The Transcendentl Queerness of “Yentl”

Tell me where –
Where is it written, what it is I’m meant to be?
That I can’t dare to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree?
Or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?

Shalom, ignorant sluts! It’s my personal pleasure to bring you today’s forgotten Hebraic slice of pop culture history, a seminal moment for gentiles and chosens alike.

DID JEW KNOW: 31 years ago today, Barbra Joan Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director. On top of that, Yentl (1983) made her the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film’s title role. That’s how Babs rolls.

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Why should you care? That’s a great question, you uncultured swine. On this great day, I want to put a humble spotlight on Yentl, which is one of my favorite movies ever and a huge step forward in feminist filmmaking. Sure, I’m a Barbra obsessive, as is my inalienable right as a walking Jewish cliché. But if you’re interested in queer sexual politics and revisionist history – and especially if you like to sing about them – you must not miss this film.

First of all, it took more than a decade to get Yentl off the ground. Coming off the success of Funny Girl in 1968, Barbra gained the rights to the source material, a short story. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” is about a young village girl circa 1900 who yearns to become a Talmudic scholar. Yentl loves to learn and disdains women’s work and societal inferiority; as a result, she leaves home, lives as a man, and even takes a wife – all in order to study freely.

For fifteen years – fifteen! – various studios, directors, and even Barbra’s boyfriend discouraged the project, saying that B was too old and the concept “too ethnic.” She managed to secure the directorial seat and creative control from Orion Pictures in the late ’70s, who promptly cancelled the movie due to financial downturn. But she fought. Finally, she took the reins in 1982, shooting the picture in Czechoslovakia for six months and then recording the soundtrack, and finally paying $1.5 million from her salary in order to preserve the budget.

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Yentl was an incredibly long labor of love for Barbra. This was probably because Barbra was Yentl. The hero/heroine of this story is a weird-looking, uncategorizable person with a miraculous gift – Barbra had her voice, and Yentl had her mind. Barbra had built a career on redefining beauty, sticking her proud schnozz through closed doors, and here was a story about doing just that – and a Jewish story to boot. In a way, Yentl is a bit of an autobiography, a reflexive critique on the cultural significance of that voice, that face.

But things get more interesting when one considers the gender/sex politics of the film – and the fact that a lot of B’s detractors argued that she was too feminine to play a trans man. And Yentl was a trans man. The character’s transformation into the male student “Anshel” was only superficially about a change of clothing and a haircut.

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Both in the story and in the film, Yentl declares that she was born into the wrong gender. Such a realization carries a different import in this historical context; in Yentl’s world, qualities like ambition, high intellect, and argumentativeness were strictly masculine. Thus it’s the newly invented Anshel who becomes the true embodiment of Yentl’s authentic self. Barbra was quite faithful to most aspects of the source material, and her film does not shy away from these themes – onscreen, Yentl falls in love with a (male) fellow student, but ends up having to marry her crush’s intended wife in order to keep him close.

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This starts out as a shitty and confusing time for Yentl (who thinks she’s a genderless being in love with a straight man), but it ends up as kind of a revelation. Yentl’s trans-ness is unique in that she adopts male signifiers as a means to an end, but in her performance of maleness, she makes surprising discoveries about her own fluidity. As Anshel, Yentl falls into romantic and sort-of sexual love with the beautiful Hadass, and in turn attempts to “un-gender” her wife. The lines of sexuality and gender that divide these characters become blurry, as they struggle to perform their identities and reconcile their desires.

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I think this is all especially fascinating when you consider the effect that Barbra had on this story, both as a writer and performer. At its bare bones, Yentl is a musical romance, which is one of the most heterosexual and hegemonical and frankly diabolical approaches to pop love. And Barbra is too feminine to pass as male. Her inner monologues are sung in her familiar soprano, and they sound like a woman’s heart as it breaks and soars. On paper, this could easily be a comedy that plays on traditional male-female politics. The thing that really makes Yentl so extraordinary is the gravitas with which all of this comes together. This film is mostly a tragedy. Most spectacularly, it’s a tragedy with a happy ending, and the happy ending is this: Yentl ends up alone.

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This is a great time to mention Mulan (1998), as is any time in the history of times. In many ways, it’s the lighter kids-table version of Yentl – Fa Mulan looks like a man, but remains a steadfast heterosexual woman. Her love interest, Shang, only develops romantic feelings for her after her boobies are revealed in that tent on the mountain. You remember. But in Yentl, Mandy Patinkin’s character is horrified by the homoerotic tension between him and his bro. His sexual crisis is palpable, and it’s part of the reason that he and Yentl don’t work out as a couple in the end. He doesn’t want an Anshel; he doesn’t even want a Mulan.

As a man, as a woman, as a human, the character of Yentl can barely be contained in the boxes available. This is one of those rare movies in which the protagonist searches for love and self-actualization for two hours, and by the time the credits roll, they’re not even halfway there. In fact, even The Kiss is unattainable: the moment hovers, a breath away, then falters.

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All of this to say – Yentl could only ever be made by a woman filmmaker.

There’s a specific taste to this film, a persistent tone of yearning and introspectiveness and bubbling frustration that I find distinctly relatable. Women tend to “get” gender, sex, and selfhood more intuitively, because they’re forced to think about it all the time. It’s tough to put your finger on what makes women tick, particularly creatively, but Yentl sheds a lot of insight into the modern female psyche. Said Babs:

Yentl represents what I believe about life. The Jewish tradition – that love of learning and growing. Yentl starts off in a little village. She takes a path, she crosses the ocean to America. These symbols, mostly unconscious when I shot them, of a growing world, outside and also within one’s self, the opening up of possibilities, of growth…I feel so inarticulate about it because I realize looking at the film now, how many things were subconscious, you know?

What I find so cool about this movie it’s that it’s very tropey (see: musical romance) as it completely mutates familiar tropes. It’s also my belief that only Barbra could have made this film as effectively as she did, because she herself is a mutated trope. All her wrongnesses are somehow right together.

These are protestors who believe "BARBRA WAS ROBBED" of a 1983 Oscar nom. Their cause is just.

These are protestors who believe “BARBRA WAS ROBBED” of a 1983 Oscar nom. They stand for truth and justice and they are great at alliteration.

Now, Yentl is by no means perfect, but it’s close. As a product of the 1980s, its progressiveness is pretty groundbreaking. Without getting sentimentl (that title pun keeps on giving!) I also think it really stands the test of time. So if you haven’t seen, go ahead and light a candle in the dead of night and fire up that laptop. The forever-classic “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” might help you motivate, so I’ll go ahead and throw it in here.

P.S. Barbra Joan Streisand has also had a #1 album in every single decade for the past six decades.

P.P.S. That is insane.

P.P.P.S. I am insane.

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