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date: 23 March 2019

Ballet Bawdies and Dancing Ducks: Jewish Swans of the Silver Screen

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the dancing joke-work of Jewish film stars as ballet swans in Be Yourself and Funny Girl. It shows how the joke of the Jewish swan queers white heterosexual femininity while revealing the sustained power of its classical Western-centric swan tropes. In situating Jewish swan humor within theories of parody, queer discourse, and gendered joke-work, the article highlights the pleasurable embodiment of enduring Jewish female stereotypes and reveals a comic dance legacy of the funny girl body unfit for love. It also explains how the humor of ballet parody and the swan constructs the Jewish funny girl body; how Be Yourself and Funny Girl stake a claim in ethnic and sexual otherness as sites of comic expression and critical difference; and how each film embodies critiques of classical ballet and its idealist proscriptions for white women even as both sustain romantic fantasies of female leads.

Keywords: Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand, Be Yourself, Funny Girl, Jewish swan, stereotypes, funny girl body, ballet parody, classical ballet, white women


The joke of a Jewish swan—flatfooted, coarse, crude—may be as funny now as it was in 1930, when Fanny Brice first skewered the classical femme ideal on film in the black-and-white movie Be Yourself. In that movie Brice spoofs Michel Fokine’s 1905 solo The Dying Swan as one of the many charades in her nightclub act, a divertissement of comic proportions in the first “talkie” featuring a female lead. The role, written for Brice and inspired by her real-life star status, follows her as she sustains her performing career while becoming a boxing manager, falling in love with a prizefighter, whom she trains with life smarts and business savvy. But as a man’s boss and not his beauty, Brice’s role picks up on the pain of the Jewish female, entirely too independent for men. This barrier in love brings added life to the Jewish swan number, as Brice’s ugly duck swan contends with this frustrated fate.

Brice’s swan, arguably the funniest among her filmic nightclub acts, embodies all that the classic swan has never dared to be. She is salt of the earth, ideal for chicken soup, and not the sweet stuff of a white swan’s weightless elegance. A bird of parody, she is the mocking companion of upwardly mobile middle-class concerns. Inverting the swan’s iconic uplift, she wades instead of glides, darts instead of developés, and is fully frank, opting for direct confrontation with audiences, when the swan figurine is supposed to be artfully ethereal, evasive—the effervescent material of fantasy and metaphor.1 A bawdy body and a dancing duck, the Jewish dying swan takes her end of life in stride, without a fuss.

Transfixing stage and screen audiences with her funny girl body, always already fallen from grace, Brice and her dying swan are a clear influence on Barbra Streisand’s rendition of Brice and her Jewish swan shtick in Funny Girl (1968), a film about Brice’s life and loss of love. Viewed together, the films make a convincing case for the swan as site of Jewish female self-reconciliation, where physical and vocal humor foreground frustrations tied to appropriate feminine codes. Made at distinct moments of American movie history that span a period of forty years, the depictions of Brice and her swan act in two films sing and dance of a female self-sufficiency that brings both pleasure and pain. A critical look at the pleasurable embodiment of enduring Jewish female stereotypes helps unpack a comic legacy of the funny girl body, unfit for love.

By foregrounding the funny dancing of Jewish swan parodies in both films, I illuminate a comic dance legacy with layered implications. I argue that ballet parodies of the white swan allow Jewish actresses to ridicule elitist pretentions of all kinds through Yiddish-inflected comic relief. In physical representations of funny women dancing ballet badly, Brice and Streisand’s Jewish swans offer duckish dance alternatives to demure femininity, much to the delight of on-screen audiences. Their comic critiques are stage show acts within film narratives focused on self-sufficient performance women. But as each film plot follows a female protagonist whose stage career overshadows her romantic aspirations, I argue for reading the swan dance scene as emblematic of larger representational dilemmas. As the funny girl body in swan send-ups invites laughter amid otherwise serious relationship dramas, she personifies a Jewish lead’s double longing for love and critical comment on womanhood. In what follows I thus question how the humor of ballet parody and the swan specifically constructs the Jewish funny girl body, adored by audiences but denied by the men they desire.

To begin, I draw on Yiddish-inflected, pigeon-toed, bird-by-any-other-name renditions in the 1930 black-and-white film Be Yourself, starring Fanny Brice, and its influence on the 1968 movie of the year, the biopic Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice. Making a case for reading ethnicity and gender in these intertwined Jewish female swan spotlights, I introduce how both films stake a claim in ethnic and sexual otherness as sites of comic expression and critical difference. I outline how each embodies critiques of classical ballet and its idealist proscriptions for white women even as it sustains romantic fantasies of female leads. I ask how swan parody entangles itself in matters of love and liberatory femininity across distinct periods of twentieth-century American musical movie history and its roles for Jewish women. To frame my discussion of Jewish swan humor within theories of parody, queer discourse, and gendered joke-work, I borrow from Linda Hutcheon’s theory of parody, Stacey Wolf’s queer reading of Streisand’s “funny girl body,” and Ruth D. Johnston’s discussion of Jewish joke-work.

Before we start, I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that there has never been a serious ballerina born of Jewish bloodline in any of classical dance history. Certainly there has been; flocks of them, in fact. High caliber dancers Alicia Markova, Maya Plissetskaya (both noted dying swans), as well as Margit Wolf, Nora Kaye, Mary Rambert, Susan Jaffe, and many more, including my own Jewish mother, have perfected techniques of the French court. My mom, born Patricia Simon, danced professionally in the Boston Ballet during the mid-1960s, from the ages of fourteen to sixteen. Told at age eight that her body type would not develop into the proper proportions to be accepted into the School of American Ballet, her strong, short legs traveled by train each day from Providence to Boston, where she would knit and pearl through roles for the short-leg corps: the Marzipan shepherdess and a snowflake in Nutcracker, a fourth of the Pas de Quatre, a corps member in Serenade for Strings.

I grew up with my mom’s castanets, stored in a magical velvet pouch. My big sister later took mom’s pointe shoes as fodder for her senior art show in college, tacking them to the gallery wall next to a motorized cake sculpture of a bodice and tutu. Photos of the crowd biting into the sugary body, glued together with peanut butter goo, scream of the horror-pleasure of devouring the ballet body and its too easily consumable facade.2 I should add that my Jewish mother’s ballet story wasn’t a funny one, as indicated by my sister’s foray into feminist art. A thyroid failure induced by eating disorders and physical stress left my mom sick in bed for her entire junior year of high school. I picture my mom then as the true dying swan, stomaching the upset of a lost identity like a certain death. But the Broadway run of Funny Girl had hit theaters two years earlier, and her parents had returned from New York with the record, my grandfather saying it reminded him of her. My mother knew every word by the time the film came out in 1968, and I can only imagine the salve of Streisand’s added Swan Lake scene midway through the movie.

Then came the summer of love, and my mom started college. She experimented with modern dance, only to find it a lame drug after professional ballet. I imagine Streisand’s Fanny Brice character as my mom’s more welcome escape: laughter at ballet would have unleashed a physical power capable of puncturing the grasp of a tradition that too tightly trained a disciplined, depleted body. No doubt the years of dance technique were de-ethnicizing ones too, working to straighten and lengthen and tuck into white swans, snowflakes, and fairies. In a world where character roles were reserved for Spanish abstractions and Arabian misrepresentations, the cultural codes of American Jewishness (i.e., loudness, frankness, funniness) were hardly ballet mainstays.

In imagining my mother watching Streisand watching Brice, I peer at Jewish women’s stage and screen ambitions through an admittedly emotional dance lens, one in which classical dance comes center stage in a battle between social and self-acceptance. What I discover are the bounds of ballet parody, which offer gifts of comic pleasure with an ultimate message that takes its title from Brice: be yourself. Funny girl swans by Brice and Streisand refract legacies of Jewish female representation as undesirable, unfeminine misfits, yet also play out these tropes via perfectly imperfect ballerinas amused by their own bawdy bodies. Along the way, the ballet parody performs its unwillingness to conform. Funny versions resist swan socialization and its construction of appropriate white womanhood. Revising all plots associated with white feminine beauty, Jewish swan parodies skew standards of social acceptability in the name of self-acceptance. In doing so, joke swans sustain resistive ethnic and gender plays of Jewish women on film across a golden age of American musical movie history.

The Jewish Swan’s 1916 Beginnings and “Becky Is Back in the Ballet”

The success of Brice’s Jewish swan began with her breakthrough role in a sketch called “Becky Is Back in the Ballet,” part of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916. The song, written for Brice by Blanche Merrill and Leo Edwards, layers the comedienne’s thick Yiddish accent with notes that flatten vibrato or vocal decoration. Grainy recordings of the song summon images of the performer squeezing notes through sealed upper and lower teeth, like a child talking through a too-wide smile, cheek muscles drawn all the way back. That face, so iconic of Brice’s Baby Snooks,3 would have sat atop an equally exaggerated funny girl body, as Brice’s performance of the song would match Becky’s delusions of going anywhere near the ballet. While video footage of the piece does not exist, music scholar Ann van de Merwe confirms that when Brice rendered the song in the 1916 Follies, she added a physicalized parody of Anna Pavlova dancing The Dying Swan.4 Offering historical evidence of the celebrated song and dance, Van de Merwe includes the comments of an early review of the production, wherein critic Sime Silverman referred to the number not as “Becky Is Back in the Ballet” but as “the Dying Swan.”5

Brice as the dying swan harkened back to Mikhail Fokine’s short ballet of the same name, choreographed for the esteemed Anna Pavlova to music from Camille Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals. The solo captures a swan in her last struggling moments of life, her supple upper body gliding over tiny steps called pas de bourrée suivi. Debatably a work of artistry and expressivity more than technical prowess, The Dying Swan was famously Pavlova’s chance to dance with emotional abandon and heightened melodrama. A 1925 video recording of her performance captures Pavlova’s animated face.6 The furrow of her eyebrows matches the frown of her lips, as Pavlova projects her mortal fragility beyond the camera lens, as if across a crowded auditorium. So identified was she with Fokine’s work that the solo became the Russian ballerina’s own swan song. Known to have performed the work more than four thousand times, legend has it that Pavlova called for her swan costume while on her own deathbed.

The dramatic intensity of the ballet, as well as its ubiquity in the dance canon throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, made it ideal material for Brice’s physical and vocal parody.7 As is made clear by so much of the writing on Brice’s life and career, the performer was at her best spoofing the grand pretensions of middle-class art. Just as in Brice’s rendition of “Becky,” where lyrics were sometimes spoken rather than sung (even deliberately lacking nuance and inflection), her swan parody for the 1916 Follies and then the 1930 film Be Yourself would have playfully deflated any upscale ideas. Pavlova’s notorious melodrama was perfect material for Brice’s plain-talk delivery of forthright and funny lines, and the ballerina’s famous expressivity would have opened the doors for Brice and her Becky to be as boldly unballetic as possible.

The first stanza of “Becky” reveals her clumsiness: “Becky was a dancer, look how she danced / Night-time and day she triptoed away / She got a job in the ballet, but one night her foot made a slip / She fell on her back with, Oi! such a crack, she almost located her hip / They thought she was dead from the bump on her head / She should be in bed but instead…. Becky is back in the ballet”8 The “triptoeing” Becky appears destined to fail, not only at ballet, but at the very premise of its disciplined physicality. When she falls and almost “locates” her hip, the humor marks the funny language mistranslations of eastern European immigrants learning English and also the comic misunderstanding of their own bodies, which were somehow never designed for dancing. Becky returns to the ballet by sheer will power, bringing to mind a young girl’s immigrant work ethic and outsider aloofness, which keep her happily dancing despite her injuries.

In the journey from Pavlova to parody, the Dying Swan provides dance material for a radical revision of the femme fragile archetype in and beyond Fokine’s ballet. To further develop this point, investigation of parody as it relates to performance underscores its transgressive potential. Along these lines, I turn to Linda Hutcheon’s seminal book, A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms, wherein she argues that parody “has need of defenders.” Parody, Hutcheon writes, has either been disregarded as “parasitic” and “derivative” or heralded only through its limited associations with humor, laughter, and ridicule. While the thrust of this essay deals in humor outright, it is helpful to build on Hutcheon’s theorization of parody as inclusive but not limited to the comic in order to understand its potential for layered social critique. Funniness, in the case of the Jewish swan, can be considered in light of its break with traditional balletic sensibilities, and therefore is significant beyond the scope of a light fun interlude between more serious film plot points.

In Hutcheon’s view, parody forces a reassessment of artistic processes by marking its intended departure from the aesthetic and social norms it references. In this sense, Brice’s parody reassesses the dying swan role and ballet as a whole, marking its departure from aesthetic and social norms of feminine beauty, fragility, and grace in death. Arguing that parody can be viewed as “repetition with critical distance,” Hutcheon provides a scheme for seeing a swan parody’s use of quotation and citation as referential techniques that allow for critical comment. Parody acts like a “custodian of artistic legacy,” she continues, defining not only where art is, but where it has come from.9 In this sense, Brice’s Jewish swan not only resists a classical dance history canon by making fun of it, but can also revise the canonical swan legacy by interrupting its illusions of white naturalness or normalcy.

The emphasis on parody as a marker of difference rather than similarity renders Brice’s comic copy a site of critical commentary. Brice’s “Becky” cannot help but make people laugh at the impossibility of a Yiddish girl’s having grace in song or dance. By the time Be Yourself came out, Brice’s Yiddish accent was a popular entertainment phenomenon. Its humor would have reached out to audiences in and beyond Jewish America as a social antithesis of swan associations. For Brice and her Jewish joke routine, the artful melodrama of Pavlova’s performance provided the perfect middle-class pretention to upturn. Her juxtaposition of exaggerated expressivity and unfiltered honesty punctured the preciousness of ballet with vocal and embodied stereotypes of Jewish immigrants in New York City during this time. By 1930 Jews formed 3.5 percent of the American population, reflecting the sizeable wave of eastern European immigrants that had tripled the earlier generations of more stereotypically civilized German Jewish immigrants.10 Low-brow stock-character images of these Old World eastern European Jews, not able or willing to acculturate, pervaded the vaudeville stage and popular entertainment.

Given Hutcheon’s understanding of parody as repetition with critical distance, it is also arguable that Pavlova’s swan, performed thousands of times and each time differently, may well fall within parody’s parameters. Indeed, Pavlova’s boundless artistry was best known through the accumulative power of so many performances. If parody demarcates distance through difference, then the ongoing reinvention of Pavlova’s performance might be considered citational comments on her own original. As she delivered each swan death with infinite distinction—she never died the same way twice—Pavlova tasked the audience to keep track of her endless innovations. The ballerina’s amassing deaths provided ever-new insight on the original danse macabre, and the public attended in droves to note each subtle or drastic change. Even as such variations account for Pavlova’s performance of difference, key to Hutcheon’s theory of parody, they do not aim to enact a critique of themselves in the ways comic Jewish swans do.11

The stakes of parody for Pavlova and Brice differ as greatly as their audience reception. Pavlova’s performances danced a near-cosmic experience for audiences, whereas Brice’s parodies offered beloved comic impersonations. While both demand that their audiences watch with keen awareness of artistic legacies, the effect is one that works in widely different ways: Pavlova’s modifications offer ever-richer fulfillment of a mortal fragility through the symbol of the ultra feminine, while Brice invites audiences to recognize the humor of ballet’s morbid fantasies, and through laughter, bust its weightless, classless struggle as conceived in the Dying Swan’s epic deaths. Indeed, Brice’s humorous rendition plays up ballet’s classical specter of death, so poignantly at the heart of Fokine’s dour-minute Dying Swan solo.12

In the context of a Jewish eastern European immigrant swan, whose Yiddishisms offset any chance at ballet dreams, the morbid trope of a dying swan made rich material for the joke of an unassimilable but undestructible Jew. Like Becky’s bump on her head that didn’t stop her from dancing, the funny girl body was a symbol of unyielding immigrant drive to make it, no matter the price.

“It’s Gorgeous to Be Graceful” and Better to Be Yourself

Written and directed by Thornton Freeland, Be Yourself was one of the earliest films with synchronous sound and the first talkie to feature a female lead. Whereas the picture suffers in terms of quality, continuity, and flat lighting due to its financial preoccupation with sound equipment, I argue for the film’s key influence in the realm of ballet parody and the representation of Jewish women in comic ballet roles. As was common for celebrities of Brice’s day, the goal for most studios was to find stars and then to create films that showcased the stars’ particular talents. Comic actress and singer Fanny Brice thus stars in a role reminiscent of herself in Be Yourself. Protagonist Fanny Field is given Brice’s own first name and, like Brice off camera, plays the part of an esteemed club performer whose swan bit is but one of her many acts.

The film begins in the boxing ring as champion fighter and film antagonist Mack McCloskey knocks his opponent a final blow for the referee’s official countdown. The setting quickly shifts to the nightclub where Fanny works as a regular headliner. The boxing champion enters, and a slew of male club-goers greet him as Fanny comes out to sing “When a Woman Loves a Man,” complete with an on-camera orchestra. The first of many numbers throughout the film, this one breaks into an ensemble song and dance as a gaggle of showgirls, acted by the likes of the famed Marjorie Kane and Gertrude Astor, play to the prize fighter with personalized charm. When Fanny finishes the act, she sits beside her soon to be love interest, Jerry Armstrong, who himself appears enamored of her performer power. Earnestly, he says to her with an early 1930s New York accent, “You’re a funny girl, Fanny,” to which she replies, “I gotta be, that’s how I make my living.” After a beat, Jerry adds innocently, “You know Fanny, when you ain’t clowning, you ain’t bad looking.”

These opening scenes set the stage for the plot synopsis that follows. The relationship between the two characters remains vague throughout the film, as Fanny’s feelings for Jerry grow more romantic, while he seems not to notice. He is an aspiring boxer, and Fanny insists that her lawyer brother become his self-appointed manager, whose duties she performs herself. After Jerry succeeds in a smaller fight, Fanny fronts the money to secure him a big fight with McCloskey and provides the personal training herself to coach Jerry in the ring. Fanny prepares Jerry for his big fight in a makeshift gym made in her own apartment, and as they train, they appear so coupled up that the domestic dynamic of the next musical number seems only natural. Fanny moves to the living room phonograph console to start the accompanying track, and the two role-play the male and female parts of the movie’s hit, “Cooking Breakfast for the One I Love.” He reads his newspaper contentedly while she sets the table for eggs and toast. That Jerry lives in Fanny’s apartment or is at least present for breakfast appears a condition of Fanny’s all-encompassing managerial style, if also standing in for any onscreen conjugal encounters between the two. As amorous as it all seems over morning coffee and Jerry’s rising confidence, by the time he reaches his pinnacle fight—a career peak Fanny singlehandedly makes possible—he has let his fame get to his head. After he wins, Jerry is lured away by a gold-digging blond showgirl, Lil.

While Lil (until then Mack McCloskey’s girlfriend) prays on Jerry’s successes, Fanny works her funny girl magic onstage. Dressed in a swim cap and a fluffy white tutu, Brice emerges from behind a constructed set, jutting out her chin in sharp, birdish pecks to greet the nightclub audience. Climbing up and over the angular base of the set—an art deco tree with oversized daises—she reveals her own pointed knobs of elbows and knees, landing on both feet with evident satisfaction. Run run run run run, stop, look, eyes open wide at audience, and her chin pecks forward in time with the toy flute. With knees slightly bent and arms hung front and low, her carriage leans in. Lifting a finger as if with a bright idea, she begins to sing.

In place of “Becky Is Back in the Ballet,” but with a similar tune and tenor, Brice sings “Gorgeous to Be Graceful,” whose lyrics provide a perfect counterpart to everything her body does. In the put-on Yiddish dialect that made her famous, Fanny sings, “The one consuming passion of my life / Is not to play a fiddle or a pipe / I want to be a dancer / my spirit sets me free / I long to be so slender and so sleek.” She sings of the classic swan image. “To show my limb to him and him and him,” she continues, pointing with her index finger adoringly at the crowd. The next lines continue the caricature of a girl who dreams of ballet but is not fit for the part or the costume. “My dress is a cocoon / If I don’t breathe I’ll swoon,” she draws her flexed fingers down her bodice, “Oh I can get to dancing awful soon.” In the comic moments before the next phrase starts, she futzes with the back clasps of the costume as if to loosen it. In the split seconds before the melody picks up, she blurts out, “Now let’s take it off!” When the song picks up again, so does she, with a smiling set of hops that skip across the stage. “Oh it’s gorgeous to be graceful / To fleek and fluck and fly / To make like dis and make like dat [she lifts knees in an overly literal display of turn out] / And let the evening breeze go by.” At this, Brice stands with legs spread and squatting too wide in an overstated second position, lifting up her tutu on the timing of the slide. With a childish self-satisfaction reminiscent of Brice’s famous little girl routines, she continues through the next stanza knock-kneed, wide-eyed, and grinning.

The tone shifts: Camille Saint-Saens’s Le Cygne begins, and Brice becomes the dying swan. At that split second, the camera cuts to Jerry and Lillian at a front-row table. The blond antagonist is arm in arm with the newly undefeated boxer, tapping her fingers against her cheek out of spite and boredom with Brice’s performance. Jerry’s face, transfixed, remains riveted on the damsel duck swan. The camera follows his eyes back to Fanny, who has traded out the traditional ballet’s entrance of bourres with a turning circle of soft steps in demi-pointe and a slight plié. The bend in her knees allows her center of gravity to hang back, counterbalancing the forward undulations of her wrists and the weighted bobbing of her chin that accentuates the rhythmic plucking of the strings rather than the melody. Completing her soft circle, Fanny crosses her arms at her chest and casts her eyes coyly aside. Effectively romancing herself as well as the onscreen audience with demure wings of a would-be swan, she appears entranced in her own dancing jouissance. The performer’s pleasure is so palpable that it seems entirely convincing when she fails to notice an elf-like creature pop up from behind the stage set. His pointy hat and impish steps are as spindly as his gaze, and he shoots an arrow that pierces Fanny’s back. She reacts with a sudden pinch of her shoulders, and a muted trumpet cries out in cartoonish punctuation. Her eyes bulge and her hand-wings flick at her nose as if wicking away a splash of water.

The camera cuts to Jerry long enough to see his pleasure too as his hands rush to rapid applause. Fanny waddles pelvis first to her downstage exit with eyes cast downward, and as she leaves, the scene shifts back to Lil, who steals back Jerry’s attention with an adulterous baby voice. Lil insists that Jerry accompany her to a party later that night, and in her seduction, she tells Jerry that he’d look so much better if he “fixed” his post-fight nose, which now faces the camera at an extreme, bent angle.

When Jerry heads backstage to Fanny’s dressing room to celebrate the fight, he praises her for a stellar performance. “I like everything you do” he says, taking a seat beside her on the chaise lounge and leaning in. But as promising as Jerry’s backstage flirtations may seem, he spends their suggestive moments alone asking for permission to leave early, entirely swept up in the requests of his blond date. On his way out, Jerry goes to the mirror to check out his crooked nose, asking Fanny how much it would cost to get his nose fixed. She answers with masked disappointment, “What’s the point of getting your nose fixed if some other guy will come around and unfix it?” “What guy?!” Jerry’s ego quips back, hurt by Fanny’s pragmatism. The scene ends with him gazing at himself in the mirror.

Fanny’s heart becomes increasingly broken over the next several scenes as Jerry falls for Lil’s shallow affections and the two become engaged. Fanny finds out about the impending marriage when she visits Jerry in his new apartment; she notices his nose job first, and then she sees Lil. “Swell apartment, swell nose, swell dame, and to you, a swell finish,” she declares, outwardly angry for the first time in the film. When a rematch is arranged for Mack and Jerry, a nonplussed Fanny coaches dispassionately from the corner. Her face lights up as she gets an idea. Animated now, she yells to Mack, “Go for the nose! Go for the nose!” The single punch is a total knockout and the ref’s countdown. In the locker room Fanny’s brother asks why she did it. “I liked his old nose better.” A broken down Jerry enters and refuses to talk to Fanny, his pride too injured to see through her betrayal. Shortly afterward, Mack comes in to show off his big win, with Lil on his arm and an entourage of press photographers. “If I ever catch you with Lil again, I’ll beat your ears off,” he warns Jerry. Fanny steps in between the men, provoking Jerry to find his power in revenge. Fanny officiates the backstage fight, inches away from the brawl until Jerry makes the final knockout. Mack’s limp body is dragged out, and Fanny and Jerry are once again alone. Standing very close now, she says to him, smiling, “You can lick any guy in the world,” to which he replies, ending the film, “You mean we can.”

Happily together again as boychick and boss lady, the film ends with a vague semblance of romance suggested by her smarts and his common sense. But still, no kiss or dancing duet designates this as anything more than reconciliation. In striking ways, this ambiguity about romantic pursuits mirrors Brice’s own life and notorious lack of a hold on love. By the time the movie was made, the actress had been married three times, the third to Billy Rose, who would later leave her for an Olympic swimmer. Most famous was Brice’s relationship with Nicky Arnstein, a professional gambler and ex-convict. In a well-known incident during their marriage and before this film was made, Arnstein was charged in a Wall Street bond theft, and Brice was the one who pled his innocence and funded his legal defense, at great expense. Arnstein served three years and then left Brice and their two children, disappearing totally from Brice’s life. The ending of Be Yourself is less bleak than this aspect of Brice’s biography, even uplifting and hopeful.

Still, on the question of romance, the film’s message is arguably one of self-love. Even though the title is never explicitly mentioned, there are any number of lessons learned along those lines. If there will be love between Jerry and Fanny in the future, it will be based on the premise of being true to oneself, as depicted most curiously in the preoccupation with Jerry’s nose job. Though not central to the plot, the instance speaks to Brice’s own efforts to change her image to industry standards. After establishing herself as a comic performer, Brice herself had a nose job, with the aim of securing more serious roles with a less ethnic-looking face.13 The plan failed, and audiences preferred the performer in the comic roles they most adored. In this sense, the film’s title seems to stand in for this final reconciliation, less between a man and woman, and more of a woman with herself.

Be Yourself reflects its female lead in subversion of status quo norms, as Brice’s Fanny Field pays her own way in life, managing a fighter and her own feelings. Personifying pre–Production Code representations of women, Be Yourself paints a more complex character and message than were allowed after 1934, when family values and contrived endings would replace stage women living successfully and contentedly alone. Though Be Yourself suggests a version of the reunited couple, albeit with much ambiguity, it veils the heterosexual happy ever after with a message rooted in self-love. To be yourself is perhaps to be most happy, being with yourself, foremost and finally.

Funny Girl Bodies and the Joke of a Jewish Swan

Brice’s failures in love figure prominently in the 1968 film Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand and directed by William Wyler. The film recounts the story of Brice as a Lower East Side daughter of immigrants with American dreams of making it big. She is discovered by Ziegfeld (Walter Pidgeon), who features the young star in the making in a live stage show … as a pregnant bride. Fanny is an instant hit, and the crowd falls in love. Similar to Brice’s own beginnings in show biz, the film tracks the early star defying orders to play her first serious role straight and becoming an overnight stage success. Adapted from the 1964 musical Funny Girl, produced by Brice’s son-in-law Ray Stark, the film follows Fanny Brice in New York City just prior to and following World War I as a Ziegfeld Follies star. In a movie-long flashback, protagonist Fanny reflects back on her turbulent life as the wife of gambler Nicky Arnstein, whose release from prison leads to a painful divorce. Among the musical and movie hit numbers, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” is arguably the show anthem, as the heartbroken star picks up her life again in a song reprise that allows her to realize and reconcile her own belting power.

Just as in Be Yourself, Streisand’s swan humor is more than mere comic relief in an otherwise nuanced love plot. While distinct from musical numbers in the film that deliberately and explicitly move the plot along (“You Are Woman, I Am Man”14), the addition of the swan parody justifies, excuses, and rationalizes the strained romance of the larger narrative. As opposed to Brice’s Dying Swan solo, however, Streisand’s enactment of Brice’s Yiddish swan is a full-scale ensemble remake of Swan Lake act II, complete with a full corps de ballet.15 As the stage unfurls classically pretty swans in perfect unison, sweeping camera angels do their part to match the amorous gaze of hunter-lover Prince Siegfried (danced by Tommy Rall). Enter Streisand, Queen of the corps, arms in fifth high, and for an instant, regally convincing. As Siegfried gestures to shoot, she flaps her arms and runs without haste in a flatfooted circle, interrupting him and the Tchaikovsky overture. “What are you gonna do, shoot da swans? Dese lovelies? My svans girls?! What are you, dumb?” she asks in a Yiddish accent, then begins to sing over a string-heavy score more familiar to musical theater than classical ballet. Her exaggerated turn-out highlights her long, lean limbs exposed under a high-cut tutu, as both her looks and her limericks mock the pretentions of white swan perfection. To the musical accompaniment of a plucking melody made for the movie, Streisand sings à la Brice, “Can’t you see when you look at me what a lovely creature is a swan,” during which she turns to her Prince, now perched on one knee. Lifting her too-perky skirt to make sure he’s paying attention, she teases him with a flirty birdcall: “You-hoo!”

A bird by any other name than a swan princess, Streisand sings that her imperfections are “only fit for consommé.” The play on schmaltzy—the ballet’s traditional sentimentality and the double entendre of a kosher chicken’s cooking fat—is thus driven home. In a temptress’s voice, she then calls out: “Prince!?” He responds with a heroic leap across the proscenium. Undermining his zeal with a stock Jewish female lack of surprise, she condescends, “Vas that necessary?” Hands on her hips, she is a Yiddishe Mama who contrasts with all charm or grace. “You coidn’t valk ova here like a poisson?” The chicken-like swan is thus revised as a heterosexual misfit: a goose from the Jewish ghetto, too demanding, too prudish, and utterly unfit for marriage—and to a Prince, no less.

Marking one of the most, if not the only, dance-heavy roles Streisand has ever played on film, the singer-actress needs no stunt double for the several sequences that follow in this scene. Even in her pushy Jewish play with dancing badly, she commits herself in ensemble sections, leading the corps in simple but completed unison emboîté jumps from one leg in front attitude to another. That the step translates from French as “fitted together” bodes well for Streisand’s full-fledged moment of blending in. And yet it is her dizziness after turning that the camera features in its swelling, circling movement, as if mirroring her essential bodily disorientation and impossible steadiness in the role. No matter the skilled placement of steps on cue with her corps, the part is one for the ultimate klutz, allowed by Streisand’s looks and Yiddish lines. In this sense, it is her Jewishness that throws her and her camera off balance, her funniness, her unsexiness, her Jewish nose that Streisand never changed despite industry pressures.16

By the time Streisand’s swan conjoins again with the Prince for the final pas of this scene, she lets him lift her up, only to then keep going up, like a set piece pulled up into the rafters to be moved mechanically offstage. Humor theorist Henri Bergson notes in his seminal essays on laughter that this very type of bodies acting like machines is one of the classic comic tropes.17 A gendered dance analysis further explains the humor of a pas de deux that is so totally not about the Prince. To mechanize the male-female love duet as a manufactured trope to be taken comically apart is to denaturalize the heterosexual relationship so foundationally at play in balletic and social imagination. Even more, this love scene gone awry enters into sociopolitical conversations of its day. When considered in the context of the feminist liberation movement of the late 1960s, chartered largely by Jewish women, the humor of a princely mishap made fun of social pressures on male-female relationships through near-mechanistic balletic partnering gone wrong.

Streisand’s self-sufficient swan foreshadows the plot line to come as the funny girl protagonist meets Brice’s romantically unfulfilled fate. She concludes the film singing Brice’s hit ballad, “My Man,” to the gambling husband who leaves on account of her public fame, which he could never match or manage. A funny girl’s success is too much for a man to bear, the plot makes clear. For audiences of the late 1960s, who bought the vinyl soundtrack in droves, the ending surely sang of their times, too, as women pushed past glass ceilings at work only to fight similar battles at home. For the generation of Jewish women who idolized Streisand especially, her performance in the role expressed what it was to straddle models of emboldened femininity, in Brice’s times and again in the 1960s, with the potential to end in similar isolation from family and marriage.

Ballet defenders might remind us that the traditional white swan isn’t particularly lucky in love either. The many interpretations of Swan Lake’s ending focus largely on tragic separations of the swan princess and her prince.18 And yet despite doom and gloom, the romantic ballet focused on love, naturalizing its assumed possibility. But while the Swan Lake fairy tale is one of magic sorcery, Jewish swans suffer the spell only of their sustained stereotypes as inferior women. If there is a fantastical bewitchment for the Jewish swan, it is the one these celebrity actresses themselves cast as beloved comic stars, usurping those stereotypes in the name of moving somehow beyond them. The classic swan’s failed dreams of love are ones that Brice and Streisand say a Jewish swan could never truly have to lose. The ballet’s famed curse is thus construed with Jewish meaning: a funny girl lives and dies without love. In both films, financial authority figured by stage success presents outspoken Jewish femininity that can only fall from grace. And yet the joke soloist, in making love to audiences and receiving it back, finds herself otherwise alone. Head of her own flock, she is a soloist on- and offstage. Her dancing humor thus spotlights the sting of much bigger dreams than fame, as her man can only come and go.

In order to conceive of the Jewish swan soloist and her attending disorientation in love and marriage, it is helpful to consider the resistive implications of her swan act in the context of gender and sexuality. For musical theater and film scholar Stacey Wolf, Streisand’s performance of Brice in Funny Girl conceives of a queer Jewish womanhood through body, gesture, voice, and character.19 Wolf argues that while no “homofolk” appear in the film, Streisand’s performance queers representations of Jewish women in a number of ways, including most significantly the dissolution of Fanny’s marriage with Nicky Arnstein (played by Omar Sharif). Like the film’s swan parody, the plot line undermines heteronormative musical theater narratives, disappointing expectations of the musical theater happy marriage.20 The pain of a relationship ruined through the corruption and emasculation of the male protagonist is made the queer cause and consequence of Fanny’s ultimate independence. To sing and dance of swanlike aspirations is thus to enact the defunct fairy tale of a funny girl’s self-reliance in ways that would speak to Jewish American women of the 1930s and late 1960s tethered by patriarchal traditions in similar ways.21

As seen through Streisand’s rendition of Brice, the joke of the Jewish swan both queers white heterosexual femininity and reveals the sustained power of its classical Western-centric swan tropes. As argued by Jewish film theorist Ruth D. Johnston, Jewish joke material takes on new meaning when understood as comic expression by and about the female joker. As a mode of minority discourse, Johnston explains that Jewish joke-work has long been theorized as a significant response to ethnic exclusion and secondary class status. In order to position the female joker, Johnston draws on Freud’s definition of the “dirty joke” to refer to punchlines made between men about women. Reversing that gendered triad of the joker listener subject matter to foreground the female comic, Johnston turns to Homi Babha’s citation of Jewish identity politics in discussion of the postcolonial subject’s self-critical jokes. In Babha’s definition, the joke delivered by the joke teller necessitates its sympathetic reception by the listener-spectator, who is aware of the dominating presence invoked by the joke itself. In the case of the Jewish swan, the singer-dancer makes her audience laugh based on their sympathetic sense of the immigrant plight coded in her Yiddish affectation (unassimilability) and also the ubiquity of the swan as impossible standard of feminine beauty. The ethnic and gender play positions the swan parody as a distinctly Jewish and female joke delivered to audiences who can appreciate the subversion of heterosexist scripts.


The classic ballet swan has come to codify the upward lift of Western culture the world over, and its parody invites critique of an iconic white swan femininity. Its symbol of epic romance has arguably come to epitomize the classical feminine ideal, fixing itself in ballet repertory and social imagination with equal force of fantasy. To perform the role differently, such as through physical and verbal humor, shifts paradigmatic thinking on ballet as cultural pinnacle and its swans as symbolic elite.

Underlining such a possibility, this essay analyzes the dancing joke-work of Jewish film stars Fanny Brice and Barbra Streisand in two ballet parodies at key moments of Jewish female representation in American musical movie history. The first, Be Yourself, hit the silver screen in 1930 at a moment when Jews were comically unassimilable, and ballet parody offered a physical challenge to middle- and upper-class values. The second, Funny Girl, returned to that era from the vantage point of the late 1960s, when Streisand’s Brice returned to a more ethnic past and a proto-feminist Jewish star to reclaim a stake in self-reliance at a time when marriage and family were critical feminist questions.

The pairing of swan scenes in two films has asked how and why Jewish swans play with the white swan role as character foil and comic foible. Close readings of movement description lead to larger questions surrounding representations of Jewish women as defunct feminine archetypes that fail in love. Squawking in voice and body, the Jewish swan delights her audiences with a well-rehearsed act, an ideal divertissement as beloved as the stars who play it. And yet, as Jewish actresses mock the very premise of feminine perfection, they wage a purposeful challenge to princely, patriarchal authority. Yiddish Jewishness functions as a comic vocal and gestural tool of social critique, as the earthiness of a duckish diva deflates the ballon, or corporeal lift, of ethereal white swan femininity. Through their comic, balletic undoings, Brice and Streisand sing and dance of unlovable, unassimilable women in self-reflexive recuperation of the funny girl body.

So etched is the swan in Western-centric standards of feminine grace that its subversive lack of grace surrenders it easily to Jewish joke-work on the failure not only to be loved, but also to assimilate into appropriate womanhood. And yet a key swan play is the space it provides for critical self-acceptance of characters within the larger frame of each film. As the swan parody subverts heteronormative expectations by way of Yiddish funniness, it energizes the message of perseverance that drives both movies. Be yourself, these funny girls say. And all at once, what it may mean to walk like a duck and talk like a duck becomes the perfect weighted play to wage one’s most radical, resistive critique.


Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: Macmillan, 1914.Find this resource:

Drummond, Kent. “The Queering of Swan Lake: A New Male Gaze for the Performance of Sexual Desire.” Journal of Homosexuality 45, nos. 2–4 (2003): 235–255.Find this resource:

Foulkes, Julia L. “Angel’s ‘Rewolt!’: Jewish Women in Modern Dance of the 1930s.” American Jewish History 88, no. 2 (June 2000): 233–252.Find this resource:

Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms. New York: Methuen, 1985.Find this resource:

Johnston, Ruth. “Joke-Work: The Construction of Postmodern Identity in Contemporary Theory and American Film.” In You Should See Yourself: Jewish Identity in Postmodern American Culture, edited by Vincent Brook, 207–229. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Juhasz, Suzanne.“Queer Swans: Those Fabulous Avians in the Swan Lakes of Les Ballets Trockadero and Matthew Bourne.” Dance Chronicle 31, no. 1 (2008): 54–83.Find this resource:

Mock, Roberta. “Female Jewish Comedians: Grotesque Mimesis and Transgressing Stereotypes.” New Theater Quarterly 15, no. 2 (May 1999): 99–108.Find this resource:

Pirkko, Markula. “The Dancing Body without Organs: Deleuze, Femininity, and Performing Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12, no. 1 (2006): 3–27.Find this resource:

Sarna, Jonathan D., and Jonathan Golden. “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century.” Brandeis University, National Humanities Center. this resource:

Schwartz, Selby. “The Dying Swan: How Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo Solve the Problem of the Aging Ballerinas” Ballet-Dance Magazine (May 2012). this resource:

Schwartz, Selby. “The Politics of Dancing: Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.” Postgraduate Journal of Culture and the Arts, no. 4 (Spring 2007): 1–12.Find this resource:

Silverman, Sime. Review of Follies of 1916. Variety, June 16, 1916.

Van de Merwe, Ann. “My Man: The Vocal Signature of Fanny Brice,” Phenomenon of Singing 7 (2009): 139–141.Find this resource:

Wolf, Stacy. “Barbra’s Funny Girl Body.” In Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, edited by Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini, 246–265. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1) According to Markula Pirkko, the image of the classic female dancer emphasizes the characteristics connected to the ideal Western femininity such as ethereal beauty, lightness, youthfulness, and/or sexual attractiveness. “The Dancing Body without Organs: Deleuze, Femininity, and Performing Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 12, no. 1 (2006): 3–27.

(2) Cupie dolls hung naked together with rotating heads, and a wire mirror frame of hand-welded curse words showcased my sister’s early metal work in a show about women and the pressures to be perfect. Julia Schwadron, Sugar (BFA solo thesis show, University of California, San Diego, 1997).

(4) Ann Van de Merwe, “My Man: The Vocal Signature of Fanny Brice,” Phenomenon of Singing 7 (2009): 139–141.

(5) Sime Silverman, Review of Follies of 1916, Variety, June 16, 1916,

(7) In the same period, Brice also lampooned Martha Graham in a sketch called “Modernistic Moe,” drawing out the modern dance expressive mode of addressing social issues of the downtrodden. Picking up on themes of social justice and labor organizing made at modern dance statements of Jewish choreographers like Sophie Maslow and Helen Tamiris, Brice made fun of the art form’s seriousness, while joining its Jewish women’s anthem. Impersonating Graham while joining her Jewish contemporaries, Brice famously cried out “Rewolt!” Julia L. Foulkes, “Angel’s ‘Rewolt!’: Jewish Women in Modern Dance of the 1930s,” American Jewish History 88, no. 2 (June 2000): 233–252.

(9) Linda Hutcheon, Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth Century Art Forms (Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2000).

(10) Jonathan D. Sarna and Jonathan Golden, “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century,” Brandeis University National Humanities Center,

(11) Hutcheon refers to the critical distinction between conservative and revolutionary techniques of parody in Theory of Parody, 75.

(12) At the same time, any number of other deadly plots picked up on the dying swan ethos in serious and funny ways. In the same years that Brice was performing “Becky” for vaudeville audiences, a 1917 Russian film, The Dying Swan, by director Yevgeni Bauer, told the story of a ballerina strangled by an artist. Russian (and Jewish) star ballerina Maya Plisetkaya reinterpreted the swan as an old woman who stubbornly, but uncomically, resists the effects of aging. Later in the twentieth century, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo makes total fun of the piece. All of Ida Nevasayneva’s feathers fall off by the end of the piece, and in signature Trockadero camp, the travesty dancer performs her death as a sequence of failing limbs she tries to overlook. The piece ends not with the death, but with the dancer’s several returns to the stage proscenium for more and more applause.

(13) According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Brice seemed to have decided that her Yiddish-accented routines had become too limiting, particularly in the xenophobic and racist climate of the 1920s, when prejudice against ethnic groups was very real. Brice hoped cosmetic surgery would minimize ethnic stereotyping and give her the chance to be taken seriously for dramatic roles (

Ziegfeld grimly commented: “She’s become serious and that’s fatal for a funny woman.” New York wit and poet Dorothy Parker quipped that she “cut off her nose to spite her race” ( The surgery did not yield the results she had expected, as she still found serious roles or comedic ones unassociated with her Jewishness difficult to find. Brice accepted the inevitable and returned to comedy.

(14) In “You Are Woman, I Am Man,” Arnstein convinces Brice of his romantic interest in her.

(15) Brice performed the number live in the 1931 Ziegfeld Follies, just a year after Be Yourself came out in theaters.

(16) “The Streisand Profile: The Nose,” Barbra Streisand Archive library,

(17) Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (New York: Macmillan, 1914).

(18) Depending on the restaging, Odette drowns, disappears, or is otherwise doomed in the entrapped body of a swan by the betrayal of her prince, who mistakes her identity at the ball in act III. Only in versions made largely for children or under the Soviet regime (the Mariknsky Ballet, then the Kirov, in 1950) do the two live happily ever after.

(19) Stacey Wolf, “Barbra’s Funny Girl Body,” in Queer Theory and the Jewish Question, ed. Daniel Boyarin, Daniel Itzkovitz, and Ann Pellegrini (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 246–265.

(21) For more discussion of queer swans, see Kent Drummond, “The Queering of Swan Lake: A New Male Gaze for the Performance of Sexual Desire,” Journal of Homosexuality 45, nos. 2–4 (2003): 235–255; and Suzanne Juhasz, “Queer Swans: Those Fabulous Avians in the Swan Lakes of Les Ballets Trockadero and Matthew Bourne,” Dance Chronicle 31, no. 1 (2008): 54–83.