Friday, October 20, 2006

"Where the real people are"

My roommate and I just watched the season premier of "Trading Spouses." The premise was swapping a Protestant woman from Kentucky with an Orthodox Jewish woman from the Boston suburbs.

This episode could have been called, "The Vast Spectrum of the Republican Electorate." While politics was never mentioned specifically, I'm going to take a leap and guess that neither racoon-hunters nor those who shomer negiah voted for Kerry. It just as easily could have been called, "Further Investigation Into the Mindset of Those Who Sang Along Enthusiastically to 'Throw the Jew Down the Well.'"

Despite rhetoric of Judeo-Christian values, of the faithful of all faiths uniting against sin and fun, the message from this show was that much of the nation still thinks Jews are odd as all get-out. That class, profession, and region are not nearly as salient as Jewishness. The father in the Jewish family a physicist and the mother's an engineering professor. I'm not going to say that looked entirely foreign to me, but that's not quite the typical Jewish home. Or, more to the point, a science/academic family is something quite specific, regardless of religion or lack thereof. This was portrayed as further evidence of a particularly Jewish uptightness or nerdiness. In the Christian family, the mother is a nurse and the father is a prison warden. Which led to perhaps the most amazing identifying caption ever on any television program, ever: "Father/Prison Warden." But while the Massachusetts mother sees differences in terms of region or locality, or attitudes towards education, the Kentucky mother sees this as about Jews versus regular folk.

Keeping kosher--as in, keeping a kosher home, not just saying "hold the bacon"-is certainly a challenge if it's not something you're used to. So it was to be expected that food would be an issue. What was disturbing, though, was the Kentucky mother's insistence that kashrut--and Judaism in general--is not the "American way." That's bad news. While there was a fair dose of intolerance on both sides--the Massachusetts mother's objection to hunting was hard to take, given that she spent ages trying to track down kosher meat (I mean, for crying out loud, anyone who can't just be a vegetarian for a week has no right to claim PETA-level love of raccoons)--the Kentucky family was grounded in a confidence that they belong, that even their flaws are admirable, that a son's refusal to do homework makes him well-balanced, whereas the Jewish family is forever on the defensive. The family's are supposed to consider each other weird, that's the point of the show, but this went further. Both families feel themselves to be American, but one sees the other as anything but. Being of a nerdy/academic Jewish bent myself, I've taken a brief break from homework to read a book by Pierre Birnbaum about "State Jews" in France, about the fused Franco-Jewish identity during the Third Republic. Which is a fantastic book. But the point relevant here is that French Jewish goverment officials kept thinking themselves French (legally, they were full citizens, and the Republic was officially secular), anti-Semites kept repeating that they weren't as French as French Catholics. Long story short, there's now a country where Jews do not have to face that particular issue. And no, that country is not the United States.

But, back to the show, it gets worse.

When the Kentucky mom's stay with The Jews is over, she says the following: "I'm ready to go home. Where real people are."

I've got nothing.


Anonymous said...

That's pretty damn scary. The descriptions of the families are very suspicious. "[The Martins] have been married for 23 years and are still very much in love." Oh, but not so much the Shatz couple, because they're so focused on Orthodox Jewishness and education? For the Shatz family: "However, the difficulty of being true to their faith while also being part of American society makes for some interesting choices." Fox just says it right there--being a conservative Jew is clearly not American, but the Martins being "hard-working people with strong Christian values" needs no explanation whatsoever. The only thing that needs clarification for the Martins is that they're not rednecks. Oh...okay. (...'Coon hunting?)

Phoebe, sometimes my comments on your entries become so long that I feel like I should just blog about it myself to show more support for a smaller but different audience, but it's getting late now. You go girl, blog on.

Anonymous said...

I agree this is definitely bad. Keep in mind, however, that as late as the 1960s, schoolchildren in the deep South used to file into the gym to pray for the souls of-- wait for it-- the Catholics among them.

It would be instructive to repeat this experiment, replacing the Jewish woman with a lapsed Catholic from an academic family, for example. There's broad hostility to scientists within the demographic from which this Kentucky family is drawn.

Joshua said...

OK, two things:

1. The Jewish family isn't shomer negiah, otherwise the males would have never touched Mrs. Kentucky, while Mrs. Shatz would have never touched any of the male members of Mrs. Kentucky's family. But shomer shabbos and other things, yes.

2. I can see where Mrs. Shatz sees the difference between hunting and sh'chitah. Sh'chitah is ritual slaughter, done to livestock to minimize pain and for food purposes, while 'coon hunting is just a sport, with no practical human purpose whatsoever (well, maybe coonskin hats). Nevermind the bloodhounds make sure to scare the racoons out of their wits before they get shot.

Other than that, you're spot-on. I'm absolutely flabbergasted Mrs. Kentucky didn't show respect for a culture not her own, and that her family didn't show respect for someone with strict religious practices. This is what I call our "latent xenophobia", as opposed to their more well-known blatant xenophobia, seen through Santorum et al.

greg said...

Interesting post. Also interesting point about the Catholics. It would also be interesting to see how this family reacted to a reform Jewish family, a non-practicing Jewish family, a religious Muslim/Buddhist/Hindu family, or a non-practicing version of the same.

st-- said...

Without having seen the episode or any full episode, the woman’s comments are sad and inexcusable. Yet, having read your discussion, I think I can still say Fox’s portrayal of the two families is, in a way, somewhat difficult to judge because of what I suspect is the order of the show’s production. I’m sure Fox pre-screens the families so they can loosely predict which families and which respective family members might cause bankable conflicts in an episode. So some of the more crucial angles for an episode would form in the discussions after those pre-screenings. After whatever pre-screening and filming, I’d guess they then look for more specific angles on how to construct the show and then I’d guess they piece it together frame by frame. Only after that would they describe the two families on their website.

Within that order, assuming it mostly correct, the myriad questions then arise. How does one discern if Fox discovered the Martin’s -and in particular, the wife’s- Anti-Semitism through a pre-screening process? Or, how does one tell if that Anti-Semitism only became evident through filming? Likewise, how does one tell if Lisa Shatz discussed the family’s balance between practicing Orthodox Judaism and being in American society during a prescreening process; did she say so in response to a direct question on the subject in that process; did she offer it while answering another question in that process, or did she just say it during the filming?

If one assumes that the majority of Fox’s prime-time audience is white, Christian, and conservative, which doesn’t seem that unreasonable, then why wouldn’t the network play-up the Shatz’s differences? Or, not making that assumption, which differences would be easiest to play up? Maybe all the network wants is to play-up the differences to heighten the conflict? Or, if Fox knew of any Anti-Semitism before filming, how does one know Fox chose the Martin family because they thought that Anti-Semitism would just add controversy; or would resonate with the majority, white, Christian, conservative audience, or do both?

The prescreening process is probably where the largest bit of the blame could be directed, not to mention all the other little places like the publicity and the not so little place of the actual portrayals themselves. On top of having families from two different religions, having one where both parents are academics seems a bit like stacking the deck.

At any rate…

In such a weird context of throwing strangers into the intimacy of another household, I’m also unsure whether the woman’s pitiful comments reveal, to the whole wide world, her latent xenophobia, a negative overreaction to her experiences with the Shatz family, a combination of both, or something else entirely. I’m not aiming at defending her, but I am, instead, wondering whether, if in a different context, like a work environment, the woman could get to know Lisa Shatz and come to like the Shatz family for the real, Americans that they are.

Petey said...

" It just as easily could have been called, "Further Investigation Into the Mindset of Those Who Sang Along Enthusiastically to 'Throw the Jew Down the Well.'"

How could anyone not have enthusiastically sung along to that? It's a sing-a-long!

Shoshana said...

I just watched this episode today. I guess it was a re-run, but it made me sad to see the reactions from the Kentucky family concerning Jewish people/beliefs.

I felt really bad for Mrs. Shatz during the meeting with the family I felt like she was on trial for her beliefs.

The Kentucky Mom was very judgmental and narrow-minded to think her way was the only way. I felt she did not repect this families Orthodox beliefs.

Anonymous said...

The people from Kentucky were pretty set in their ways and did not treat mrs. Shatz very well with her religion. However Mrs. Shatz is CLUELESS to anything her kids are doing in their personal life outside fo their religion and school work. She is more of a teacher then a Mother in that aspect.

Anonymous said...

It made me sick watching that episode killing the racoon for fun. Hillbillies with nothing to do kills animals for fun, what CREEPS!