I confess: during my first week interning at Tablet this summer, I had to ask about the origin of the phrase “Hello, Gorgeous” that was printed on the tote bags hanging at the front of the office.
I know; it’s shameful. But I can explain … sort of. I was born in 1995, and that makes me a member of the generation that first heard “Don’t Rain On My Parade” not from Barbra Streisand but from Rachel Berry in an episode of Glee. For some odd reason, Funny Girl, once a staple of Jewish popular culture, has stayed largely off my radar—and the same is true for my college-age Jewish peers. Last weekend, I decided that this had to change. I would not be uninformed any longer. I would watch Funny Girl.
Two and a half hours later, I began to understand the tremendous impact that watching Fanny Brice in action must have had on young Jewish women when the film came out. As her romance with suave gambler Nick Arnstein begins to blossom, Fanny tells him: “You don’t have to make leading lady dialogue for me; I’m a comic.” But Fanny, whether she believes it or not, is most definitely a leading lady. Even as Fanny insists to Nick that she isn’t the leading lady type, she is pictured in a most leading-lady-like position: wearing a beautiful dress, in an elegant private dining room with a charming suitor. The film affirms, over and over again, that a Jewish “comic” from the Lower East Side can inhabit the role of a leading lady—and more than that, she can do it with more charisma and sincerity than many of the more conventional leading ladies ever could. Jewish girls everywhere must have watched Streisand’s Fanny and thought, “That’s me.” Seeing a female Jewish character who might not fit the traditional model of the leading lady—“a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls,” as Fanny would call herself—achieving her dreams and assuming a central role in society must have filled viewers with pride and confidence.
But will girls my age still be able to see themselves in Fanny? Fanny’s life in the Jewish enclave of the Lower East Side is certainly less relatable today than it may have been when the film was new. Even at the film’s release in 1968, the time gap between the present moment and the New York of the 1910s depicted onscreen must have posed a barrier to the viewer’s ability to fully relate to Fanny’s experiences. Now the time gap has nearly doubled, and that barrier has grown along with it. My own experiences of Lower East Side Jewish culture are extensive in comparison to the rest of my peers, but even those consist merely of my mom’s stories about going to Katz’s Deli every Sunday night with my grandparents as a teenager, as well as a few of my own blurry childhood memories of waiting for potato pierogen at Ratner’s in the years before it closed in 2002. Yet many other aspects of Fanny’s life on Henry Street, like the communal admiration of Sadie, the woman who married a dentist, are still familiar in contemporary Jewish circles. All in all, the tight-knit community that shares in each other’s collective joy and sorrow is undoubtedly still relevant.
So then why isn’t this movie as well known to young Jewish women as it once was? It might be as simple as the unfortunate fact that many young people tend to shy away from movies that they consider outdated. A bit of the potency of the film might also be lost as the years go by and the phenomenon of discernibly Jewish female characters inhabiting central roles in popular culture becomes more common (case in point: Rachel Berry on Glee).
But that doesn’t seem like reason enough to write this movie off. While Streisand’s portrayal of the Jewish girl might not precisely mirror the modern-day image of female Jewish identity, the impact of the film extends far beyond that. Fanny’s uniqueness doesn’t just lie in her Jewish identity; she also defies most of the traits that girls might associate with “mainstream” beauty and fame, and in doing so, she serves as a reminder that these often-unattainable qualities are not requirements for success in life. Fanny is klutzy and bold. She can’t roller skate, and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks or to be who she is. And yet, she’s a star in every way. Fanny reminds us to embrace our inner bagel and not to waste our time trying to be like all the other onion rolls, and that’s a message that we could all use, no matter the generation.