Love is the most common emotion one can experience; one loves their family, friends, significant other, or pet dog. But what if love is not equal for everyone? What if some are unfamiliar with the concept of being loved due to their appearance? The 1968 musical film, Funny Girl—directed by William Wyler and written by Isobel Lennart—illustrates the impact of beauty in romance through its protagonist Fanny Brice. As a girl who did not meet the typical beauty standards, Fanny was completely new to the experience of being loved. Consequently, she was vulnerable to the romantic appeals of a man named Arnstein and ended up prioritizing her love for him more than her long-held professional dream.
The production instantly establishes Fanny as a girl with bland looks; in the opening production number “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” her mother and her friends comment about Fanny not being pretty enough to become one of the Ziegfeld girls. The film further emphasizes her lack of beauty by including the musical number “I’m the Greatest Star,” in which Fanny repeatedly clings to the manager for a chance to stand on stage, despite his judgment that she does not have presentable visuals. Though Fanny coincidentally earns an opportunity to perform, it is only a minor role of a roller skater. She only manages to remain on stage by becoming a comical character, embarrassing herself by making mistakes or being a pregnant Ziegfeld girl.
The film’s characterization of Fanny as a “not-so-pretty” girl makes audiences assume that she has never had the experience of being loved by someone. Fanny not only desires love in a romantic sense but also desires the love of an audience; even after embarrassing herself onstage, she reacts quite delightedly when she receives applause. To a “normal” girl like Fanny, having people be interested in you is a brand new feeling.
Audiences notice Fanny’s unfamiliarity with receiving affection even more when Arnstein appears. He straightforwardly expresses his interest in Fanny, which mesmerizes her enough to cause a drastic shift in her focus in life; even though Fanny is on the road to being a successful star after miraculously joining Ziegfeld’s Follies cast, she ditches her lifelong dream to marry Arnstein.
Specifically in the production number, “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” the screenwriter emphasizes the dramatic effect Arnstein’s love has on Fanny. The lyrics depict Fanny’s determination to sacrifice her dream to stay with Arnstein. In fact, Fanny suddenly sings as if her life-long dream was to be in love with a man all along; she declares, “I’m gonna live and live now! / Get what I want, I know how!” as she rides the train that takes her to Arnstein.
The lines “Get ready for my love, ’cause I’m a ‘comer’ / I simply gotta march, my heart’s a drummer” also demonstrate Fanny’s blind curiosity for a romantic relationship. Without any prior experience, Fanny merely admires the fact that a man has an interest in her. To Fanny, this opportunity is just too precious to overlook.
On her way to meet Arnstein, the woodwind instruments under Fanny’s vocals play sequences of staccatos that climb up the scale, building an exciting tension for what Fanny will find at the end of her journey—Arnstein. This further highlights how vulnerable she is to his love.
During the number, Fanny wears the most conspicuous orange dress with an extravagant fur hat that implies her high socioeconomic status achieved by being a Ziegfeld girl. Despite possessing the power and freedom from financial abundance, she ignorantly chooses an impermanent relationship with a man over the stage she desired to stand on since she was young. The costume that emphasizes her capabilities represents the splendid aspects that Fanny potentially gives up for this relationship.
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The lyricist also displays Fanny’s decision as a bold action against the common standards of women, as she sings “Don’t tell me not to live, just sit and putter” and “Who told you you’re allowed to rain on my parade?” The actress exaggerates her pronunciation, as if she is yelling at the people who are thwarting her from quitting her job, which adds to the sense of breaking free and behaving strong. However, women traditionally have given up their place in the workforce and devoted their lives to supporting their husbands and family. From this ironic depiction, we can observe how the writers of this song—Jule Styne and Bob Merrill—purposefully characterized this decision to feel like a bold and romantic move for Fanny, as if it was not common to give up everything for love.
The lyricist further implies that Fanny has transformed, believing that love is the greatest goal that she can achieve: “I gotta fly once, I gotta try once.” This number enforces the standard belief that a woman needs to give everything to her romantic relationship in case someone might try to steal her man, revealing her desperation to keep Arnstein’s love, to the point where she believes she is making the right decision for herself.
This indirect “privilege” still prevails. I could also find myself in Fanny’s shoes, as I do not 100% match the current beauty standards set for women. Before being aware of the privileges one holds by being pretty, I strongly believed that it was only right for me to date someone who I truly liked. If I stepped into a relationship without sincerity, I would only hurt the other person by undermining their emotions. So I waited until the day I would magically find someone who liked me and who I also liked back. It was not easy to find someone who was willing to have a mutual relationship with me without meeting set beauty standards. Gradually, I doubted my initial belief, waiting for an opportunity to be in any romantic relationship, disregarding how I truly felt about the person. Without the privilege to choose who I love, I might instantly say “yes” to receiving any love. Therefore, I understand Fanny’s primitive tendency to prioritize Arnstein’s love over her own ambition in work.
Under Funny Girl‘s humorous lines and story about a talented yet ordinary girl achieving both her dream and love lies a premise that beauty standards cause subtle inequalities by giving more opportunities to certain people who meet the expectations. By portraying Fanny as a victim of this inequality, the musical alerts the audience that beautyism should not impede anyone from loving or being loved.