The way we are

I will never forget the first time I saw the film The Way We Were

Barbra Streisand’s curly, unruly hair felt like my curly, unruly hair. Her large facial features felt like my large facial features. Her exuberant laugh reminded me of many Jewish women in my life. But what struck me the most was realizing I did not possess her unabashedly proud Jewish identity at the tender age of 12. The film was my first introduction to Barbra Streisand and was synonymous with my first time watching a woman be unapologetically Jewish in a Hollywood film. Never before had I witnessed a piece of cinema that centered around a woman’s Jewishness (in terms of appearance and identity) and how she honours it.

The 1973 film stars Streisand as Katie Morosky, a Marxist Jew with antiwar sentiments and Robert Redford, who plays Hubbell Gardiner, an all-American New England easy-going apolitical jock. While they fall in love, their contrary backgrounds and beliefs make for a turbulent relationship. 

It’s not a coincidence that the director, Sydney Pollack, chose Redford to play the epitome of white Christian attractiveness (also known as the North American standard for beauty). In contrast, is Streisand: beautiful and striking, but different. Since she first became famous, her looks have been constantly scrutinized due to her Jewish appearance. 

As Neal Gabler, a historian, film critic and the author of Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, said in his book, many in Hollywood labeled Streisand as “too ethnic, too Jewish.”

Critic John Simon once remarked, “Miss Streisand is the shrewd, aggressive shrew, dominating to the point of sadism, blithely unaware of her ugliness or bullying everyone into accepting it as beauty.”

In a New York Times article from 1996, Streisand stated, ”Since childhood, my looks have always been talked about in some strange way.”

Earlier in her career, during an interview in 1977 for Playboy Magazine, Streisand said when she was younger she would have liked to look like Catherine Deneuve and considered having her nose fixed. “When I was young, everyone would say, ‘You gonna have your nose done?’ It was like a fad, all the Jewish girls having their noses done every week at Erasmus Hall High School, taking perfectly good noses and whittling them down to nothing. The first thing someone would have done would be to cut my bump off. But I love my bump, I wouldn’t cut my bump off.”

Gabler notes that Streisand’s unconventional appearance is what helped catapult her rise to stardom as she broke free from the traditional notions of what leading women in film were supposed to look like. Her gifted talents in music and film paved the way for other women who did not fit into narrow-minded beauty ideals. 

Streisand’s Jewishness was a core trait in most of her work since her breakout role in Funny Girl. She played the comedian Fanny Brice who is initially dissuaded from entering vaudeville because she isn’t pretty enough.

But Streisand’s identity and the complexities that come with it in American society are best exemplified in The Way We Were. In this film, difficult ideas of assimilation are wrestled with as Hubbell presents a life of ease and comfort where little of the outside world affects him and his privilege. It’s alluring for Katie, who is continuously advocating for justice and fighting for various political causes. It might be black and white in its representation, but the message is clear. In his privilege Hubbell has experienced little hardship and cannot empathize with the struggles of the marginalized. As a Jew, Katie is seen as “other” and makes it her life’s work to assist those who often aren’t given a voice. When Hubbell cannot accept her activism and strong beliefs, it becomes his unwavering view that he cannot accept her “otherness” which is heavily influenced by her Jewish identity. In turn, she rejects his simple life of pleasure and privilege. 

The film revolves around assimilation which has been present in America since the country was founded (and even though Canada is considered a mosaic and not a melting pot, assimilation is evidently felt by many in Canada too). Some Jews still perceive assimilation as a threat to Judaism, but there are many who have family members that have married outside of the religion which can be celebrated as interfaith relationships combine different cultures that make life rich.  

However, The Way We Were shows the ugly side of assimilation. The part of American culture that does not allow “the other” to flourish, but pushes it to conform. Katie feels that push strongly (and by extension so did Streisand as she emerged in the elite world of cinema). Hubbell is embarrassed by Katie’s outspoken ways and worries it will threaten his new position as a script writer in Hollywood. But Katie stands by her independent spirit, leading the two to eventually separate. It’s this self-love that saves Katie from losing her true self—a radical statement then and now. Years later they both briefly reconnect and Hubbell is with an attractive blonde. Katie is still advocating for just causes. For a moment, the once in-love couple reminisce on the way they were. 

But this film gave me, and I’m sure many others, a much more important message, one that transcends generations. Streisand (and the countless characters she played) taught me the importance of the way we—Jewish women—are. To celebrate our “otherness” when the media has a history of promoting conventional beauty standards and a lack of diverse identities. Streisand faced a virulent antisemitic press as critics hounded her appearance even when faced with her extraordinary talent. It can be difficult to celebrate one’s differences when the current media climate presents constant pressures on appearances aided by social media, advertising, tabloids, and mainstream film. But one just needs to look at Streisand with her cat-like eyes, elongated beautiful nose, and that gorgeous all-knowing smile, to be reminded of the absolute gift it is to be unashamedly you.

Header image photo courtesy of Barbra Streisand/Facebook. 

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