They called her Bubbly Strident. She oozed a lack of decorum
WBOLD, BRASH AND BRAINY HAT IS it about Barbra Streisand that has made her such an icon? Not just for Jews but for others, too. Gays, nice Southern Baptist girls, and many others have all embraced her, seeing in her a role model.
There aren’t many other Jewish actors, actresses or singers who evoke such adoration. Only Barbra is known by her given name. Not even her co-star in Meet the Fockers (2004) is known as “Dustin”.
If we Jews like to tell ourselves “we are like everybody else, only more so,” then we need look no further than Barbra for a guiding star. She was louder, bolder, brasher, and Jewier at a time when many Jews avoided being so excessive. The satirical (and Jewish) comic, Mad magazine, nailed it when they dubbed her “Bubbly Strident”.
She embraced her famously Semitic looks. She refused to have a nose job, to become more “gentile”. She oozed a lack of decorum. She confessed she never understood the boundary between proper conduct and what she desired to do.
She was untrained as a singer. She sang as only she knew how, in strong, melodic, Yiddish-inflected She was called bossy, bitchy, loud and cheap. Brooklynese. She refused to change her style. And she was called bossy, bitchy, controlling, tyrannical, egomaniacal, loud, cheap, and monstrous. She batted off the insults.
Her lack of shame over being Jewish, her flagrant display of her Jewishness, and her womanhood were empowering. And she is more than that. She has brains, too.
She never gave up on her belief that she would be a star despite the many disparaging remarks. It was these very idiosyncrasies and her refusal to change them that led people to adore her.
Her breakthrough film was Funny Girl in 1968. After decades of being in the figurative closet, during which Jews either changed their names or didn’t play Jews — think of Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas or Tony Curtis, she helped Jews to “come out”. She, along with other Jewish icons like Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman, helped to make them become sexy.
It is fitting to end on her own words here. The key turning point came when Barbra — who had refused to change her surname or her looks — confidently strode on screen, and asserted “Hello, Gorgeous!”
Professor of Film Studies, Bangor University