by Natalie Wright
For the first 19.5 years of my life, I existed in a state blissfully unaware of the plot of the 1968’s hit film Funny Girl. In this time (excluding, I suppose, the first few years), I held on to the childlike belief that the story was one of an unlikely star making her way in a male-dominated industry. This year that innocent dream shattered.
The music is still incredible– “Don’t Rain on my Parade” remains one of the Best Songs of All Time. Barbra Streisand’s performance as Fanny Brice is just as amazing as people say. Her Oscar was well deserved. What was not deserved, however, was the film taking up two hours and thirty minutes of my life, not exploring Fanny Brice’s glass-ceiling-breaking career, but instead detailing the ins and outs of her relationship with a lackluster man. Apparently, Ray Stark, the producer and the real life Fanny Brice’s son-in-law, thought this an appropriate representation of a woman’s life.
Never is this horrific story choice more obvious than the cringe-inducing song, “You Are Woman, I Am Man.” The film paints the song as terribly romantic but in actuality enforces a strict gender binary and blurs lines of consent. Take a watch if you can stomach it. (Frankly, I’ve seen enough.)
Let’s take a look at the first section of the song, sung by Omar Sharif’s Nicky Arnstein:
You are woman, I am man.
You are smaller, so I can be taller than.
You are softer to the touch.
It’s a feeling I like feeling very much.
You are someone
Still our friendship leaves something to be desired.
Doesn’t take more explanation than this.
You are woman, I am man.
[Insert retching sounds here.] In a few sentences, Nicky Arnstein defines what it means to be a woman AND what it means to be a man. There’s no room for nonbinary folk in Mr. Arnstein’s eyes, or perhaps more accurately, in lyricist Bob Merrill’s eyes.
As he sees it: woman = smaller, softer; man = taller, rougher (by process of elimination). More than this, he defines being a woman as not being a man. He does not say “You are smaller, and I am taller than.” He says “You are smaller, so I can be taller than.” Women are thus defined by their relation to men, existing only so men can exist in contrast. Thus femininity is an identity of not being: not being tall, not being rough, and more than anything not being a man.
However, this is not the only arbitrary rule Merrill applies to men and women. And I do not use the word ‘arbitrary’ lightly. If one defines gender by height and “softness,” my sandpaper elbows and above-average build have me looking a lot like ol’ Nicky Arnstein.
No, the most crucial definition of gender that Arnstein introduces in this song is that women inherently desire men and men inherently desire women. Every woman and every man. The sheer simplicity of “You are woman, I am man. / Let’s kiss” erases the necessity of consent. If one defines femininity as an unfiltered attraction to men, then the consent of any woman, or any person a man deems feminine, is a given.
This is absolutely insane.
The song’s oversimplification perpetuates the myth that sexual attraction, specifically heterosexual attraction, is a fundamental truth of humanity. By Arnstein’s definition, a lesbian is not a woman, and a gay man is not a man. An asexual person, like myself, is none of the above. I am not less of a woman because I don’t want to have sex. Period. End of story.
But perhaps I’m overthinking what is contextually a moment between two romantic partners, not a statement on society’s gender norms. Or perhaps I’m thinking just the right amount. After all, director William Wyler must’ve known the cultural impact he was making; he’d already seen his power over defining society’s perception of gender in the reception of Audrey Hepburn’s debut film Roman Holiday (1953). Regardless, if a man said any of this nonsense to me, he’d notice pretty quickly that “softer” hands punch just as hard.
Now, this isn’t to say that Omar Sharif isn’t terribly charming and handsome in his performance. He is. In fact, his charm works so well that Streisand’s Fanny goes from being visibly unsure to head over heels in love.
This initial discomfort is not just textual– repeatedly Arnstein puts Fanny into positions in which she is clearly physically uncomfortable.
In one moment, Arnstein has Brice, for lack of a better word, trapped between him and the fireplace. He goes in for a kiss, from which she shrinks away. Three minutes later she’s melting into him after only some wishy-washy internal monologue and some kisses on the neck.
There are no discussions of boundaries or consent, and none are apparently needed as the story establishes this moment as a peak in their relationship, the beginning of their ensuing honeymoon period.
I know I’ve joked about this song making me feel sick, but really, it just makes me sad. Isobel Lennart, a woman, wrote the screenplay; she also wrote the book for the stage musical. She saw it fit to portray romance in this way.
This film tells all the girls, who watch this movie to belt along with “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” that a man not respecting a woman’s boundaries is a good thing. It simultaneously tells young men not to take no for an answer, that a partner’s discomfort will subside if you push hard enough. This is not only infuriating, but it is actively harmful.
I could go on and on about the sexism ingrained into Funny Girl– the demonization of women with prominent careers and financial independence springs to mind–but what really bugs me about this song, in particular, is its simplicity.
That’s the point of the song– to oversimplify, to talk about a complicated thing like love in its most basic terms. In doing so, this song defines love as something that it doesn’t have to be. This version of love is unrelenting, male-oriented, and limited only to a specific subset of people (read: straight people). Arnstein and Brice’s relationship inevitably fails, but a plot-line of a doomed romance only works if the love was once there.
If this is love, I don’t want it.