Friday, May 29, 2009

Oh the misogyny

I just finished Paula Hyman's fantastic Gender and Assimilation in Modern Jewish History. Although this was technically orals-lists reading, it ended up having more immediate relevance: helping to understand why all three of the sample Jewish jokes in a NYMag feature on the End of Jewish humor are less about Jewish self-deprecation than about hatred of Jewish women. As someone who's appreciated much of what the Roth-Allen monster has created over the years, that I should be insulted by it doesn't, for me, disqualify a joke. But these particular jokes are not winners. Joke 1: The Jewish wife would rather let her husband die than give him a blow job. Joke 2: Marginally more clever than the previous. The Jewish husband wishes to extend his wife's jail sentence, so as to get rid of her. Joke 3: Makes the previous two look brilliant. The punch line is that an elderly woman has saggy breasts.

As Hyman explains it (and of course I'm oversimplifying), mid-20th-century anti-Semitism led to Jewish men being perceived of as feminine by the dominant culture. Frustrated by this, they turned on the Jewish woman, who by definition represented both the feminine (understood as a flaw) and the Jewish (given the role, considered admirable in earlier generations, of Jewish women as, in some contexts, guardians against assimilation). So the common explanations for the Portnoy-era Jewish male dislike of Jewish women - no man wants a woman like his mother, or, Jewish women were less likely to meet conventional standards of beauty in a 1960 Connecticut-country-club-type setting - tell part of the story, but the fact that anti-Semitism had a gendered dimension is what actually explains the phenomenon.

What this also explains is how radically different images of 'the Jewess' were at times when Jews had negligible influence on popular culture (or the 'popular culture' equivalent in mid-19th century France) than when Jews - men in particular - have been the main ones providing the representations of Jewish women that are available to the general public. This isn't about 'Jews controlling the media', but about the fact that of those in the entertainment industry, it's only natural that Jews should be writing more often than others about their own group.

Anyhow. It would be interesting to analyze what influence 20th century Jewish male depictions of Jewish women have had on the way non-Jewish writers, filmmakers, etc. portray 'the Jewish woman' in their work. Examples that come to mind: 'The Brothers McMullen', or Gilles by Drieu la Rochelle. One might be a 1990s American movie and the other a 1930s French novel, but in both, the Jewish woman is presented exactly as in the internal-Jewish stereotype. Now, one approach would be to say, Jewish women are just like that, and perceived of as such by men, regardless of their backgrounds. But another possibility is that some non-Jewish men - artists or otherwise - have adopted the clichés Jewish men created of 'the Jewish woman.'


Matt said...

I remember a version of the first joke from when I was growing up, but it was with two guys and a rattlesnake bite. Growing up in Idaho, though, homophobia and rattlesnakes were more common than Jewish women.

My vague recollection is that there was a time when "the Jewess" was thought to be a dangerous hyper-sexual thing. I can't remember why I think that, though, if it's from old literature or if I'm just misremembering. Does that seem right?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


The idea of Jewess-as-seductress was, from what I understand, a part of Romanticism, and was not an attitude held by Jewish men, but by non-Jewish men who may have never met a Jewish woman, but who liked the idea of a woman who was part-'Oriental' and part-European (as in, non-black, French-speaking, etc.). My guess is that this image fell out of favor in part because non-Jewish men came to know (and thus de-exoticize) actual Jewish women, but also because Jewish men came to have a major role in creating representations of Jewish women, and these new representations were coming from a totally different place.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think you're right, but would you say biblical or quasi-biblical figures like Queen Esther or Jezebel fit the definition of Jewess-as-seductress?

Matt said...

Thanks Phoebe- that's the sort of thing I was thinking of. I think some of it persisted up until the early 20th century in silent films and early talking movies and the like, with the mistress often being Jewish.

asg said...

There's also Rebecca from Ivanhoe.

Anonymous said...

Drieu la Rochelle was an antisemite and didn't need Jewish male encouragement.

Also along with Jews, Orientals in general were seen by racists as feminine. This goes back to ancient Greece which saw Persians that way.

This is the kind of attitude conquering people in general have of conqured ones.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Anon 1,

Interpretations of Bible stories certainly matter, but the Orientalization of the 'Jewess' was, I'd think by definition, a phenomenon specific to Western or Central Europe.


Re: Ivanhoe, it's on the reading list...

Anon 2,

"Drieu la Rochelle was an antisemite and didn't need Jewish male encouragement."

It's not about "encouragement." It's about internal, Jewish attitudes about Jews playing a part in shaping how non-Jews understand Jews, a phenomenon that includes Jewish self-hatred (or Jewish male hatred of Jewish women) influencing the form taken by (gentile) anti-Semitism.

Rabbi Ruth Adar said...

I just discovered this post by searching on Google for "hatred of Jewish women." I was trying to find out if there was a word for this particular brand of misogyny.

One excellent description of the phenomenon you describe is in Fighting to Become Americans: Jews, Gender, and the Anxiety of Assimilation by Riv-Ellen Prell (1999). Alas, there doesn't seem to be a one-word term for it.