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COLUMN: Fear of becoming Barbra Streisand has me kvetching

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 4:38 p.m. CDT; updated 4:07 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My cell phone alarm went off at 7 this morning, but I was already awake. It’s Barbra Streisand’s fault.

I fell asleep listening to side two of her greatest hits on vinyl, and the VH1 diva somehow clawed her spooky nails out of the turntable and into my sleep. Although I can’t remember all the nuances and costume changes of the dream, I remember it featured a musical plotline, sequins, the pronunciation of the word “nerve” as “noive” and an overwhelming sense of paralyzing fear. (Lions, tigers and Yiddish, oy vey!) I’m still not sure whether “dream” is a fair assessment, as it was basically an overproduced nightmare, but I am sure of one thing. I am deeply, irrationally terrified of becoming Barbra Streisand.

Please don’t laugh. Given the content, you might be tempted to do so, but I assure you this is a serious matter. There are few things scarier than becoming Barbra Streisand, and by that I am referring less to the complicated Jewish songstress herself than to the (complicated Jewish) characters she portrays in her finest movie moments (“The Way We Were,” “Funny Girl,” “A Star Is Born”). I would certainly not be afraid of being exotically gorgeous with powerhouse vocal cords. I am afraid of being so mentally and emotionally complicated that I end up alone or, much worse, overbearingly dramatic. This, as I mentioned, is not a laughing matter.

It might have something to do with the fact that I saw "Inception" last night, but the idea, if not the dream, has plagued me for the past three weeks. I tend to pick friends who understand my (obsessive) interests, which means that my best friend, Elizabeth, shares my more-than-casual feelings about “The Way We Were.” At the time I first watched it, I had only seen “Hello Dolly!” and a few of her happier movies, so I assumed that the film’s epically dissatisfied ending was a novelty.

I was wrong. Thanks to instant Netflix and some well-chosen late-night PB&Js, I have watched seven Barbra movies in the past two days and learned that Barbra herself is the real novelty, and unhappy endings are not. During our routine discussion of “The Way We Were,” I pontificated on the range of emotions Barbra goes through and how I, as a twenty-something, 37 years after the movie was released, am embarrassingly moved by it all.

Elizabeth’s response: “Well, that’s because you are Barbra Streisand.”

If we had been in a Barbra Streisand movie, that would have been the part of the film where she crinkles her nose, taps her near-freakish nails together and looks melancholy as a montage plays in the background and we hear — despite the logistics — her own voice blast out a power ballad in the background. But because the point of this essay is that I am not actually, and hopefully never will be, Barbra Streisand, this did not happen. Instead, I just looked shocked and meekly realized that as far as movie-musical metaphors are concerned, Elizabeth had hit the right note.

There is not one scene to point to as evidence  for my phobia as much as there are several. Barbra’s characters, for obvious reasons, are always based on Barbra, and her films share the consistent theme that those characters fall in beautiful musical love only to realize that they are “too much” for their men to handle. Too rich, too political, too much of a know-it-all, too strong: In the end, what these things really mean is that she is just too complicated. My favorite parts of Barbra’s movies are always the scenes close to the end in which her man has left her (“Funny Girl,” “Funny Woman,” “A Star Is Born”) or died (“A Star Is Born”) and she is immediately called onstage to deliver an absolutely devastating three-to-nine-minute solo about her love for him. She loves him, she cannot have him and she still belts one out for him. The woman is complex, and what Elizabeth was really telling me is that I am too.

Even in her funniest moments, Barbra is never just a “Funny Girl.” She’s Jewish, she’s enormously successful, she spells her name incorrectly and she has the occasional white girl Afro. At best, she is eccentric. Although I can’t claim any of the first three traits, I, like most of Barbra’s characters, am dramatic, value my future career before everything else in life and in general tend to take what Robert Frost would call the road less traveled by. I’d also venture a guess that a sleepless morning spent terrified that I might become Barbra Streisand qualifies me as eccentric.

But it is the things that we don’t have in common that make the difference. First of all, I cannot sing. In elementary school choir, I was actually asked by my teacher to sing more quietly so that I wouldn’t “make the song ugly.” But the biggest difference, one that might actually keep me from sharing her characters’ tragi-beautiful fates, is that I have seen Barbra Streisand movies. Because it would be way too meta, among other logical reasons, Barbra’s characters have clearly never seen Barbra’s movies, and they do not know the warning signs to watch for. I do. They never know they are destined for a life of dissatisfaction, and they can never hear the string section humming at the signs that her husband will leave her or crash his sports car. Among other things, her movies produce incredible soundtracks, Goodwill record sections and enduring life lessons.

And at the very least, I have also learned a lesson from learning her lessons. Objects in dreams are scarier than they appear. Although the idea of becoming Barbra roused me from slumber, there are worse things than becoming an incredibly strong, if deeply flawed, woman. There are even worse things than becoming Barbra Streisand. Like becoming Liza Minelli, for example.

Kelsey Whipple is the deputy editor of Vox. Along with this fear, she is also afraid of aliens, dinosaurs, hamsters and Jell-O.


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