By: Elicia O
Funny Girl portrays Nick Arnstein as an irresistibly charming yet domineering young man who reeks of self-entitlement——characteristics that distract others from his Jewish ethnicity and hypnotize them into affirming his carefully crafted façade of untainted whiteness. However, Fanny’s contrasting feminine Jewish status often threatens to expose Nick’s fragile ego. As a lower-class woman from Henry Street, Fanny doesn’t have many avenues through which she can abandon her Jewish identity. So, she opts to trade it in for fame and love. While Nick’s assumption of toxic masculinity and sexuality have afforded him the erasure of his Jewish identity, they also aid in destroying everything his façade has built by triggering the subsequent demise of Fanny, his marriage, and ultimately himself.
Nick consistently wears a suit throughout the musical as a constant sign of his white class status, as if we needed a reminder. Notably, when Nick first meets Fanny, he swaggers into her dressing room wearing a carefully pressed tux and white ruffled shirt, accented with a creased, white pocket-handkerchief. However, Fanny is still in her costume from the night’s performance. Nick’s costume provides him with an air of distinction and superiority over those around him, especially Fanny. As if the tux and pocket hanky weren’t enough to assert his self-importance, he chimes in on Fanny’s conversation with her boss without hesitation. In taking over her business deal unsolicited, he is enacting the misogynistic role of the male savior and provider for a woman whom he barely knows. He sees a poor, helpless woman in need of a man’s touch to “take care of business” and get her what she wants. The only advice Fanny offers in return is a laundry tip on how to keep his shirt from going limp. This comment reinforces Nick’s perpetuation of antiquated gender roles, amplifying his superior masculine status. Thus, Fanny’s role in the relationship is to aid Nick and cater to his needs while Nick acts as “the breadwinner.” How domestic.
The gender roles that Nick establishes in his first encounter with Fanny permeate every subsequent interaction and give her a subconscious sense of reliance on Nick as she equates him with the reason for her success. When Fanny sees Nick again after landing a job with Mr. Zigfield, she automatically assumes that Nick must have been the reason she got the job. Predictably, Nick does very little to convince her otherwise. Under Nick’s influence, Fanny has fallen prey to the idea that she needs a man to be successful in her career.
Nick doesn’t seem to be very knowledgeable about his Jewish roots, but he is very well-versed in gold digger. When unfamiliar with a Yiddish word that she uses, Fanny questions whether Nick is sure he’s Jewish. Naturally, he shrugs it off and changes the subject to talk about Fanny’s fame and, more specifically, how to use it to advance his preferred white male agenda. Fanny rejects Nick’s invitation to go out for the night and asks him instead if he would like to come to her party back home on Henry Street. Nick is quick to say yes. Now, why in the world would a “Dapper Dan” like Nick Arnstein want to slum it on Henry Street when he could have a night out on the town?
“I Wanna Be Seen With You Tonight” unveils Nick’s not-so-hidden motives for his initial pursuit of Fanny. Nick proceeds to sing of how he just wants to be seen with Fanny. He even confesses that he wishes to “wear [her] like a charm, [her] glitter decorating [his arm].” Nick clearly views Fanny and her accompanying fame as an accessory, a pretty, shiny thing to make him look better by accentuating his pretentious masculine qualities. Nick laces his misogynistic idiocies with flattery, which not only entrances Fanny but also promotes his vision of her as an understated accent piece whose sole purpose is to inflate his white, male ego.
Nick’s behavior at Fanny’s party on Henry Street also conveys his lack of interest in Jewish affairs. Nick immediately leaves Fanny’s side upon entering and saunters over to the corner for a smoke, while Fanny dances with her Jewish family and friends. He only regains interest in the festivities when someone suggests a game of poker. Nick adopts a consistently “too cool for school” attitude toward Jewish culture. He not only exhibits an utter disregard for his Jewish heritage, but actively sets out to avoid it. Meanwhile, Fanny delights in spending time with her Jewish family and has developed an appreciation for the Yiddish language. She doesn’t shy away from her culture because she has no reason for hiding it. In fact, she often incorporates it into her musical numbers to get an extra laugh, like in her performance of the overtly sexual and patriotic Private Schwartz. She uses her Jewish identity to promote her fame and wears it on her sleeve as Nick wears his toxically masculine, white class status on his. More specifically, in Nick’s case, he has severed any ties to his Jewish roots in favor of the advancement of his current persona, which embodies white, toxic masculinity.
Nick’s assumption of his white male status naturally comes with an air of entitlement as he finds justification in his motives and dismisses any opposing perspectives. After kissing Fanny at her party, Nick disappears on a business trip for ten months. Naturally, he assumes that an expensive restaurant with French foods that Fanny could only dream of pronouncing should excuse his lack of consideration. So, when Fanny shows up to the date visibly upset, he is quick to call her “bad-tempered” and “childish.” As usual, the man is “cool and rational” while the woman is “overly emotional and dramatic.” In the words of pop-culture icon Taylor Swift, “a man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.”
Sadly,Nick’s invalidation of Fanny’s feelings only plummets her further into the delusion of his misogynistic, white grandeur.He continues to use his cavalier, unbothered attitude to persuade Fanny to not only to succumb to his will but to adopt it as her own. So, when Fanny finally decides to stay, he positively reinforces this decision by calling it a “very sensible” idea. Thus, Nick is conditioning Fanny to abandon her desires for his. Nick also uses this tactic in the bedroom, or in his case, a fancy French restaurant with a couch.
It’s very clear that Nick plans to make advances at Fanny on the date as he’s strategically placed a couch near their dinner table. Thus, Nick is unashamed of his sexuality and purposefully flaunts it in front of Fanny on their date. In contrast, Fanny worries that she won’teven know when Nick is making a move on her. Nick confidently assures her that she will as he is always “very direct” with what he wants. He then perches on the couch and admits that he believes you can have anything if you only insist on it. Thus, Nick adopts yet another classic trope of toxic masculinity as he draws strength and confidence from his sexuality, whereas women like Fanny are groomed to be sheepish and timid. Fanny tries to fight her sexual desires while ruminating over the standards her idol Sadie and her Jewish mother had set for her. Thus, Fanny’s instinct is to allow her Jewish ties to influence her decisions, while Nick is driven by his sense of male entitlement to getting what he desires.
Despite Nick’s very forward approach to seduction, he carefully maintains his chivalrous exterior as he frequently compliments Fanny, pulls out her chair, and orders for her. However, growing eager, he then proceeds to sing “You Are Woman, I Am Man” to coax her into sleeping with him on the couch that he has so graciously provided. He also sings that “[she] is smaller, so [he] can be taller than.” Thus, Nick simultaneously flaunts his sexuality and asserts his male dominance by encouraging Fanny to give in to their primal nature. Conveniently, this is the same primal nature that demeans women and subjugates them to the same will that drives the male gaze.
For the second half of the musical, it seems that Nick has got Fanny right where he wants her. Fanny’s priorities shift as she has alienated herself from her Jewish family and friends so that she can fully invest in her relationship with Nick. She’s grown to develop both an emotional and–albeit very short-lived–financial dependence on him, but the tables quickly turn. Fanny offers to fund Nick’s casino business herself, so Nick can stay home with her and make her opening nights instead of going on business trips looking for investors. Given Nick’s track record for his perpetuation of more traditional gender norms, it’s no surprise that he hesitates. Fanny views herself as an equal in their relationship, adopting an attitude of “what’s mine is ours.” However, Nick is still stuck in his tendency to allow his sexist ideals of male dominance to fuel his decisions. Ultimately, he opts to compromise his dominant white male status and accepts Fanny’s money. He admits that he feels smothered by Fanny in her attempts to hold him so close, but it’s too late. His conditioning of Fanny to equate him with the ultimate source of her success and happiness has finally come back to haunt him. However, Nick simply chooses to stroke his fragile ego by remembering that because he’s assumed this white class male status, he knows that “fortune’s a fickle dame” and “lady luck changes affection.” Nick possesses this air of invincibility as he compares his current misfortune to just another woman for him to take advantage of and bend to his will. So, who runs the world? Well, according to Nick Arnstein, the answer is always rich, white males. However, we soon come to find that there may have been more truth in the original Queen B’s lyrics, at least in Nick’s case.
When Nick’s casino business inevitably fails, Fanny uses her connections to try once again to bail him out, but this time without his knowledge. Nick is furious when he finds out that Fanny was puppeteering his most recent and only business deal. Nick’s outburst reveals a break in his usual trend of being perfectly content with using Fanny for her fame. Now, he sees Fanny’s fame as a threat to his assumed control over setting the parameters for their relationship and blames her for it. This scene exposes his insecurities as he wrestles with his need to feel like a man, which stems from his ability to provide and be in control of their relationship. His reality of being financially dependent on his wife falls short of his warped standards of toxic masculinity and his original plans for conditioning Fanny to rely on him for her needs.
Ultimately, Nick crumbles under the pressure to maintain his façade of toxic masculinity and winds up in jail after becoming so desperate to feel in control again. Fanny blames herself for Nick’s break, his conditioning of her finally manifesting in a blind, unconditional love for him, despite his negligence with her emotions. Thus, Nick abandoned his Jewish identity in favor of the amplification of his white male identity, but it restricted him to a standard at which he was incapable of consistently performing. Nick and Fanny’s resulting demise act as a practical example of how traditional tropes of toxic masculinity both harm women as well as the men who subscribe to them.