How I Got Radicalized

‘Funny Girl’ Made Me Rethink What It Means to Be a Leading Lady

I never thought I could be the star. Barbra and Fanny showed me the way.

Photo illustration; source: ullstein bild/Getty Images

Welcome to “How I Got Radicalized,” a series from GEN that tells the story of a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

There is something both horrifying and awe-inducing about the chorus girl. As a young girl, I was enraptured by this sort of pageantry, from the serene statues of the Ziegfeld Follies to the army of women in Busby Berkeley musicals. I loved the way the chorus girls, like rows of soldiers, swiveled and kicked in unison. I admired their commitment to bold lips, lashes, and pearls. They were glamorous and cool, with long legs and finger-curled hair — and yet somehow they were unbearable to watch, no better than pattern makers, metal casts of the same MGM Studios-manufactured woman.

Back then, musicals were my primary means for interpreting the world, and the women I saw in musicals were prim, controlled, and entirely unoriginal. They were sweet and unassuming, with singing voices that blended together to make just the slightest hum despite belonging to a chorus of hundreds. They seemed like the ideal woman. And for some reason I couldn’t fully grasp, I knew I’d never be anything like them.

It was against this backdrop that I first saw Funny Girl, Barbra Streisand’s 1968 resurrection of the off-kilter, turn-of-the-century comedienne and Ziegfeld Follies star Fanny Brice. As a theater-bewitched high school student, I’d already inhaled a serious number of movie musicals, but Streisand’s interpretation of Brice in Funny Girl captivated me more than anything I’d ever seen.

I spent a good part of my adolescence obsessively studying women in musicals. By soundtrack alone, I could decode their intentions, quirks, and shortcomings. Whether dutiful and coy, or crass and recusant, I eventually saw many of them for what they were: one-dimensional (Laurey from Oklahoma!), objectified (Christine from Phantom of the Opera), or manipulated (Eliza from My Fair Lady).

I tried to live like these women — who fulfilled their desires by being docile and good — but it didn’t work. Even though I was deeply prudish, a model representative of my very conservative Catholic suburb, I was in no way demure. I was odd and unruly and looked nothing like a bathing beauty.

As a theater kid, I felt the blows of not being leading lady material early. At 12, I auditioned for the role of Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and was promptly cast as the ghost of a dead mother instead. In high school, I tried desperately to secure the lead in Meet Me in St. Louis, the story of the blubbery ingénue Esther Smith, portrayed by Judy Garland in the film.

As auditions unfolded, I realized my friends had all whittled themselves down into shadows of Judy Garland. One friend had even dyed and styled her hair to match Garland’s in the film; she got the part, and I was cast as the understudy for a la-dee-da love interest for Esther’s brother. (I’d eventually learn that secondary parts were often more fun — with more chances to play with quirks and exude confidence.)

When I began to study Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, I saw that there was room for strange and unruly women in musicals — and perhaps room for strange women in the world. These were women who were obstinate, who refused to do as they were told, who made their own rules and chased their own desires. They were women who made their own plots, rather than being driven by them. On-screen and even behind the scenes as a creative objector, Streisand was that woman.

The real Fanny Brice transgressed the vaudevillian metrics of female worthiness to make way for women whose shticks were something other than simply radiating beauty. Like Fanny, Barbra Streisand, as a first-time actress, had contravened every rule of women in show business. She intervened in the script, slashing lines and editing scenes — she wanted more. In a Chicago Sun-Times review of Funny Girl, Roger Ebert wrote, “Unfortunately, one gathers Miss Streisand is a rather set-minded lady as well as a star. She wants her way on the set, they say; and Miss Streisand has been heard to claim William Wyler didn’t direct her. She directed herself.”

Whether or not these rumored claims were true, it’s clear that Streisand’s embodiment of Brice was entirely self-directing. In the film, her depiction of Brice does not back down from the comedienne’s strangeness, but rather leans into it entirely, working the plot of her own life like putty in her hand.

Until Funny Girl, I’d only really seen musicals starring women who were demure, beautiful, or disappointed by their lack of beauty or demureness. (Éponine in Les Miserables, Elphaba in Wicked, even Carole King briefly in Beautiful). I’d also seen mid-century musicals that quietly, and cleverly, mocked this trope. Take the “Beautiful Girl” number from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), in which a crooning dandy praises a variety of women in stylish outfits, from modest beachwear to long, glittery sleeves. The women stand like mannequins in a store window, lampooning the monotony of female display. Similarly mocking were the indictment of feminine conventions forged in hits like “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” from Bye Bye Birdie (1960), or “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from Flower Drum Song (1958).

And yet there’s really nothing about a man-eating, mohair-clad, teenage Ann-Margret singing “How Lovely to Be a Woman” that would inspire any confidence in a woman like Fanny Brice. The child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, Brice, born Fania Borach, grew up in a working-class neighborhood on New York’s Lower East Side. A chronic truant, Brice ended her formal education after grade school in pursuit of a career in show business. For her first role, she performed Irving Berlin’s “Sadie Salome (Go Home)” with a put-on Yiddish accent, despite not speaking a word of Yiddish. The accent, along with her large nose and wide mouth, would become a Brice signature. Funny Girl most closely portrays Brice’s years as a performer in the Ziegfeld Follies, which only served to exaggerate her differences. Here, in a medium where she was meant to be another “long-stemmed American beauty,” she thrived as a comic.

In one early scene, Streisand as Brice refuses to appear in a Follies finale, unsuccessfully pleading with Mr. Ziegfeld that she can’t sing lines like “I am the beautiful reflection of my love’s affection,” claiming that if she did she’d be a laughingstock. When the curtains come up on what we presume to be the finale, doll-faced women performing everyday vanities, such as bathing or brushing their hair, begin to appear one by one. They are clad in tulle and decadent headdresses — brides for all seasons, epitomizing beauty through bustiness, bright eyes, and synchronicity.

Midway through the number, Brice appears wearing a white dress amid a parting sea of damsels in pink. As she begins to sing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” Streisand presents her side profile with a swoon of her arms — she’s an extremely pregnant bride — cackling her way through the song, moaning, as if in the throes of labor contractions.

As a product of sober sex education, the entire display was beautifully irreverent to me. The female body, which had only been conveyed to me as a vessel for danger and distraction, became a fully saddled comedic prop in Brice’s hands. To my mind, a woman’s body was to be zipped up and kept sacred — especially from sex. But when Streisand’s faux pregnant belly appeared on my home TV screen, I realized sex was the joke just as much as the body itself was the joke. The insinuation of the phrase “his love makes me beautiful,” sung sarcastically by a pregnant bride, is enough to make a brainwashed adolescent in Catholic school question the sacredness of, well, everything.

While the real Fanny Brice likely would have never been permitted to perform in the Follies again if she’d pulled such a stunt, she did pull similar antics. In a video from 1934, Brice can be spotted cutting into a lineup of candidates for Ziegfeld’s most beautiful girl competition. She displays her profile, bares her teeth, pouts her lips, and finally, enters an appraisal of legs with a false leg, which she promptly hands off to an admiring judge.

Streisand’s Fanny Brice harnesses the power of the funny woman, turning the bawdiness of a pregnant bride into camp. As a self-conscious teen, Funny Girl made me realize that women in musicals — and women in the wider world — do not have to subscribe to the standards of bodies as either open or closed, but could keep their bodies somewhere in between, somewhere where they can control them. Streisand’s Brice calls into question the unacceptability of the pregnant body against the acceptability of a barely dressed, automatized woman. She cuts through the mundane spectacle of the chorus girl army.

As Ebert wrote in his review, “She doesn’t actually sing a song at all; she acts it. She does things with her hands and face that are simply individual; that’s the only way to describe them. They haven’t been done before.” While Ebert is describing Streisand’s acting, I can’t help but attach his comments to Fanny Brice herself — the sort of woman who had never been at the center of a musical before.

The year I first watched Funny Girl was the same year my high school retained the rights to perform High School Musical, the 2006 Disney Channel rom-com. It is a banal tale of theatrical misfits who also happen to be impossibly hot. There is absolutely nothing about the film that is empowering, least of all the lead female character, who only begins to come to life — and barely even then — with the help of her male counterpart.

Those of us who auditioned for the female lead knew we had to play up her meekness. The more subdued we were, the more likely we were to score a solo. This was how it went every year whenever musical auditions came around. From 2005 to 2009 — nearly 100 years after the inception of the Ziegfeld Follies — every musical lead I auditioned for was a chorus girl without the chorus. She was pure, or sexy, or both; characterized by her jewels, her hair, even her sleeves. She was the same woman, produced over and over via the same mold and given a slightly different characterizing trait: a trumpet-like voice, a heart of gold, or an unquenchable desire to go home.

But I couldn’t fake a meek leading lady, not even if I tried. My voice was brash and strange; my onstage spirit animal was more like a snapping shrimp than a baby fawn. And while it would take me much longer to discover that very few women actually belong in the chorus, Barbra Streisand, with her nose proudly upturned and stomach ballooning, made 15-year-old me feel like women could be more than Puritan vessels or sex symbols — that we didn’t all have to look, act, or speak the same.

As I attempted just about everything to hide my body and myself, Streisand’s Brice showed me that it was okay to be a bagel on a plate full of onion rolls, and that if in fact you are a bagel, you should be the loudest bagel in the room.

Writing about wine, cultural history, books, and more. Words in GEN, Slate, Eater, LitHub and more. I am extremely freckled.

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