In the final scene of the 1968 movie Funny Girl , entertainer Fanny Brice (played and entirely embodied by Barbra Streisand) sits before the mirror in her dressing room, reflecting on her life as one of the most celebrated stage performers of her generation. Despite her fame and fabulous leopard hat, there is a tangible melancholy in the air: Fanny is about to see her husband, the smooth-talking gambler Nicky Arnstein, for the first time following his stint in prison. She wrings her hands, raw nerves exposed.
When Nicky finally appears in the doorway and the strings swell, what could be a tender and vulnerable scene quickly devolves. Fanny deactivates the emotions that have clearly been swirling in her turban-clad head and reverts to her default defense mechanism: humor. “I feel like a kid on a blind date,” she jokes, her voice trembling.
For once, Nicky doesn’t seem to find her attempt at banter amusing. His eyes coolly gloss over and he smirks—understanding that she is not just unwilling, but incapable of bringing herself to say what she truly means. Her humor is her armor, and while it protects her from those who’d hurt her, it also keeps her from letting in those who’d love her. When they part, there is a sense that this pair will never see each other again. But Fanny brushes it off. In five minutes, she will step onstage for a sold-out performance. It’s there that she’ll find her validation.
As a piece of cinema, Funny Girl has not aged particularly well—it’s long, chock-full of mid-century Hollywood tropes of dubious political correctness, and, well, the kids aren’t as into Streisand as they used to be. Still, by the time the credits roll, you might walk away awed by Fanny’s resilience, a hitch in your breath at the sheer power of Streisand’s legend-making performance as a girl who made it big against the odds.
Or, like me, you might be struck by the tragic realization that what this film—which was made nearly fifty years ago—implies about female worth and beauty still holds true today: If a woman isn’t beautiful and wants to be loved or valued, it often seems like her only option is to be funny. And even then, it’s no guarantee.
Musical numbers like “If a Girl Isn’t Pretty” and “His Love Makes Me Beautiful” inspire a particular kind of cringing, proving how unchanged our values and standards really are. In the latter number, Fanny is set to perform a bridal-themed ballad for her big Ziegfeld Follies debut. At the last minute, she panics, insisting that if she were to sing a song in which she asserts her own beauty, she would be laughed back into the wings. Firmly believing that she is unattractive, Fanny alters her performance: She stuffs a pillow under her wedding gown costume, and transforms the song into an ironic charade about being a pregnant bride. Yes, she is funny—but she is also unable to believe in her own worth without a laugh attached.
Funny Girl is not just a soundstage spectacular, à la The Music Man, but a codified portrait of the difficult truth that a woman often has only two choices when it comes to social capital: beauty and humor. Beauty, of course, is the ideal, and humor the fallback. From birth, a misogynistic society molds women to focus on their appearance over any other trait. How a woman physically presents herself dictates how non-visual characteristics, like her personality and intelligence, are perceived. To twist the knife, patriarchal standards keep the bar for female beauty constantly out of one’s grasp—standards are often based on skinniness, youth, and whiteness. Yes, there are women who recognize their own beauty, and some who use their appearance as a means to an end. But the subjectiveness and bias of beauty standards means approval can always be withheld.
For many women, the weight of our presumed insecurities compels us to learn another way to remain valuable. We realize, early in life, that our faces will never be symmetrical enough, nor our thigh gaps wide enough. As a result, some of us use humor to get the validation we believe our faces and bodies will never bring. If beauty and humor were not the sole spheres in which it felt safe for me to exist as a woman, I probably wouldn’t have cried when Nicky Arnstein walked out of that dressing room for the last time.
I knew I was a funny girl when I was nine years old and already taller than every boy in my class. When I convinced a friend to tell my crush of my feelings, I watched from across the room as he recoiled in horror at the news, quite literally knocking over a desk in shock. If they’re gonna laugh anything , I thought, I might as well put on a show.
Rather than attend either of my high school proms, I opted for driving around the mall, listening to David Gray, and reckoning with the fact that yet another year had passed and I had become no more desirable. Still, I attended the pre-prom picture-taking sessions in my friends’ living rooms, and posed with a purposeful awkwardness among beautiful teenaged girls in taffeta and polyester blends. The parents—snapping away with their outdated digital cameras—found this stunt no less than side-splitting. She’s wearing old jeans! She doesn’t have a boyfriend! Funny stuff.
In college, eager for the love and recognition of my admirable professors, I took on the role of class clown. The more I respected and cared for the material and the person teaching it, the more I acted out—even going so far as to refer to Dante Alighieri as a “fuckboy” in class. Bored and hungover students met this type of engagement with appreciation—a pitying, bleary-eyed sort of appreciation, but appreciation nonetheless.
This protective, performative mentality has seeped into my romantic relationships as well. Though I have (regrettably) never performed with the Ziegfeld Follies or had a scheming, hair gel-abusing husband, being a funny girl like Fanny continues to skew the way I see myself in the eyes of others, particularly when it comes to performing my sexuality. My Tinder profiles are accompanied by cartoon quotes; I cast aside relationship-melting fights with a punchline; I swiftly follow earnest text messages with an indeterminate “lol,” the battering of my emotions greeted with a good-natured shrug. Infinite is the number of times some artist, actor, or musician has told me, “This isn’t anything serious,” only for me to respond, like a puppy, “Ha! Of course not! Where did you get such a wild idea?”
I actively witness myself engaging in this behavior—misconstruing love, attention, and validation—and yet I can’t bring myself to change. The thought of turning to someone I love and telling them precisely who I am terrifies me. Instead I joke, and hope I never run out of one-liners.
The character of Fanny Brice is not the sole cultural marker of what it means to be a funny girl. Many women have worked the notion of humor as a path to validation into both their routines and their public personas. Phyllis Diller, one of the first mainstream female comedians, paved the way with her purposefully garish outfit choices and hairstyles (imagine a rainbow with the world’s worst case of static cling). Tina Fey’s character on 30 Rock was shown eating amounts of food intended to seem grotesque. Many of Kristen Wiig’s most famous SNL characters were funny simply because they were portrayed as physically awkward. These characters are hyperbolic representations of some of the ways in which everyday funny girls distort themselves into someone that is not necessarily who they are, but someone you might pay attention to.
I imagine just how well these famously funny women know that the dichotomy between beauty and humor is one of history’s greatest scams. While female comedians exhaust their routines with references to the many ways in which their physical selves may not meet the apparent requirements for beautiful, patriarchal perfection, they are constantly confronted with one of society’s other favorite patriarchal adages: “Women aren’t funny.” Or at least, they aren’t supposed to be. If they try to be funny, it’s because they are not beautiful, and if they are not beautiful then why do they even exist?
Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and pause in shock. It requires regular, forceful reminders to realize that I am no longer a girl of twelve, bound by cystic acne and sweat stains and hair in all the wrong places. Now I might even be someone I’d consider beautiful. But at this thought I flinch and turn away from the mirror because, though I have been told there is nothing more important than being beautiful, I have grown paranoid enough of my potential beauty to remain permanently convinced it’s not there.
Even Streisand has consistently been forced to reckon with her appearance. While she is unquestionably a glamorous woman, profiles of and interviews with the star repeatedly engage with her looks through a doubtful lens. She must be used to telling the story by now, but no profile on the multi-talented, EGOT-winning performer seems to consider itself complete without choking forth an admission of a childhood spent being ridiculed for her nose. When you are a funny girl, even if you grow out of it, they don’t let you forget.
The most iconic scene of Funny Girl comes midway through the film, when Fanny sings “People.” She stands on a staircase, clad in a bejeweled gown, and howls that “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” It’s easy to see the ballad as a love song, an ode to the power of romance and, well, needing .
But “People” is, in fact, a lament—a melancholy testament to Fanny’s desperate lack of human connection. She understands that a relationship can be a life-altering force, and craves the wholeness she thinks love will bring. At the same time, she acknowledges that she has forced herself into independence out of a fear that she is fundamentally unlovable. It’s her most vulnerable moment in the film, and simultaneously an expression of her failure to be vulnerable to others. “People” is the cry of every funny girl, boxed into a corner by others’ perceptions: Even if we’re furious at the patriarchy for demanding we be beautiful, for not letting us be funny—even if we want to burn it all down and refuse to participate— funny girls are still people who need people.
Like Fanny, I often fantasize about the power inherent in reconciling my beauty, my humor, my intelligence, my kindness, my sexuality, my talent into one consummate vision of myself, as opposed to offering up Katie, piecemeal, to the world. Until then, I will continue to joke and prod and dance with the hope that it will make me as lovable as an Aphrodite; that someone will take a funny girl like me into their arms and remind me that the world may not be my stage, but I am worthy of the world regardless. Until then, I’ll always feel a little scared that I may someday lose who I am in an attempt to perform—to be the funny girl others might want me to be.