Funny Girls Break Glass Ceilings

By Elise Darby

Smart. Hilarious. Talented. All of these words are not typical characteristics used to describe Jewish women in the early 1900s, but the character of Fanny Brice is uniquely beautiful. In the production of Funny Girl, Sheridan Smith’s Fanny Brice reverses stereotypes held for the gender and race roles during this time period by presenting Jewish woman in a bright light. Fanny Brice breaks the glass ceiling held by society through her talent and comedy, not her looks. Fanny Brice’s character makes groundbreaking headway within the roles of gender and race; she is idolized by many for the actions she took towards shattering the glass ceiling. 

Although Fanny, based on the standards held by men, is unattractive, she possesses an alluring air of confidence throughout her musical numbers. While other slim, tall, and stunning Ziegfeld Follies that Fanny is constantly compared to merely stay in the background, Fanny uses bold and flirtatious—yet humorous—choreography during her performances to engage the audience. Sheridan Smith’s acting choices allow the audience to understand the humor behind the production, while highlighting the race and gender roles. The theatre industry, in particular, is critical of women’s beauty. Even the talented and amusing Fanny Brice could not find a job within the theatre industry at first. Mr. Ziegfeld originally cut her because she did not look like the traditional Follie. Woman are seen as objects of desire. In the song “If A Girl Isn’t Pretty,” the lyrics suggest that if a girl does not “shine in every detail,” wear a “standard dress,” or does not have a figure that a man’s “wife can’t substitute,” she should “dump the stage and try another route.” Men hold woman to an exceedingly high expectation within the theatre industry, which discourages Fanny. Still, she persists. Fanny breaks the typical “showgirl” stereotype. She does not have the same look or appeal as the Ziegfeld Follies that surround her; in comparison to their “ideal” height, weight, and facial structure, Fanny possesses traditional Jewish features that, although beautiful in their uniqueness, are not the typical conceptions of beauty. Unlike the other women on stage, Fanny dresses modestly: she does not wear short, revealing dresses; her outfits provide coverage and fit loosely. In one of the numbers, for example, the Follies are featured in short, seductive dresses that highlight their slim figures and long legs. Meanwhile, Fanny takes the stage in pants that are stuffed to make her look wider, a mustache, and glasses. The outfits that Fanny chooses to wear contrast the typical outfits worn by women featured on stage; she is redefining gender roles. She wears different styled clothing, and she is built differently, but she continues to embrace her own unique beauty.  

Fanny is not used to attention from men. Because of this, when Nick Arnstein demonstrates an interest towards her, Fanny quickly becomes uncomfortable and awkward. When Nick begins his fascination with Fanny, her body language makes her discomfort unquestionable. She constantly positions herself away from Nick, avoids eye-contact, and twiddles her fingers. She is clearly very nervous and tense around Arnstein. Fanny Brice typically uses humor to hide her true feelings. Fanny Brice can stuff a pillow under a wedding dress during a performance with confidence, yet romance and spending a night out with a man is daunting. Sheridan Smith chooses to appear bashful around Nick, which causes the audience to understand that Fanny still gets anxious and insecure despite the bold and comedic personality she presents on the stage. Nick Arnstein made Fanny Brice feel beautiful, which is something a man has never done for her. Nick breaks the societal norm that men uphold of lusting for beautiful, flawless Follie-type girls; instead, Nick falls in love with Fanny, who is uniquely stunning.  

In the performance of “His Love Makes Me Beautiful,” Fanny goes off script and stuffs a pillow under her wedding dress. Additionally, she presents a hand-held mirror in front of her face. As she looks at her reflection, she mocks her own appearance by making an unattractive face, thus implying she is not beautiful, like the women that surround her. Since she is not considered attractive by society, she uses humor and comedic gestures to hide her appearance. She is confident, though not conventionally pretty. Sheridan’s acting clearly shows that Fanny Brice chooses to make a mockery out of her appearance. In fact, presenting herself as a beautiful Follie on stage makes her uncomfortable. The only way that Fanny is able to seem confident in her looks is through humor.   

During this time, there is a received idea that within a relationship, the women rely on the men. Fanny, however, redefined this stereotype. In Funny Girl, the roles are reversed: Nick Arnstein is dependent on Fanny Brice. Additionally, both Fanny and Nick are seen equally. While Nick Arnstein has a powerful name and is well-known within the theatre industry, Fanny becomes just as important. She makes a name for herself and allows her career to soar. Arnstein even admits that Fanny “scares him to death.” To be clear, Fanny Brice—a woman—scares the mighty, impactful Mr. Arnstein. Fanny is creative and entertaining. In fact, when she began to work for Mr. Ziegfeld as a Follie, she would not always remain obedient. Despite Mr. Ziegfeld’s stern tone and position of authority, she would create her own story; typically, it worked in her favor. For example, after the pillow incident during the wedding scene, her boss made her apologize. However, her boss also apologized and admits Fanny not only performed incredibly, but her spontaneity and imagination enhanced the performance. Fanny disregards the male dominance and sticks to her own instincts. Usually, women would be forced into a submissive role, allowing their male employers and those in higher positions to retain superiority. As a performer, Fanny is seen as brilliant: she is smart, independent, humorous, and confident.  

In the end, the men in Fanny’s life became reliant on her. Fanny Brice—the once overlooked performer—is now the star of the show. Mr. Ziegfeld, as well as Nick Arnstein, could not afford to lose her. After Nick Arnstein and Fanny Brice get married, Nick must swallow his pride as the provider of the family and accept financial help from his wife. Nick does not like the idea of having his wife support him financially. After all, the stigma is that the man supports his wife—never the other way around. He needs the help, but he is reluctant to accept it. He repeats that this aid from Fanny is a “temporary arrangement.” Nick does not make it to Fanny’s opening night. Rather than falling back to the typical “norm” of women at this time and remaining silent, Fanny expresses her anger, remains strong in her thoughts, and conveys how she feels towards Nick. She stands up for herself—she is defying old standards. However, Nick admits that he missed her performance because he could not swallow his pride—he is being charged with embezzlement.  

Instead of accepting that the husband messed up, Fanny’s mother convinces her that she caused Nick to commit this crime. After all, the man is the one who is supposed to have the money, the power, and the dominance within a household. Fanny, who has clearly become independent, financially stable, and successful, is hurting her husband’s pride. Her mother tells her that “a man wants to matter” and that Fanny “can’t make someone feel that small” if she wants the relationship to work. She tells her that she must “let him be a man,” implying that he needs to obtain the dominance and control within the marriage to fit the gender role. In response to the conversation with her mother, Fanny decides that she will make a change. She will make Nick feel like he is the boss. She will allow him to get his way. She will conform to the societal norms expected for her role as a wife. Fanny begins to believe that in order for her husband to be happy in their marriage, she has to change how she acts—she cannot be as independent and self-sufficient—or he won’t feel like a man. Before Fanny could make these drastic changes within their marriage, Nick decides it is best if they separate. He could not handle being inferior to Fanny—a woman.  

 While ending the marriage, Nick refers to Fanny as a “funny girl.” In turn, Fanny relates her worth to her humor. As she sits at her dresser, with tears streaming down her face, she repeats the word funny. She sarcastically makes remarks about being “good for a laugh,” even though she isn’t the right woman for Nick. Suddenly, the saddening, slow tone becomes more upbeat and livelier. Fanny begins to realize her own self-worth; she is reminded of who she is.  She beings to sing “I’m The Greatest Star,” which she also sang at the beginning of the musical to demonstrate her confidence as a performer despite her lack of conventional beauty. Once again, this song inspires confidence and dependence within Fanny. Her tears suddenly fade away, the power is back in her voice, and she is back on her feet. As she strips off her robe, her sparkling, eye-catching dress is highlighted—she looks and feels good. She sings the lyrics, “no looking back” and “get ready for me world, because I’m a comer,” in a powerful stance in center stage. Finally, she belts out that nobody—not even Nick Arnstein— “is going to rain on [her] parade.” Men do not define her. She has made it big. No one, including influential men, can ruin the success she has created for herself. 

Aside from gender roles, Sheridan Smith’s character as Fanny Brice changed the way that Jewish women were perceived at the time. The comedy and vast amount of humor was used to change Jewish mockery. Funny Girl provides hope, a sense of integration, and normalizes being both American and Jewish. The production features a successful, stereotypical American man marrying a Jewish woman. In addition to their marriage being uncommon because of the racial differences, Fanny, the Jewish woman, served as a provider for the family. While the American man, who was typically praised and known for his success and wealth, began struggling financially, Fanny gained wealth and became well-off financially. Additionally, as a Jewish woman, Fanny was able to live an “American” lifestyle. Funny Girl broke the stereotypes that were held against Jewish women and portrays a direct idea of what life as an American Jewish woman looks like. Despite her racial identity and the standards that come with it, Fanny is humorous, sharp, and self-reliant. Fanny never compromised her beliefs or her appearance in order to gain success. She simply worked around the fact that she was not considered traditionally pretty. Fanny is a proud Jewish woman; she serves as a representation for other Jewish women as well. She advocates for natural beauty and talent. Other Jewish women are able to look up to Fanny and identify with her because of her background. Back then, it was uncommon for Jewish females to be role models. Overall, Funny Girl makes a clear statement that Jewish people are also Americans. Despite being surrounded by Follies, who are gorgeous, American girls, Fanny makes a name for herself and becomes a star.  

In her revolutionary depiction of realistic beauty, despite being surrounded by women regarded as more beautiful and objectifiable, Fanny Brice utilizes her limitations to avoid the glass ceiling set by women who are outwardly more beautiful. Her depiction of intelligence, humor, and ambition reflects the ideal role model for women striving to find their identity while surrounded by negative influences in the media giving them insurmountable expectations to meet to be considered “beautiful.” Funny girls truly break glass ceilings.

Musical characters

4 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This was a fantastic essay that opened my eyes not only to how much Funny Girl broke stereotypes and glass ceilings but also to how deep-seated those stereotypes went. I loved how empowered your word choice was, and I felt your descriptions of Fanny Brice compel me to want to rewatch the show again, to visualize the detailed descriptions you provided. Finally, I loved how your focus on Fanny Brice embodying her role and worth of a “funny girl” transcended the musical and had cultural implications on how women should be seen past their beauty or sexual appeal and seen for their intelligence, wit, and ambition. Great work, Elise! This was wonderfully enjoyable to read.

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  2. Hi Elise!
    This was a wonderful essay (btw, love the title). l love that you really dove into the stereotypes used in Funny Girl, and I especially like that you talk about Fanny determining her worth via her humor rather than her looks. So many musicals, movies, and TV shows determine a woman’s worth solely on her looks, and it was great to see you discuss Fanny’s intelligence and wit at length. Your observations about Fanny made me rethink my own views towards the character. Thank you so much for your essay!

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  3. This article is very interesting in considering exactly what Fanny Brice did to break gendered norms, and as you said, break the glass ceiling. I had yet to think about how even though Fanny seems so bashful when it comes to men at times, they begin to rely on her more than she does them. She exudes confidence in so many ways, that I think she even fails to recognize. The men in her life see this confidence and obviously admire it. Simply, the show could not go on without Fanny for both Nick and Mr. Ziegfield. I also like how you mentioned the movie normalizing the Jewish-American woman. Her humor is not used to mock her or her background, but to provide laughs about who she is as a person. Her humor is one of her best qualities and when she realizes this towards the end of the film she is better for it and finally able to break out of the constraints she set for herself.

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  4. I’m really interested by your focus at the beginning of this paper on Fanny Price not being conventionally attractive, and how that was relevant to her success and the type of her success. I am honestly a little bit skeptical, though – I know that was the intent of the show, and was definitely relevant in Price’s real life, however I felt like that message felt very flat, due to the casting of the musical. The woman playing Fanny Price was very attractive; it was only her costuming and being told repeatedly that she wasn’t attractive that made a lot of the show make any sense. How do you think that that affected the impact of the musical, and of the messaging around Price’s path to success, specifically? For me, it made it much harder to engage with the material and to emotionally feel what the musical was telling me was true.

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