Barbra Streisand has been a household name for almost sixty years. From her television debut on the Jack Parr show, to her recent tour across America, she’s managed to stay relevant in American culture.
Neal Gabler, author of Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power, has tried to understand Streisand’s staying power over the years. And he doesn’t think you can boil it down to just one trait.
“There were several things about her persona that were pioneering,” Gabler explains. “She came on as a kook -- a young lady who wore outrageous clothing, she spoke in non-sequiturs, and her whole attitude was effervescent and over the top.”
Perhaps more importantly, though, she was overtly Jewish in an era when Hollywood eschewed ethnicity at every chance. She was gawky, funny, and not the least bit glamorous.
“She appealed to people who were not beautiful, who were not handsome, who were not mainstream, who were not wasps; people who were marginalized, disempowered, slighted and humiliated,” Gabler says. “That was the basis of her appeal and her career.”
Streisand made being uncool, well, cool. She brought the outsider in and made her hip. She refused to apologize for her ethnicity or gender.
But moving from actress to director, as Streisand did, proved a difficult challenge. Producers of the first film that she directed, Yentl, required her to put down some of her own money to complete the project. And her meticulousness on set gave her a pretty terrible reputation.
Gabler thinks that criticism is more than a little unfounded. “For a man, he’s a perfectionist. For a woman, she’s impossible. And so much of the abuse heaped on Barbra Streisand… would never be applied to a temperamental man.”
Abuse or not, Streisand became one of the most iconic, and long-lasting, names in show biz.
“Women are not powerful enough in Hollywood,” Gabler admits. “But before Barbra Streisand, they weren’t powerful at all.... And in the process of changing Hollywood, she also helped change American culture.”