On thursday night I rewatched Yentl. I’m still on my Barbra Streisand kick. When Yentl and Avigdor don’t end up together (their long awaited kiss is abruptly interrupted, like a needle scratching a non-diegetic record), I get upset and think, “She never gets the guy”. Not because getting the guy is the point, even though in Hollywood of course it is the point. But because a woman like her cannot (is not allowed to) get the guy—she is too remarkable, too strong, too passionate. There is no happy narrative for that.
When the male lead is exceptional (and even when he’s unexceptional) the whole point is he gets what he wants. He only has to prove his worth—have it tested—and the world is his (is his anyway). Can you imagine being exceptional in every way and learning that you have to be alone because of it? That when you’re a woman, being exceptional isolates you romantically. You will never get what you want. You will learn and transform and endure, but you will have to do it alone, because straight men cannot, will not do the same. This is what Streisand’s films have to teach us. That is why they’re valuable. And exceptional women know this when they watch her. They grow to learn these truths like Streisand’s female leads grow to learn them.
Yesterday, while I was still half-asleep, I woke up thinking about Yentl. I had the clearest understanding of the film, of Streisand, of my own life: her films—what is happening in every single one of them (she’s not simply chasing the male WASP, although that’s certainly part of it. Especially early on), and why Avigdor doesn’t/can’t kiss Yentl at the end of the movie. Why he doesn’t want to be with her. But now it’s hard to put it into words. It’s hard to explain what I know, what I see in Streisand’s work. Because it’s personal. It’s an accrued knowledge that comes from some place deeper, more lived. The stories that Streisand is telling about the trials and tribulations of female brilliance, the romantic pain it can create, cannot be fully appreciated until you are a woman in your 30s, or older. Until you’ve begun to experience this trajectory yourself.
Of course, Avigdor doesn’t/can’t didn’t kiss Yentl, I tell myself. Can you imagine kissing someone so remarkable? Can you imagine what it requires of you? The strength. What it committs you to once you have? Kisses like that activate and break spells. Avigdor would have to be remarkable to kiss Yentl. And not remarkable as a man amongst men. He is remarkable in that way, as a passionate Talmud scholar, but he does not want to change. He does not know how to merge love with knowledge. That is why Avigdor can only “love” Yentl as Anshel. Man to man. But Avigdor cannot be remarkable for her (Yentl). With her. As a man amongst women. Yentl, full of love and profound intelligence, is able to be remarkable with anyone and everyone (even Hadass’ parents immediately love Anshel). While Avigdor is merely average when it comes to being a man; with a limited, conventional, and misogynist understanding of love.
Streisand is smarter than to simply give us the ending we want and crave. The ending that we’ve been hoping for. She isn’t simply a fictional woman bringing fictions to the screen. She is a real woman in the world putting her experience and understanding of the world on the screen. The screen isn’t a hermetically sealed fantasy that is informing these diegetic stories. The world is real and that is why The Way We Were, constantly misread as a great love story, is so painful to watch. In Yentl, Streisand gives us the ending that is the truth of an exceptional woman’s life—at any given time. The solution doesn’t lie in a false screen ending because it is an ending that doesn’t yet exist for women like this. Like her (in real life, Streisand did not find true love until her mid-50s. And, coincidentally, this is when she stopped appearing as a lead in films).
So the fantasy of the kiss is ruptured. Suspended. Interrupted. Arrested. The moment is almost comedic. Shocking. Hasn’t everything—the entire film—been leading up to this moment? We want it so bad. I wanted it so bad. Instead, Streisand, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film, insists: You need to see me not get the man I want (so bad) over and over. I don’t get him because that man doesn’t exist yet. And even I, with all my intelligence, power, and strength, can’t make him exist. This is not him. And if I stay with this him, the way I bent over backwards for two decades to stay with the mediocre Hubbell, I will be doomed. I will cease to be exceptional because these men can’t handle me the way I am. So I must change my desire because of it.
What we are used to seeing on screen—and in life—is this female adjustment to male mediocrity in order to have love. An adjustment we habitually take for granted. A kiss in place of the truth. Hope in place of actual change. Streisand shows us—women—what it is like to be, to know, to understand. Not what it is like to have. Streisand is remarkable because while she chased the melancholic post-war male WASP over and over, she always knew that her life’s work was bigger than landing him. She knows this is not the answer. And we do too.
Crossposted with Love Dog.