Is Yentl totally Mental?

3 Mar

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Georgina Maddox finally watches the 1980s film Yentl on a lazy Sunday afternoon and is left pondering

After seeing the Hollywood production of Yentl I was left with many questions. I slept over it and came up with what I think is a compelling tagline—Yentl tries to be a feminist film but it sacrifices queerness at the altar to make its point. I say this, at the risk of incurring the wrath of my queer feminist fellow beings, because feminists today are nothing but supportive of the queer movement, (here again I speculate that there is indeed a movement.) However, I say this quite firmly because it appears that Barbara Streisand made this film against all odds only because she wanted to make something of a feminist statement. Let’s face it, she funded it, produced it, directed it, acted and sang in it! Again I am guessing not just because she wanted to showcase all her talents, although that is possible, but more because there was no budget for a film that took four years to make. It is compelling that Streisand would bend over backwards to take a queer narrative and turn into a feminist statement that is quite mainstream.

I say this because the film is derived from the play by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” that is a completely queer story. In the original story Yentl who wants to study the Talmud takes on the identity of a Yeshiva boy after the death of her father, a respected Rabbi. To perpetuate his legacy she cuts her hair, dresses as a man, and sets out to find a Yeshiva in Bechev where she can debate law, religion and theology. For this she has to live secretly as a male named Anshel, because under Jewish law and belief, women are not allowed to read the Talmud or debate and discuss matters of any intellectual bent of mind. In the big reveal to her study partner Avigdor, Yentl says, “I am neither one sex nor the other. I have the soul of a man and the body of a woman.”  In fact in the original play, Yentl decides to remain as Anshel in his alternative identity for the rest of her/his life.

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When Streisand rewrote the play and produced the film in 1968 and then produced the film in 1984, she allows Yentl to reveal her true feelings for Avigdor, returns to her feminine garb and sails for the USA. Now my question is why did Streisand take a perfectly queer story and give it a mainstream ending?  The only answer that I could find, after much thought was that Streisand wanted to create a feminist critique of the male privilege over knowledge in Jewish society and she wanted Yentl to discover freedom as a woman and not as a ‘tokenistic’ man. Also perhaps she wanted the film to recover its cost and decided to mainstream it. The film in fact did well, though it was snubbed at the Oscars.

For me, Streisand also debunks the beauty myth to some extent, because the film talks about the feelings of a woman who is not conventionally good looking and to top that, is a totally literature geek. She wants to be equal in what is perceived as a man’s world and yet have the agency to love-lust and covet a man. That the film is specifically Jewish is no surprise since Streisand is Jewish and the critique clearly comes from deep within. However where the film sacrifices queerness is when Streisand agrees to take the gender play to the next level but she does not ‘put out’.

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In an unlikely twist, that is also not part of the original story, for the love of Avigdor,  Anchel agrees to inadvertently ‘marry’ Hadass, the distinctly feminine, highly domestic and conventionally gorgeous love interest of her man-crush. The film then enters a new world of gender play: A world where she not just a geek discussing the Talmud and getting slapped around by her male colleagues, but one where she is desired by her ‘wife’. Hadess subtle taking on the role of a power fem, but she clearly declares that she is no longer in love with Avigdor and in fact loves Anchel who is different and makes her feel, comfortable and peaceful. She quotes the Talmud when she says to Anchel, that a woman can say no to her man but she can also ask for sexual gratification. The two women end up sharing a kiss (which I think was edited off in the TV version) and while Streisand tries to share her obsession for the Talmud, Hadass is clearly more interested in getting deflowered and also having an army of children!

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Streisand makes these points and then goes on to destroy them. Avigdor in the end is quite condescending about his love for this woman-boy and is quite happy to go back to Hadass, the typical woman, who is willing to please her man. In the last scene we see the two back together. It also fails for me because in making a strong point about her own identity, Streisand totally takes away any onus or agency from her character Hadass where the latter falls easily in and out of love with the two ‘male’ protagonists. Anchel does not even bother to come out to Hadass but send her a note through Avigdor–another grand cop out! If only the bond between the two women, not necessarily sexual, was kept intact, and Anchel/Yentl respected Hadess as much as she ‘loved’ Avidor, then perhaps I as a viewer would not have felt cheated and it would be a truly feminist film.

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