revolutions in Hip Hop Historiography.”
To avoid cultural misrepresentation or appropriation, I could study the origins and cultural impact of rap in the context of African American history, reading scholarly articles such as “Hip Hop: Origins, Characteristics and Creative Processes” and “Moving the crowd, ‘crowding’ the emcee: The coproduction and contestation of black normativity in freestyle rap battles.” I could also read Reiland Rabaka’s book, “Hip Hop’s Amnesia : From Blues and the Black Women’s Club Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement.”
To better understand and accurately represent the concept of racial doubleness faced by minority populations, I could further read The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois. In addition to An Octoroon, which represents racial doubleness and fluidity in the form of a stage play, I could also study how rap, traditionally thought of as a black medium, has been represented across different cultural demographics. Contemporary rap battles bear shocking similarities to the medieval Scottish practice of “flyting,” in which two poets spar verbally, alternately insulting their opponent and boasting about themselves. A promising read on flyting and ethnicity is Jacquelyn Hendricks’ “A Battle of ‘Trechour Tung[s]’: Gaelic, Middle Scots, and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting.” To learn about the cultural appropriation of rap and know what to avoid, I can read Cutler’s articles on “The co-construction of whiteness in an MC battle” and “Yorkville crossing: White teens, hip hop and african american english.” For the purposes of developing my Asian-Marjorie character, I can read Jonghyun Park’s “Rap as Korean rhyme: Local enregisterment of the foreign” and Darren Brown’s “We Got the Power: Asian Americans and Hip-Hop Culture in the Bay Area.”
And finally, before I proceed with my rap battle depictions of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” I would research other instances in which rap music has been used to reinterpret existing works of literature, or, in some cases, be considered as a work of literature in itself. I’m interested in reading “The Fine Art of Rap,” “Tit for Tat: The Canterbury Tales and “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy,” and “It’s Miller Time! Baba Brinkman’s Rap Adaptation of the Miller’s Tale.” But by far the most promising and relevant to my project is R. Collier’s “Xavier naidoo and double consciousness: Introducing afro-german hip hop to the american literature classroom.” Encompassing double consciousness, hip hop, and American literature, this article is a triple threat that will no doubt inform my project’s successful execution.
I am confident that I can portray the Asian American double consciousness accurately, but I am usually hesitant to depict other the experiences of races, for fear of accidental misrepresentation or cultural appropriation. Since race is a sensitive topic, I have to be very careful about how I structure this project, and since rap battles are a series of boasts and insults, I want to make a compelling social commentary without offending anyone. This research will help me take the necessary precautions to avoid misrepresentation, and in the spirit of collaboration, I will definitely consult with my black friends and classmates before proceeding with performance.
Fitzgerald’s Life and Work
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. 25-47. Print.
Turnbull, Andrew. “Chapter V.” 2004. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Grove, 1962. 66-68. Print.
Rap Music in African American History
Neumann, Friedrich. “Hip Hop: Origins, Characteristics and Creative Processes.” The World of Music, vol. 42, no. 1, 2000, pp. 51–63. JSTOR.
Rabaka, Reiland. Hip Hop’s Amnesia : From Blues and the Black Women’s Club Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement. Lexington Books, 2012.
Samy Alim, H., Lee, J., & Mason Carris, L. (2011). Moving the crowd, ‘crowding’ the emcee: The coproduction and contestation of black normativity in freestyle rap battles. Discourse & Society: An International Journal for the Study of Discourse and Communication in their Social, Political and Cultural Contexts, 22(4), 422-439.
Simpson, P. A. (2006). Battle rhymes: Measures of masculinity. In G. Bayer (Ed.), Mediating germany: Popular culture between tradition and innovation (pp. 18-36) Cambridge Scholars.
Cross-Gender/Cross-Cultural Uses of Rap and Performance
An Octoroon. By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Polonsky Shakespeare Theater, New York. Mar. 2015. Performance.
Brown, Darren L. We Got the Power: Asian Americans and Hip-Hop Culture in the Bay Area, Michigan State U, 2012.
Cutler, C. (2007). The co-construction of whiteness in an MC battle. Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association, 17(1), 9-22.
Cutler, C. (2003). Yorkville crossing: White teens, hip hop and african american english. In R. Harris, & B. Rampton (Eds.), The language, ethnicity and race reader (pp. 314-327) Routledge.
Hendricks, Jacquelyn: A Battle of ‘Trechour Tung[s]’: Gaelic, Middle Scots, and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting, Fifteenth-Century Studies (37)  , p.71-96.
Park, J. (2016). Rap as Korean rhyme: Local enregisterment of the foreign. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 26(3), 278-293.
Rap in the Performance of History
Meghelli, Samir. “Remixing the Historical Record: Revolutions in Hip Hop Historiography.” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2013, pp. 94-102, ProQuest.
Silva, Andie, and Shereen Inayatulla. “Who Tells our Story: Intersectional Temporalities in Hamilton: An American Musical.” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, vol. 24, no. 2, 2017, pp. 190-201.
Rap in Literary Performance
Beidler, Peter G. “It’s Miller Time! Baba Brinkman’s Rap Adaptation of the Miller’s Tale.” LATCH: A Journal for the Study of the Literary Artifact in Theory, Culture, or History 3 (2010): 134-50. ProQuest. Web. 27 Mar. 2018.
Collier, R. (2016). Xavier naidoo and double consciousness: Introducing afro-german hip hop to the american literature classroom. CLA Journal, 60(2), 209-224.
Iain Macleod Higgins (2013) Tit for Tat: The Canterbury Tales and “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy”, Exemplaria, 16:1, 165-202.
Shusterman, Richard. “The Fine Art of Rap.” New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3, 1991, pp. 613–632. JSTOR.