“So why was I born a woman?”
“Even Heaven makes mistakes.”
This feels so distinctly a trans narrative that I actually gasped when I read it. When I was young, I too thought heaven had made a mistake in the form given to me. I asked this question, about whether that form was a mistake, of my mother, of G-d, and of the stars above our backyard, every time we came home at night and I had a moment alone on the path from the garage into the house. That the film has none of this indeterminacy, or alternatively none of this confidence—that it makes a point of depicting Yentl’s disguise as Anshel as a hardship she must endure to access what she wants, the study of Talmud—makes it difficult to find in this part of the film its trans narrative, though the pieces are there. At the same time as Streisand and her collaborators speak in interviews about how convincing Streisand is “as a boy,” the movie variously insists that she does not look like a boy—and that in fact the community is a bit dull for missing it. It’s in this tension, between Streisand’s supposedly masculine aspect and her purportedly feminine being, that her face refuses any simple understanding of gender. Everybody is so close to understanding, both inside the movie and out, that a face might be androgynous, or that if it is not androgynous it might be distinctly attractive whether presented as either masculine or feminine, or that what ultimately makes a conventionally beautiful face into a person you love is not its conventions but its variations. It’s in the face that the question around gender cannot be simplified on film, whatever happens in the narrative.
Within the small number of people Yentl attends to—a group of people who all love each other, in ways that are not only conventionally romantic—their love estranges them briefly from the gendered division the film constructs. It’s no accident that the love between Avigdor and Hadass is the one the viewer has to take most on faith. Over the course of the film we watch the asymmetrical ways in which Anshel and Avigdor, and then Anshel and Hadass, grow their relationships by spending time with each other, which in this movie mostly means looking at each other as they ostensibly study. (I can relate.) In an earlier scene, Yentl/Anshel and Avigdor argue about scripture, and then wrestle as a way of arguing; the camera looks up into Avigdor’s face looking down into Anshel’s face, which has all of Streisand’s intimate expression combined with her extravagant gesture. Detail, but make it maximalist. Her nose, purportedly big and distinctive, has a delicateness to it—perhaps because she’s always jutting it out, alone. The sun glows behind Avigdor’s head and you can’t see Anshel, but you can see, in looking at Avigdor, what Anshel looks like to him. Like the sun.
What does Streisand’s face look like, in Yentl? Is it a man’s, or a boy’s, or a woman’s? Many people in the film are very sure of one or the other, though the film itself never settles, moving the camera from Streisand’s left to right side, from Yentl to Hadass to Avigdor to the crowd of young men in the yeshiva, including the women Streisand cast as men to sprinkle more beardless faces throughout the background. In a way, the film bends around Yentl; it is Streisand’s famous ego, or it is what happens when you move towards your desire. What gender transition and Yentl have in common is the feeling of tilting your face, lit by a candle, up towards the moon as you invite change into your life. This is a change you cannot fully control, but that you welcome anyway, because whatever other hardships it may bring it frees you from a pain that is intolerable, or it lets you enter a world you find irresistible. You can see this kind of suffering or withholding, and then this expanding, on a face. But you don’t find it in that face’s features. Instead, you read it—which is to say, you study it, and so, if you want, you can help to bring it forth.