Posted in musings

identity

I have only watched Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl once in my life – as a teenager, actually! – but it made such a deep impression on me that I still think about it regularly. I believe it was the first time I saw anything explore gender expression and identity with such emotional depth, and I recall feeling simultaneously deeply uncomfortable and deeply resonant with the story and main character (who, for those unfamiliar with the story, is a Jewish girl who creates a male persona (Anshel), so that she can study Talmud, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle of sorts with a fellow student (Avigdor) and the woman he hopes to marry (Hadass)).

In the scenes that have stayed with me most powerfully, Anshel sits at a dining table with Hadass, sometimes alone and sometimes with Avigdor and Hadass’s parents, watching the other woman and pondering her femininity. There’s almost a disgust for it, at times – for the lack of intellectual conversation, for the trivial concerns of cooking and making oneself attractive – and yet also an envy: a two-fold desire both to be the object of this womanly attention and to be able to win the love of another by playing this feminine role. The camera focuses on the beauty and delicacy of Hadass’s face and clothing, on her submissive care for the man she loves, on the softness of her hands as she hands him something. This happens three times in the movie, and while you can find clips of the first two on YouTube, the final brief reprise which has always been the most meaningful to me is apparently stringently protected. In it, Streisand sings of Hadass:

She’s mother, she’s sister
She’s lover
She’s the wonder of wonders
No man can deny
So why would he change her?
She’s loving-she’s tender-
She’s woman-
So am I.

In that moment, caught up in the emotional sweep of the film, I may have wept. “So am I.”

It’s worthwhile to point out, for those who have never seen the movie, that Yentl will never be like Hadass. She doesn’t have the appearance, inclination, or ambition to be able to fulfill her society’s expectations of womanhood – in fact, she is so far from being able to live out that feminine ideal that she’s spent a long time as a man and gone through a lot of wild and unexpected things to preserve that male identity. But here, at the end, she rejects both the male identity of the student and the female identity of the housewife, because neither allows her to be fully herself. She is woman, and knows herself as woman more deeply than she did before hiding her female identity from the world – but she is also a mind made to fly, and has known through the entirety of the film that she cannot sacrifice that intellectual freedom and still remain herself.

As a young person who felt out of step with the feminine expectations I perceived around me, this song helped me to understand that my womanhood was something that came from within, a part of who I am, not an external script that I had to perform lest I be somehow unwomanly or masculine. They were words of defiance even as they were words of admiration: I see your femininity and your beauty, the excellence with which you carry out the societal expectations placed upon you; you are woman and you are a wonder – but so am I, no matter how different my femininity appears, no matter how poorly I perform the role society expects a woman to play (or even if I utterly reject that role!).

Identity is an interesting thing. It feels innate within us, each new label or descriptor something internal that we are coming to understand more deeply rather than an externally created role. When I became a Christian, for example, it didn’t feel like forcing myself into a new mold but like coming home to One who loved me, becoming more truly myself. When I obtained my autism diagnosis, it didn’t seem like a new addition to my person but rather a clarification and summation of who I already was, even though I had to jump through medical hurdles to claim it. My identity as a woman was the same – I heard Streisand’s words, and they didn’t change who I was, but instead allowed me to see who I was more clearly.

In this way, we claim the labels of our identity based on what we see and experience. Like Yentl, I would be uncomfortable calling myself a woman if I thought it meant I had to be like Hadass, because I could never in a million years be fulfilled or even cope well with that kind of life. Like people in my parents’ generation, I would be hesitant to call myself autistic if I associated it only with intellectual delays, severe language deficits, and lack of independence. And like many people in my generation, I would be uneasy calling myself a Christian if it seemed like fundamentalists, bigots, and Christian nationalists were the only groups claiming that name.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many trans and gay individuals seem to come out later in life? They may simply have never seen that identity lived out before in a way that resonated with their true self, and so have been unsure about claiming that label (or even unaware that there were words to describe how they felt inside). But I believe that when they do claim that identity – just as when I found the ability to embrace my womanhood through Yentl or my autism through the online autistic community – that it feels like finding themselves, like finally getting to see a part of who they are more clearly, like belonging more fully in their own selves and making sense of the scattered pieces of their past that never fit together right before.

Yentl ends with the title character on a ship for America, leaving behind the rigid roles of her society to find a place where she can be free to be both a woman and an intellectual – where neither part of her identity needs to be hidden or sacrificed. I wonder if the church can offer that freedom to people today: if it can become a place where someone can be both a woman and a preacher, or be both queer and a Christian; if it can become a place where people can see all the parts of their identities and others’ identities caught up into the life of Christ and the community of God’s children. I am not sure that such a change can happen easily, or quickly, or at all; I am sure that it should.

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