Friday, May 9, 2014

Gender in Fiddler on the Roof

This is an adapted version of a paper I wrote for a class called Modern Jewish Literature.

Norman Jewison’s Fiddler on the Roof (1971) shares the same characters and basic plotlines as several of Sholem Aleichem’s original Tevye the Dairyman stories (1895-1914). However, the two variations tell the tale in different ways. Of particular interest is their divergent treatment of gender. Both Tevye the Dairyman and Fiddler on the Roof are products of their times in regard to gender issues, as seen by the variance in their portrayals of Golde’s agency and Tevye’s assertion of masculinity.

The original Tevye the Dairyman stories give Golde significantly less agency over her daughters’ lives than she has in Fiddler on the Roof. In Sholem Aleichem’s telling, Golde simply passes on the message to Tevye that Layzer Wolf wants to see him. After Tevye informs her that the butcher proposed to marry Tsaytl, Golde claims that she thought that would be the subject matter, but there is no indication in the text that she had any such idea before the meeting. Fiddler turns Golde into an active facilitator in the match between Tsaytl and Layzer Wolf: Yente the matchmaker specifically informs her that the butcher has cast his eye on Tsaytl!” and Golde purposely misleads to Tevye into going to speak with him.

The movie also gives Golde more agency in regard to Chava. In Fiddler, after Chava leaves home with the Russian peasant Fyedka, Golde goes to the Christian section of town, enters the church, and demands to speak with the priest when the deacon seems unwilling to arrange an audience. She then finds Tevye and informs him of Chava and Fyedka’s marriage. This is the opposite of the original story, in which only Tevye speaks with the priest, and Golde never interacts with him directly. When Chava goes missing in the Sholem Aleichem narrative, Golde sends her other daughters to scout the church rather than going herself. Once it is clear that Chava is in the priest’s custody, Golde continues to avoid the church, sending Tevye to confront the priest in her stead.

Golde’s increased agency in Fiddler from the original Tevye the Dairyman stories is a reflection of the times at which the media were created. When Sholem Aleichem wrote his stories in Russia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women did not have agency over their own lives, let alone anyone else’s; wives were ultimately subject to the desires of their husbands. This inequality was basically irrelevant when Fiddler on the Roof came out in 1971. The Second Wave of feminism, when society began to question and ultimately overhaul prescribed gender roles, began when The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Consequently, by the time Fiddler on the Roof was released, its viewers had been influenced by progressive ideas about equality and gender roles for nearly a decade. These feminist sensibilities can be clearly seen in the film adaptation through Golde’s more active role.

In both Fiddler on the Roof and Tevye the Dairyman, Tevye continually asserts his masculinity through attempting to control his own emotions and Golde’s actions. In the original stories, Tevye is anxious that his behavior is not construed as feminine, frequently stating “Tevye is no woman” in his narration to Sholem Aleichem. He says the phrase while refusing to shed tears during what he knows is his last conversation with Hodl, when underscoring his stoicism while waiting for Shprintze to discuss Ahronchik, and when he holds back emotion while Golde is dying. In each of these examples, he is affirming his masculinity by actively disparaging femininity as well as by exerting control over his feelings.

Tevye’s assertion of masculinity and attempts to regain control of life are also easily seen in Fiddler. When Hodl and Pertchik get engaged without first seeking his permission, Tevye tries to take control of the situation and save face with Golde by telling her that he approved the match. “Without even asking me?” Golde yells. “Who asks you?” he roars, devaluing her status as wife. “I am the father!” After Chava informs Tevye of her intent to marry Fyedka, Golde tells Tevye to come home. Tevye refuses, and when Golde insists, he warns her, “Quiet, woman, before I get angry!”, needlessly identifying her by gender. After Golde sarcastically says that she fears Tevye’s anger, he shouts that he is “the man in the house” and “the head in the family.”

This assertion of masculinity to exert control, either over himself or Golde, happens in both the movie and stories; however, as seen in the examples above, it is much stronger in the movie. Although Sholem Aleichem witnessed Communist attempts to dismantle the traditional family structure, such drastic changes never really occurred. Second Wave Feminism had a much more profound impact on practical life and social thought. During the 1970s, many men would have been able to identify with Tevye’s need to assert his masculinity. This is not to say that no men were allies of feminism; however, many were threatened by women’s new demands for equality and disapproved of this break with traditional gender roles. There is no doubt that numerous American men felt the desire to quash or at least take control of their wives’ newfound independence, and would have related to Tevye when he felt the need to remind Golde that he is the so-called “the head of the family.” Consequently, Sholem Aleichem and Norman Jewison’s rendering of gender roles within the narratives about Tevye are clearly products of their times.

Although Fiddler on the Roof is an adaptation of Tevye the Dairyman, it portrays gender in a very different way. The movie makes Golde into a much more active character, taking agency in her daughters’ lives to a greater extent than she does in the stories. Although Tevye asserts his masculinity throughout the Sholem Aleichem narratives, his affirmations are stronger in the movie. All of these differences can be attributed to the fact that Tevye the Dairyman was penned during a time when gender roles were strictly enforced and women were second-class citizens, while Fiddler on the Roof was made after feminism made a reemergence and women were considered equal partners in society. Articles of pop culture reflect the sensibilities of the times and places at which they were created. Although they tell the same story, Tevye the Dairyman and Fiddler on the Roof are no exception.  

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