Whoosh! Issue 34 - July 1999


Special to Whoosh!
By Darise Error
Content copyright © 1999 held by author
Edition copyright © 1999 held by Whoosh!
6238 words

Introduction (01-08)
Sex and Gender (09-10)
"Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy" (11-15)
The Play (16-21)
Binary Opposites and Deconstruction (22-24)
Bringing the Story to the Screen (25-28)
The Discourse of the Film (29-47)
Conclusion (48-50)
Works Cited

Spiritual Ancestors to Xena:
Yentl and Binary Gender Issues

Perhaps I should opt for leather with metal bust trim!

Captain Janeway poses as Queen Aracnia in a Buck Rogers-esque episode of STAR TREK: VOYAGER.


[1] I have always been attracted to strong female characters in fiction. I recall finding Buster Crabbe of the old Flash Gordon serial very handsome, but I was utterly disgusted by the depiction of Dale, his always-in-distress fiance. She cowered in corners hiding her face in her hands, offering 'articulate' encouragement like "Oh, Flash!" as her man battled his nemesis Ming the Merciless. Even as a child, I knew this was utterly absurd. I would have grabbed a chair or taken off my ridiculously high heel and pummeled Ming and his minions with one or the other or both. Was I really so different from Dale? Was it really the 'man's' job to do the battling and the woman's to do little but look pretty, be helpless, and sputter inane commentary? I could not buy it, even then.

Tom Simpson and Betsy Book in perfect lighting.

Fox Mulder and Dana Scully.

[2] Over the years I have been attracted to and admired entertainment that depicted women they way I saw them. I loved female characters who were learned, respected, competent, compassionate, tough, and sensitive. Such TV series as Cagney And Lacey (1982-1988), Star Trek: Voyager (1995-) and Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Law And Order (1990-), THE X-FILES (1993-) and, of course, Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-) displayed this beautifully.

[3] I have also found myself attracted to movie heroines who embodied qualities I found in myself and qualities aspired to. Yentl (Barbra Streisand, 1983) came to theaters during my senior year of high school. I was on the verge making huge decisions regarding the rest of my life: to "college" or not to "college", what to study there, whether or not to settle down and have a family, etc. The film had a profound affect on me at that time, and it continues to be one of my favorite films.

[4] Like Yentl, I had an intense desire to learn. I had always liked school, and I was good at it. Also like Yentl, I had never had any skills in "female" arts such as cooking, sewing, child nurturing, and that bothered me somewhat. I had admiration for people who possessed those skills. My mother, for example, was and still is a fabulous cook and parent. She did not work outside the home when my brother and I were growing up because she thought that was important. While I am glad she did all that she did, her chosen profession was not my choice. Her skills were not things I was good at nor, frankly, that I wanted to be good at. Though I never felt pressure from either of my parents regarding my life choices, I felt "wrong", somehow, because of my lack of interest in "feminine" arts. I also balked at the idea that I should be good at them by virtue of my double X-chromosomes. Was I less of a woman because I was (and still am) lousy at those things?

[5] It was also my observation that men need not be brutish, insensitive louts. My father, all 6'2", broad-shoulder, hairy chest of him, loves "chick flicks" and weeps openly at the sentimental and the romantic. He attends plays as enthusiastically as he watches football games. He has never forgotten an anniversary, and he still brings flowers to my mother "just because". My brother is cut from the same cloth. Are they lesser men because of these traits? Emphatically, NO!

Hey!  I'm down here!  Hellllooooooo!

Gabrielle and Xena, the black and white years.

[6] Xena has proven itself quite adept at deconstructing ancient mythology, and it has been just as competent in its deconstruction of gender role mythology. It has given us a learned woman in Gabrielle, one who appreciates art and music and philosophy and natural beauty, but she can also cook, and she can fight. In Xena, the series has given us the most competent warrior in Greece. She is wise, worldly, and learned in her own right, but she has little interest in the arts and humanities, and that is tempered with the fact that she sings, beautifully I might add, and is skilled at sewing. Both women are "masculine" and "feminine" at the same time, which leads me to the conclusion that to ascribe the terms "masculine" and "feminine" to them, or to anyone, is erroneous. Gender and sex are not synonymous, interchangeable terms. Regardless of their sex, these characters, and people in general, just are who they are. They like what they like, are proficient at what they are proficient at, and they are not abnormal in any way for their many skills or disabilities, as the case may be.

[7] Yentl was a film that explored these issues back in 1983. It gave me hope that there were others who felt as I did about gender roles: that they were socially prescribed, not part of some natural order of the cosmos. Yentl is, therefore, a spiritual ancestor of Xena. This paper, a comparison of I.B. Singer's original short story, the play, and Streisand's film, was actually written for an academic purpose not in any way tied to Xena. It was born of my love for strong female characters, however, as was my fascination with Xena. I hoped, therefore, that others would see the same comparisons to Xena that I did.

There's not a morning I begin
without a thousand questions running through my mind
That I don't try to find the reason and
the logic in the world that God designed
The reason why a bird was given wings
If not to fly, and praise the sky
With every song it sings
What's right or wrong
Where I belong within the scheme of things...
   --From Yentl, "Where is it Written?"
     Lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman

[8] For the purpose of this paper, I will explore the notion of gender roles as it is present Isaac Bashevis Singer's short story, "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy", which was subsequently adapted into a play and a film, both entitled Yentl. The short story [Note 01] explores the consequences of an "unnatural" woman who dares to "buck the system" and act on her desires and proficiencies. The play, which is a collaborative adaptation by short story writer, I. B. Singer and Leah Napolin, softens the almost misogynist bent of the short story, but it posits questions it does not dare to answer. Barbra Streisand, co-writer of the screenplay and director of the film, actively seeks to deconstruct the seemingly binary nature of gender roles in the 1983 film Yentl.

Sex and Gender

[9] At this point, it may be helpful to distinguish between the terms "sex" and "gender". Sociologically speaking, "sex" refers to the biological/anatomical characteristics of an individual. While there is some dispute as to exactly what "gender" refers to, again, sociologically speaking, gender is the culturally prescribed traits and duties of individuals. For instance, in Western culture, men are supposed to be the providers, and women are to be the caretakers. Men are intellectual, and women are emotionally volatile, etc. Judith Butler offers the following explanation,

Originally intended to dispute the biology-is-destiny formulation, the distinction between sex and gender serves the argument that whatever biological interactability sex appears to have, gender is culturally constructed: hence, gender is neither the causal result of sex nor as seemingly fixed as sex [Note 02].

[10] It is not my intention nor do I believe it was Streisand's intention to challenge the notion of "sex". "Gender" (in sociological terms) was her target, and it is my subject.

"Yentl the Yeshiva Boy"

Barbara Streisand will play Xena in the Broadway version. Discuss.

The YENTL video box

[11] Looking at the short story in the most positive terms, Singer's "Yentl, The Yeshiva Boy" is a somewhat sympathetic look at an individual who does not fit within the "natural" order of things:

...Yentl didn't want to get married. Inside her, a voice repeated over and over: "No!" What becomes of a girl when the wedding's over? Right away she starts bearing and rearing. ... Yentl knew she wasn't cut out for a woman's life. She couldn't sew, she couldn't knit. She let the food burn and the milk boil over; her Sabbath pudding never turned out right, and her hallah dough didn't rise. Yentl much preferred men's activities to women's [Note 03].

[12] Because Yentl does not want to live the life society has prescribed for her, she is unnatural. The first hint that I.B. Singer thinks this comes just a few paragraphs down from the above quote. Yentl is recalling a conversation with her father, "...her father used to say, 'Yentl, you have the soul of a man.' 'So why was I born a woman?' 'Even Heaven makes mistakes'" [Note 04]. Yentl, according to Singer, is a "mistake".

[13] Wearing the clothes of a man, which the Torah explicitly forbids, takes its toll on the short story heroine. Yentl, who has never experienced homosexual desire before, finds herself at once sexually attracted to both Avigdor and Hadass. [Though, the notion that your sexual orientation is determined by the clothes you wear is one I find a bit naive, to say the least.] That frightens her: "Only now did Yentl grasp the meaning of the Torah's prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex. By doing so, one deceived not only others but oneself. Even the soul was perplexed, finding itself incarnate in a strange body" [Note 05]. Again, Singer's implicit message seems to be: gender roles are distinct; the distinction is divinely ordained; and therefore, you should not tamper with things.

[14] Again, one of the redeeming features of this short story is the fact that Singer is truly sympathetic to the plight of his character [Note 06]. Singer, however, expresses almost no respect or sympathy in his treatment of the other principle female character in the story, Hadass. Yentl (Singer) observes that Hadass, "ordered the servant girl around, was forever engrossed in her storybooks, and changed her hairdo every week. Moreover, she must consider herself a beauty, for she was always in front of the mirror..." [Note 07]. In fact, Singer sees little value in "womanly" arts at all: "No, [Yentl] had not been created for the noodle board and the pudding dish, for chattering with silly women and pushing for a place at the butcher's block" [Note 08]. The author does not grant that women, in general, are capable of nor should they aspire to anything but menial tasks and marital devotion.

[15] Singer is also devoted to the idea of binary opposites, though he commiserates with Yentl, "...she had the soul of a man and the body of a woman" [Note 09]. As a punishment for crossing the boundary her gender has outlined for her, Yentl "is forced to wander alone, cast out like a traitor to both men and women" [Note 10].

The Play

Barbara Streisand will play Lucy Lawless on Broaday too.  Like butta!

The YENTL album cover.

[16] Issac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin further explore the theme of gender roles in the 1975 Broadway stage play, Yentl. This time, perhaps because of the inclusion of a female collaborator, Singer is a little less misogynistic. Yentl's opening narrative monologue states the play's intended theme clearly, "It's a story about the mystery of appearances, the deceptions of the heart, and the divine androgyny of the soul" [Note 11]. Yentl, played on Broadway by the critically acclaimed actress Tovah Feldshuh, delivers this monologue wearing the garb of a man. Her father finds her dressed in his clothes, and the "mantra" of the short story is repeated in the play as Reb Todrus chastises his daughter: "For a female to wear the clothes of a man is a sin. ...You deceive not only others, my child, but yourself as well. When the body dresses in strange garments the soul will be perplexed" [Note 12].

[17] But, Yentl's soul is already perplexed. She does not understand why if the Torah was handed down on Mt. Sinai to all, that women should only rejoice "when men study the Torah? Papa, if God chose us for His people, He chose all of us" [Note 13]. Her father answers her by throwing his hands up and saying, almost sadly, "They made a mistake up in Heaven. You should have been born a male" [Note 14]. We have an overt declaration in this statement that the play's author (again) actually believes more firmly in prescribed gender roles than in "the divine androgyny of the soul". In a lovely monologue, Yentl fervently asks God for answers, "Master of the Universe, what did you create women for? Just to bear children and light candles on Friday night? And if so, why did you give us souls?" [Note 15]. An excellent question.

[18] Instead of answering the question, however, binary gender roles continue to be set up. In a later scene, Yentl tells the sorrowing Hadass to fight for Avigdor, but Hadass claims that she is helpless. Yentl responds, "You're not helpless! It's men who've made you think you are. For themselves they've taken the Torah and most of the commandments, and to women, left the pots and pans and the dirty dishes." Hadass innocently responds, "Anshel, that's the way things are" [Note 16]. Avigdor also points out to "Anshel" in another scene that he would never have a learned woman as a wife, "a learned woman is a monstrosity! She is neither male nor female, say our rabbis. Run from her like the plague" [Note 17].

[19] Avigdor himself eventually marries a widowed shop-keeper named Peshe. Peshe's father jokingly tells Avigdor, a scholar, that Peshe will be a "good provider" for him [Note 18]. This is, of course, a reversal of socially constructed gender roles: the man is supposed to provide for the woman, not the converse. The marriage of Peshe and Avigdor is a miserable experience for both participants. The authorial message is clear: happiness cannot come out of a situation that is not "natural".

[20] The play does suggest a kind of androgyny in a way the short story does not. In the play, Hadass tells "Anshel" that he is more of a man than anyone she's ever known, "The other boys behave like oafs -- brag about themselves all the time. You're different. You're something special. A real man" [Note 19]. Avigdor likewise notes this characteristic in "Anshel" when some of the local boys are making fun of the "boy" without a beard: "He's more a man than any of you!" [Note 20].

[21] Rather than Yentl's situation being a "divine" androgyny, however, it is an androgyny born of confusion and lies. Throughout the play, Yentl fights to find her real identity. She says in another direct audience address, "One night I dreamt I was both a woman and man at the same time!" [Note 21]. Yentl's search is not a positive one, however, and she becomes even more perplexed, disillusioned, and dissatisfied. As Yentl's father warned, right or wrong, challenging the status quo leads to only unhappiness. The last image the play offers of Yentl is a cold and penniless young "man" going off into the darkness alone. So, although the script looked promising as far as challenging the concept of gender roles, in the end, it serves merely as another treatise on the dangers of overstepping boundaries. Still, it brought the issue "out of the closet", so to speak. It just did not have the courage to go further than that.

Binary Opposites and Deconstruction

[22] The concept of binary opposites belongs to the structuralist and semiotics school of critical thought. Early semiotician Ferdinand Saussure argued that words "naturally divide themselves into paired opposites" such as [hot and cold, sorrow and happiness, masculine and feminine] [Note 22]. We recognize each word/concept individually primarily because of the characteristics it does not share with its "opposite". Or, in other words, "within a given language, words only derive meaning by reference or contrast to other words" [Note 23]. Claude Levi-Strauss further "identified binary oppositions in every aspect of human culture...and believed that the human mind 'naturally [and universally] operates using such oppositions'" [Note 24].

[23] Deconstructionists, such as Derrida, however, refute the very existence of such opposites:

Every opposition involves a hierarchy. ...the first term seems to control, define, limit or presuppose the second, as truth defines and excludes falsehood. The second term seems a corruption of or a falling from the first term. ...[Derrida also] shows that either term could actually function in the position of control or privilege. ...[Finally,] Derrida demonstrates that the privileged first term possesses exactly those qualities it uses to define the second. By now, Derrida has made it absurd to refer to the two terms as an opposition at all [Note 25].

[24] In other words, in Deconstruction, there are no true binary opposites. Singer, however, would seem to be in agreement with Saussure, that paired opposites are natural and for a person to be something besides one or the other (but not both) is an aberration.

Bringing the Story to the Screen

Xena and Gabrielle in the QUEST kiss scene before makeup

Barbara Streisand has gender and role issues in YENTL.

[25] Nearly 10 years after the play, in her directorial debut, Barbra Streisand had the courage to answer some of the questions Singer's short story and play brought up. The 1983 film Yentl is a deliberate effort to deconstruct binary gender role mythology. Streisand, as director and co-writer of the screenplay, uses both form and discursive content to reveal a "middle ground" or place where "masculine" and "feminine" qualities are shared by both men and women.

[26] Streisand's interest in Yentl began in 1968 when she purchased to rights to the short story [Note 26]. With Streisand's permission, the short story was subsequently adapted into the afore-discussed stage play. Pre-production for the film finally began in 1981.

[27] Generally, Streisand's experience in making the film paralleled the character she portrayed. The movie begins with the following superimposed on the screen: "In a time when the world of study belonged only to men, there lived a girl called Yentl". Well, in a time when the world of directing films belonged primarily to men, there lived a woman called Barbra. "Peddling the film to Hollywood, which has grave reservations about women directors, was a grueling process. Streisand's property ricocheted from Orion Pictures to PolyGram Pictures to United Artists" [Note 27]. As her then partner Jon Peters put it,

Everybody told her she couldn't do it, but Barbra was saying, "I'm going to drop everything and I'm going to work seven days a week and I'm going to fight on the phone to raise money, and then I'm going away for two years and I'm going to film in a Communist country [Czechoslovakia] with machine guns and tanks" and her mother's calling her crying and begging her not to go, but she's saying, "I'm going to do it anyway" [Note 28].

[28] Streisand indeed went on to act in, co-produce, co-write the screenplay, direct, and sing all twelve of the film's songs. But, this film is more than just the emphatic admonition to be strong in the face of adversity (a theme that neither the short story nor play address at all.) It is a deliberate exploration of gender roles and a conscious attempt to deconstruct the concept of "binary" where gender roles are concerned.

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