Barbra Striesand

Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power

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Neal Gabler
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , September
     2017.
     296 pages.
     $15.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300230611.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power by Neal Gabler is a 2016 addition to the burgeoning Jewish Lives series edited by Anita Shapira and Steven J. Zipperstein and published by Yale University Press. The broad and lofty ambition of the series is to “illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences” by finessing biographical details with in-depth commentary by an author ideally suited for their subject. The lengthy and diverse list of Jewish figures already explored in the Jewish Lives series includes Sigmund Freud, Sarah Bernhardt, and Moses Mendelssohn, with more publications in the works. 

For Streisand, the editors chose Neal Gabler, a journalist and film critic who is perhaps best known for his study of Jewish producers in the early days of American cinema, An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (Anchor, 1989). Gabler states in his introduction that his look at Streisand is meant to be a “biographical essay” as well as a closer examination of Streisand as a “metaphor” (whatever he means by this does not become clear) and a synecdoche for Jewishness in American popular culture. 

Gabler heavily relies upon previous biographies, in particular, James Spada’s Barbra Streisand: Her Life (Crown, 1995) and a plethora of previous interviews. He did not interview Streisand or conduct any of the sort of messy research and interviews one expects from a biography. Nonetheless, Gabler compellingly compiles the trajectory of Streisand’s personal and professional life, from a scrappy Brooklyn childhood with a relentlessly critical mother and the looming presence of her dead father to a seemingly unlikely rise to fame as a woman celebrated and denigrated for “that voice” and “that nose.” 

Readers with a passing familiarity with Streisand’s life might find this book repetitious. Furthermore, if we are to judge this volume as an academic title, Gabler rarely takes other authors to task for perpetuating Streisand’s self-mythologizing tendencies. Indeed, at times, he doubles down with his own clichés: “Brooklyn was not exactly sedate, which was something that would be said of Streisand” (11). He adds the hyperbolic rhapsodizing of Camille Paglia about Streisand to his own in order to underline Streisand’s appeal to outsiders, such as her first, passionate supporters in the gay and lesbian community. 

For younger readers who are primarily familiar with Streisand as Ben Stiller’s mother in the Meet the Fockers films, Gabler’s strength lies in situating Streisand in the history of Hollywood and, more broadly, American pop culture and showing her extra-ordinariness. He details how Streisand defied the conventions of Hollywood beauty and behavior that were often perpetuated and defined by Jewish producers ambivalent about their own Jewishness while she was simultaneously accused of benefiting from the same faceless cabal of Jewish entertainment mafia (62-64). Gabler’s depiction of the antagonism that Streisand experienced as a girl from her mother, then later, as a performer from producers and critics is especially sympathetic. The unapologetically anti-Semitic caricatures of Streisand trafficked by her past and present critics have not lost their astonishing bite. 

Gabler’s analyses, or lack thereof, of Streisand’s Jewishness and what her Jewish background represents to her fans and critics and those in between (of which there seem to be few) would fall short for a scholar seeking a nuanced illumination of Streisand and indeed, Judaism in general. Gabler uses the ideas of cultural historians, like Sander Gilman, to get at the significance of Streisand’s appearance; more specifically, Gilman’s work on the “Jewish body” and how her nose marked her as unattractive and quintessentially Jewish (116). Streisand’s appearance and persona certainly represents a remarkable departure from the WASP-ish aesthetic ideal of a late 1950s/early 1960s female movie star, but in the process of emphasizing Streisand’s difference via Judaism, Gabler inadvertently reifies Jewishness: “The emphasis on the deceptiveness of appearances, the challenge to convention, the virtue of honesty, and the power of will are all characteristics that have been identified with Jewishness” (126). I could not help but wonder how Gabler would interpret another American and Jewish superstar that does not neatly fit the categorical traits that he defines as quintessentially Jewish, such as Betty Joan Perske, aka Lauren Bacall. Would she instead represent the quintessential self-hating Jew? Would he locate the origins of her seductive and no-nonsense guise in her Jewish background? By simply celebrating Streisand as unapologetically Jewish in appearance and conduct, Gabler misses an opportunity to interrogate stereotypes concerning Jewish womanhood and actually fulfill the goal stated in his subtitle to “redefine beauty, femininity, and power.”

Gabler’s Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power would likely fail to satisfy scholars as well as fans of Streisand already familiar with her story. His observations are mere gestures previously postulated in great depth by scholars and his points would be rote to a scholar working on Judaism in American popular culture or queer theory. Such flaws are indicative of the difficulty of the scope of the project of writing a brief biography while adding original analyses. Yet, I read this book quickly, and with interest, as I would perhaps a lengthy New Yorker-style essay. The appeal of this handsome volume is not in its originality but in the pleasure of hearing a well-told story that is ubiquitous in American mythology and self-consciously perpetuated by the subject herself: that of an unlikely, supposedly self-made American superstar. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer Hall is Adjunct Instructor of Religion & Classics at the University of Rochester.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Neal Gabler is the author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood; Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination; Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity; and Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

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