Whoosh! Issue 34 - July 1999


Spiritual Ancestors to Xena:
Yentl and Binary Gender Issues




The Discourse of the Film

[29] The film begins with a pictorial exploration of socially constructed binary opposites. We see male students discussing Talmud and the women discussing the price of cabbage, gossiping, bathing children, and learning how to select a good fish for frying. The pictorial evidence of division is supported by dialogue as well. A bookseller comes to town, and when Yentl attempts to purchase a sacred and apparently subversive book, he refuses to sell, and the following conversation ensues:

Bookseller: You're in the wrong place miss. Books for women are over here.
Yentl: I'd like to buy this one.
BS: Sacred books are for men.
Y: Why?
BS: Because it's the law, that's why.
Y: Where is it written?
BS: Never mind where. It's the law.
Y: Well, if it's the law it must be written somewhere. Maybe in here. I'll take it [Note 29].

[30] The bookseller tries to convince her to buy a nice "girlish" picture book, but Yentl eventually tells him the book is for her father, and he relents and lets her purchase it.

[31] Another instance later in the opening demonstrates the socially accepted polarization of the genders. Yentl is in the kitchen reading, making a mess of supper, and half-listening to her father tutor a young pupil. When the student has trouble finishing a premise, Yentl loudly finishes it for him. The boy responds, "Yentl knows Talmud? My father says that a woman who studies Talmud is a demon" [Note 30]. Obviously, Yentl is not a "demon", and the phrase strikes our twentieth century ears as funny. Streisand has already begun to break down the mythology. Yentl overhears the boy's statement, and discusses the situation with her father (played by Nehemiah Persoff) over a burned dinner, "I envy [the students]. They're learning about life, the mysteries of the universe, and I'm learning how to tell a herring from a carp" [Note 31]. Yentl is perceiving and thus helping to create a binary world through her discourse. Yentl believes a woman's life is mere drudgery and completely devoid of intellect. She has also idealized the privileged life of a male student.

[32] Though we seem to have a genuine impervious case binary opposition here, Streisand, the director, gives us our first overt hint at deconstruction. After her father goes to bed, Yentl puts on her father's prayer shawl (a symbol of a religious and intellectual world reserved for men). At first we only see a shadow of Yentl through the shawl, but the camera eventually tracks around and allows us to see her face, her feminine clothing, and the shawl: a complete person somewhere between the societal constructs of masculinity and femininity. That carefully constructed cinematic image (which is akin to the play/short story's "I had a dream I was both a man and a woman" segment, but in the film, significantly, it is reality and not a dream) embodies this theme in its entirety.

[33] Yentl continues to set up false dichotomies. In the scene where she refuses to meet a potential suitor, she tells her papa that she does not want to "just bear children and darn my husband's socks" [Note 32]. When her father asks her if what she wants is a husband who will darn her socks, she says, "Sounds interesting". What Yentl does not realize is that she is doing those domestic chores she claims to hate so much for her father and not minding because she loves him. (In the short story, "Anshel" sews buttons on for Avigdor as well). The dichotomy, thus, breaks down here too.

[34] Her papa finally dies, and Yentl decides that her only option for self-fulfillment is to assume the clothes and identity of a man. She stands before a cracked mirror and cuts her hair, imploring her father's forgiveness. Of this scene, Streisand says,

I have two very different sides of my face. My left side is more feminine. My right side is more masculine. In the movie I had myself photographed from the right side... You know the scene where I look in the mirror and cut off my hair? I had a crack made in that mirror that would divide my face in half. Male and female [Note 33].

[35] Again, she uses cinematic tools, and indeed her own physicality, both to set up opposites she will later tear down and to demonstrate a sense of extant, but undiscovered wholeness.

[36] The next overt instance of deconstruction occurs when she finds out that being a man is not necessarily a totally privileged position. Even as a man, she is duped out of money on two occasions. Another deconstruction occurs in cinematic form. Yentl is accepted into a Yeshiva and assigned Avigdor, played by Broadway musical veteran Mandy Patinkin, as a study partner. Streisand went for a particularly androgynous look when casting the Yeshiva students:

Talmud students really do look quite feminine. They have light pale skin because they are never out in the sunshine, and they sit on their behinds all day... I cast boys with big lips and pretty eyes. I also used some girls as boys... I didn't want anybody to be 100 percent masculine or 100 percent feminine [Note 34].

[37] When Yentl meets Hadass, Avigdor's intended, played by Amy Irving (who won an Oscar nomination for her work), Yentl is derisive of Hadass and the domesticity Hadass represents. The lyrics to "No Wonder" demonstrate this clearly:

When she gets up her biggest decision
is figuring out what to wear
To pick the blouse, the skirt, and then
there's the problem of what should she do with her hair
And later as she stands and studies a chicken,
the question's to roast or to not roast.
Or better yet maybe a pot roast [Note 35].

[38] Ironically, Yentl, who is almost misogynistically cruel in her assessment of Hadass, is offended by the following conversation with Avigdor, which ensues as they leave Hadass's home where they have been dining:

Yentl: Is she [Hadass] always that nervous?
Avigdor: She's a girl, in love, what do you expect?
Y: She doesn't say much does she?
A: What does she have to say?
Y: Don't you ever wonder what she's thinking?
A: No. What could she be thinking? Anyway, I don't need her to think. I can do that with you [Note 36].

[39] Of course, the irony is that Yentl, unbeknownst to Avigdor, is a woman, one of those non-thinking, silly creatures he has just described. While Yentl is offended at the implication that a woman does not think, she does not grant that Hadass has the capacity for deep thought. Streisand, the director, therefore deconstructs another aspect of gender mythology for the audience, but Yentl, again, is blind to the fact that she is perpetuating the very thing she claims to abhor.

[40] Hadass begins to tear down Yentl's ideas about domestic women when her engagement to Avigdor is called off. She demonstrates that she is not only a perfect cook and hostess, skills Yentl has never mastered and, therefore, appreciates (another thing Singer leaves out of his story), but that she is also intelligent, calculating and aggressive enough in her pursuit of the disguised Yentl that Yentl becomes extremely uncomfortable.

[41] On the other side, Hadass is surprised by "Anshel's" observance and appreciation of the detail in the work she does. No other "man" has ever noticed before. Hadass is, therefore, beginning to see what a generous, sensitive relationship between life partners can be.

[42] Streisand was also devoted the idea of breaking down Singer's stereotype of women in general:

I also felt a responsibility to women. In the character of Hadass, for instance, I don't want to portray her just as she was in Singer's story. He had a tendency to be misogynistic. I added another element--her intelligence [Note 37].

[43] In one carefully constructed and beautifully acted moment, Hadass demonstrates this intellectual capacity. Yentl attempts to teach Hadass Talmud. Though she is concerned about her soup on the stove and her fraying hem, she has heard and absorbed everything "Anshel" has taught her, just as she always does. Hadass, unlike Yentl, is capable of doing many things at the same time.

[44] In the film's climactic moment, Hadass surprises Yentl with her intellect again by having looked up on her own a Talmudic passage about marital lovemaking. The Talmud gives a wife the right to demand, as well as refuse sexual relations with her husband. Yentl had only informed Hadass of the latter, and she never counted on the fact that Hadass would read on her own. Yentl realizes in that moment, that there is nothing "mere" about this woman. In the lyrics of "No Matter What Happens," Yentl sings, "What she's taught me isn't written anywhere. And I'm supposed to be the one who's wise" [Note 38].

[45] Yentl also realizes it is time to stop living a lie; that in dressing up, she has only done a pendulum swing to the "masculine" side of the continuum of social constructs, a place she finds just as foreign as she found the "feminine" side. She belongs somewhere in the middle, as do most people.

[46] She reveals the truth to Avigdor and refuses his well-intended but condescending offer of domestic servitude as his wife. Yentl tells him to go back to Hadass, knowing he truly loves Hadass. Then, unlike the play, Yentl gives up her male garb, but not her dreams, hopes or ideals. She sets sail for America, a place where she hopes it will be possible for a woman to be a woman and scholar as well. In the closing moments, Yentl realizes what Streisand showed us near the beginning, a complete person is a compilation of many qualities and that "masculine" and "feminine" are merely cultural constructs. As Judith Butler described it,

The presumption of a binary gender system implicitly retains the belief in a mimetic relation of gender to sex whereby gender mirrors sex or is otherwise restricted by it. When the constructed status of gender is theorized as radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice... [Note 39].

[47] Streisand informs us that Yentl's prospects for happiness and fulfillment in the new place are genuine because a young female child on the boat with Yentl is reading from a sacred text. Yentl is not the only one who longs to fulfill the full measure of her capacity. The next generation shows great promise as far as overcoming binary, socially constructed gender roles.


Conclusion

[48] In cinematic form, Yentl is the moving story of pursuit and achievement in the face of opposition. It speaks well of the possibilities of women both in the sense of fiction and the fact that a woman was so instrumental in bringing it to the screen. At a deeper level, however, the message is more profound, and it somewhat contradicts the moral of the short story and the play. In the film, black or white are not the only two choices.

[49] "Who knows what's natural?" Yentl says to Avigdor in the film, but she answers her own question. In a conversation with Avigdor, Yentl argues that the Hebrew word for rib did not mean rib, it meant side. Therefore, Adam and Eve, and men and women in general, are the same: "What I mean is they share masculine and feminine qualities, because they come from the same source" [Note 40].

[50] The character has the answer to her own question midway through the film, but it takes her until the end to realize it. Everyone, male and female, is a complex combination of many traits and characteristics. That is natural. What is unnatural is the cultural tendency to arbitrarily identify gender traits, assign responsibilities based on sex, declare that the assignments are "divine", and then emphatically enforce these gender roles and traits. Streisand is both overt and covert in this assertion as she deftly sets up apparent binary opposites and then, gently but firmly deconstructs gender role mythology.


Notes

Note 01:
Here is a brief summary of the short story. The primary events and characters have been transferred to both the film and the play with some minor, but significant differences. In terms of overview, however, this summary will serve to introduce all three works.

"Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy" is the story of a young woman who longs for religious study in a time when the world of scholarship is reserved for men. Because he has no son, Yentl's father teaches her secretly, and when her father dies, Yentl disguises herself as a boy, takes on the masculine name "Anshel", and goes to a yeshiva to study. (It is significant to note that the world of the short story begins after the death of Yentl's father, while the film and the play both chose to make him an integral character.)

While at the yeshiva, Yentl falls in love with her male study partner, Avigdor. His heart belongs to the beautiful local girl, Hadass. Hadass and Avigdor were engaged, but the marriage was called off due to Avigdor's brother's suicide. Avigdor suggests that Hadass would be a good wife for "Anshel". Yentl sees Hadass as a means of keeping Avigdor close to her, and she is also gleefully delighted by the prospect of deceiving the entire community.

Yentl marries Hadass and, to her dismay, discovers that she is having genuine 'feelings' for her new wife. Yentl realizes that the marriage is not fair to Avigdor, Hadass, or herself. She breaks off the marriage, reveals the truth to Avigdor, and leaves broken and lonely, still attired in masculine garb. Hadass and Avigdor marry and the short story ends with them having had a son, whom they name "Anshel".
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Note 02:
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity. Page 6.
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Note 03:
Singer, Issac Bashevis. "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy." New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983. Page 7.
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Note 04:
Singer, page 8.
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Note 05:
Ibid., page 22.
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Note 06:
Scholar Edward Alexander, however, argues that Singer is sympathetic to his character's desire to be a better, more learned Jew, not her desire to alter the "natural" order of gender roles. Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study Of The Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990, page 63.
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Note 07:
Singer, page 15.
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Note 08:
Ibid., page 8.
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Note 09:
Ibid., page 9.
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Note 10:
Harris, Judith. "Wherever in the language of Jewish women a garden grows." Tikkun January 1995: 60-62+. Page 61.
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Note 11:
Singer, Issac Bashevis, and Napolin, Leah. Yentl. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1977. Page 7.
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Note 12:
Ibid., page 9.
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Note 13:
Ibid., page 13.
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Note 14:
Ibid.
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Note 15:
Ibid., page 19.
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Note 16:
Ibid., page 34.
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Note 17:
Ibid., page 35.
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Note 18:
Ibid., page 39.
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Note 19:
Ibid., page 47.
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Note 20:
Ibid., page 41.
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Note 21:
Ibid., page 45.
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Note 22:
Cowles, David L., ed. The Critical Experience. Provo: Grandview Press, 1992, page 83.
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Note 23:
Reinelt, Janelle G., and Roach, Joseph R., eds. Critical Theory And Performance. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992, page 110.
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Note 24:
Cowles, page 84.
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Note 25:
Ibid., page 109.
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Note 26:
Fadiman, Anne. "Barbra." Life December 1983: 117-136, page 118.
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Note 27:
Ibid., page 118.
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Note 28:
Ibid.
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Note 29:
Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983)
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Note 30:
Ibid.
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Note 31:
Ibid.
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Note 32:
Ibid.
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Note 33:
Fadiman, pages 122-123.
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Note 34:
Ibid., page 120.
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Note 35:
Yentl
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Note 36:
Ibid.
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Note 37:
Acker, Ally. "Women Behind the Camera." MS. March 1992: 64-67, page 65.
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Note 38:
Yentl
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Note 39:
Acker, page 6.
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Note 40:
Yentl
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Works Cited

Acker, Ally. "Women Behind the Camera." Ms. March 1992: 64-67.

Alexander, Edward. Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Study Of The Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism And The Subversion Of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cowles, David L., ed. The Critical Experience. Provo: Grandview Press, 1992.

Fadiman, Anne. "Barbra." Life December 1983: 117-136.

Harris, Judith. "Wherever in the language of Jewish women a garden grows." Tikkun January 1995: 60-62+.

Reinelt, Janelle G., and Roach, Joseph R., eds. Critical Theory And Performance. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Singer, Issac Bashevis. "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy." New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Singer, Issac Bashevis, and Napolin, Leah. Yentl. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1977.

Yentl. Dir. Barbra Streisand. With Barbra Streisand, Mandy Patinkin, and Amy Irving. United Artists, 1983.



Biography

Darise Error Darise Error
I am all but dissertation on a PhD in fine arts, with theatre emphasis. I have a Bachelor's degree in theatre, with an English minor, and I have a Master's degree in theatre and film, with an English minor. I am currently an adjunct in the English Department of a local community college. I try to stay active in the arts as both a "maker" and an audience member. I collect autographs, movie memorabilia, and, of course, Xena-bilia. I enjoy jogging and have eclectic tastes in music. I live with two dogs (a big black shepherd mix named Sweeney and Buzz, a one-time stray orange mutt I rehabilitated after my father accidently ran over him), a fat orange tabby named Beau Geste, and an ornery blue parakeet named Virgil.
Favorite episode: most of the first and second seasons. HOOVES AND HARLOTS (10/110); A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215); BEEN THERE DONE THAT (48/302); and CRUSADER (75/408)
Favorite line: Xena to Gabrielle, "Pull my finger." THE FURIES (47/301); Xena to Gabrielle, "You don't know how much I love... that." THE PRICE (44/220).
First episode seen: THE QUEST (37/213)
Least favorite episode: I miss Lucy in Xena-lite eps; Rift episodes

Also by Darise Error

Lucy Lawless' Acting: Is it Good? Is it Bad? Do We Care? Whoosh! #15 (12/97)

A Dense Viewer's Interpretation of THE BITTER SUITE, Whoosh! #19 (04/98)


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