By Jillian Fuller
Set just after World War I, Funny Girl is a story of a woman trying to make it in show business in New York. Throughout the play, we follow Fanny Brice as she reminisces on her journey to mega-stardom, we watch her failures, her triumphs, and her relationships as she prepares for her next performance. While Funny Girl follows the story of a Jewish woman, the story of Fanny Brice and her relationship with Nick Arnstein not only reflects negative stereotypes of Jewish people, but also showcases the power Fanny Brice possesses within herself by not limiting her to the typical beauty standards and the male gaze. However, her success still comes at a price and Fanny is forced like many women to choose between love and her professional life.
When we are first introduced to Fanny Brice she is already a star. She is preparing for a performance with Ziegfeld’s Follies when she begins to recall her journey to fame. We are then transported to her teenage years when she has a job working in vaudeville. Fanny believes this is her big break, but her mother, Mrs. Brice and her friends try to convince Fanny to be more realistic about her showbiz dreams. They tell her that when she was younger and able to make people laugh simply with a funny face it was okay, but now because she is older and people are paying to see someone (especially men) then she has to be pretty and they believe Fanny is just average. There is an emphasis on the importance of the male gaze. In the 1920s, women are expected to be essentially one dimensional. “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty” basically showcases the importance of the male gaze in regards to show business and the amount of success women can achieve outside of the home. The actors on stage ask Fanny to, “[k]indly name a star who hasn’t won a contest or a pageant” (Merril, 1964). Her family, friends, and boss believe that no matter how much talent Brice may possess, it’s not enough to gain her the notoriety she dreams of.
Thankfully, Fanny is not discouraged. Merely, frustrated when she is initially let go from the vaudeville act that she is rehearsing for. At the end of rehearsal, Fanny proclaims that “beautiful girls won’t stay in style forever”. Fanny is confident that she possesses more talent than the beautiful girls that continuously beat her out for jobs. As she expresses her frustration with not being appreciated for her abilities. Fanny laments that she is like “a bagel on a plate of onion rolls”. Initially, you’re turned off by the presence of something different, but if you were to give the bagel (or in this instance – Fanny) a chance, you’d realize you actually like it. Fanny is constantly pushing the boundaries which is unheard for a play set in the 1920s and was initially released in 1964.
Fanny is a Jewish woman from Henry Street. There are many stereotypes surrounding race and gender throughout the play and Fanny herself seems to be a juxtaposition to common Jewish stereotypes like the ‘Jewish American Princess’ or ‘belle juive’ as she is not revered for her beauty or wealth but still maintains confidence in her abilities. For example, the Ziegeld girls are known for their elegance and beauty. Fanny is not someone known for her elegance and beauty, yet, Ziegfeld hires her.
In her performance with the Follies, Fanny cleverly flips the script on what is supposed to be a romantic number. Whilst performing “His Love Makes Me Beautiful”, Brice pretends to be a pregnant bride rather than a vision of typical beauty that the audience is expecting. Here we witness her quick thinking and undeniable talent. Brice doesn’t play into the male gaze — something that is often expected of women, especially in the performing arts. Fanny’s decision to adjust the performance in this way is a snap decision and just another way those around her and audience members can see the star quality she mentioned previously. It’s clear that Fanny has a desire to be acknowledged for her vast amount of talent rather than superficial things like the way she looks compared to other women on stage. So much so, she changes a number set by the famed Florenz Ziegfeld.
While Fanny seems to defy stereotypes based on her gender and race, her husband, Nick Arnstein seems to reinforce them dramatically. When we meet Nick Arnstein he is presented as a dapper young man of wealth. Darius Campbell (as Arnstein) carries himself with a confidence and superiority of someone born into money – not merely chasing it. However, we soon see that Arnstein is money hungry and willing to do whatever it takes (legally and illegally) to make a quick buck. Though he seems to not understand much about his Jewish roots in practice, he, unfortunately, falls victim to embodying the negative stereotype of the greedy Jewish man. This greed is what ultimately lands him and prison and subsequently ends his relationship with Fanny.
Arnstein is also a product of a white patriarchal society in which he feels he is the one with all the power. Any time he fails in a business venture, Fanny tries to make light of the situation in an effort not to discourage him. However, it is her refusal to take these failures seriously that frustrates Nick. He feels as though he is being treated like a child and somehow failing in his ability to provide and be a breadwinner as a man. This belief makes Nick too sure of himself and self-aggrandizing. One of his final deals before prison has him telling a man he is equal to a $68,000 advance – risk or no risk. The ability to place a monetary value on himself as a partner even after so many failed ventures is astounding and a product of the patriarchal society he lives in.
The relationship between Fanny and Nick seems doomed from the start even though Fanny is determined to make it work. As Fanny gains critical acclaim and notoriety, business venture after business venture fail for Nick and he ultimately ends up in prison. Fanny is so enamored by Nick Arnstein and this life of grandeur that he falsely represents that she allows herself to continuously be convinced to bank roll his various get rich quick schemes.
In the beginning of their relationship, Nick is flaky. When he returns after almost a year Fanny is rightfully upset and maintains her pride in order to protect herself and not fall all over him as she would have in the past. They come to a truce and Fanny decides to have dinner with him. When Nick orders for them she feels out of her league due to his use of French, she quickly asks, how will she even know if he’s making advances if she can’t tell when he orders them roast beef and potatoes for dinner. To which Nick simply replies, “I’ll be much more direct” and proceeds to sing the extremely sexist song “You Are Woman I Am Man” wherein he spends two minutes reinforcing stereotypes of men and women being the complete opposite of one another. Nick states that she’ll be smaller and softer than him so that he can be taller and stronger. However, these simple differences and ideas of masculinity and femininity are the very things that Fanny continuously works against as a comedienne and dancer.
It’s disappointing that as strong of a woman as she is, Fanny allows her to be swept away by the image and words that Nick Arnstein presents to the world when he can’t even bother to support her at major moments in her career due to fear or “business” ventures. Fanny continues to give him pass after pass and handout after handout. Is it because he is the first man that she was interested in to return her romantic intentions? If this is the case – which it seems to be, this unfortunately detracts from the self confident woman that she presents herself as in the beginning. However, it’s possible that this self confidence Fanny possesses is merely in her talent and does not, unfortunately, translate into her belief that she is desirable. As much as Fanny fights against the male gaze in her performances, it seems that Nick Arnstein has the ability to force her to perform for the male gaze,as he continues to pursue dicey ventures.
In the end, Nick is released from prison and Fanny and Arnstein make the mutual decision to split. Once again, Fanny makes a decision that many women in that time may not have made. However, she doesn’t necessarily come to this conclusion all on her own. Her mother once again enters the picture to put things into perspective for Fanny. For most of the show while she has been chasing and achieving her dream of show business fame, she has been seeing Nick and his business practices through rose colored glasses. When Nick is finally caught, Mrs. Brice tells Fanny that her “handouts” were choking Nick and making him embarrassed. Funny Girl is a world renown musical and somehow still manages to villainize the concept of a strong woman. In the beginning, Fanny sees no success because although she’s funny and talented she doesn’t have “the look”. When it’s clear that she doesn’t need “the look” to be successful for show producers she achieves massive success, but somehow this success is consistently undermined by the fact that her husband refuses her assistance and refuses to come by his money honestly. With all this success – Fanny has still failed by embarrassing her husband. Thankfully, Fanny decides to cut ties with Arnstein and move forward with her professional career. Despite the harsh realities of her relationship with her ex-husband. Though there are aspects of her behavior that are questionable, Fanny still remains a unique and strong female character. No thanks to the men in her life.