Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"I mean, is that what they really think of us?"

I'm taking a break from writing a grant proposal about belles Juives to write a blog post about a Double X blog post about belles Juives. Meanwhile, though juive as ever, I'm in full library mode and not feeling especially belle. So it goes.

Rachel Shukert has won me over with this: "Hollywood ur-Jewess Natalie Portman (whose name I can never hear without a preface of 'why can’t you be more like …')" Ahem. Ahem. But also with this:

Hollywood’s repulsion isn’t directed toward actual Jewish women, but toward its image of the “Jewish Woman” who even in 2010 is still consistently portrayed as bossy, obnoxious, pushy, materialistic, shrewish, gauche, and impossible to please: Mrs. Ari on Entourage, Susie Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm, Jill Zarin from The Real Housewives of New York (a real person playing a fictional character playing a real person). Real Jewish women can laugh at these depictions, but they can sting, too, not least because they are so often manufactured and promulgated by Jewish men: our brothers and our cousins and our dads. I mean, is that what they really think of us? (emphasis mine)
I've written here before about the challenges of dealing with negative images of Jewish women in entertainment created by Jewish men. Am I saying Jews control the entertainment industry? No, but Jews do have a disproportionate role in the entertainment-with-a-Jewish-theme-intended-for-a-mainstream-audience industry. Same as all other minorities.

In a sense, these writers and directors get a free pass - the representations, we can imagine, are not anti-Semitic because they're self-deprecating, even when it's not so much the "self" being deprecated as the self's female coreligionists. The whole, 'it's OK, I can say it because I'm Jewish' nevertheless works, in that we-as-a-society put up with these images (and, uh, sounds - why did Shukert leave out the disembodied voice of Wolowitz's mom, on "The Big Bang Theory"?) precisely because they're presented as self-mockery. We-as-a-society would be a whole lot less forgiving of the Mrs. Broflovski norm if we imagined it was coming from non-Jews.

Add to this the generally-held idea (held, I suspect, by those who've never seen the first two seasons of "Absolutely Fabulous") that women have no sense of humor, and it's clear enough why Jewish women are in a bind if we try to complain (get that - Jewish women complaining?) about the use of representations of our kind as comic relief. This is why Shukert won me over further still by pointing out that "[r]eal Jewish women can laugh at these depictions." The obviously-Portnoy's Complaint-inspired episode, where Wolowitz's mothah is calling to him while he is 'occupied' at the hand of a robot that's just a hand wouldn't work if Mrs. Wolowitz were lovely and mild-mannered. We-the-lady-Jews can find this hilarious and objectionable at the very same time.

Oh and P.S.: Want some more belle-Juive action? Try "House." An actress named Lisa Edelstein (not "Portman" or "Ryder"), who doesn't look especially Swedish, portrays hotness-personified. Whether theoretical nebbish-types would find her appealing or whether she'd remind them too much of their mothahs is never asked.


Britta said...

It's interesting because the belle juive can still only be attractive to non Jewish men. House and Don Draper are pretty goyish. Can you think of a TV show or movie where the male protagonist is Jewish and has a female Jewish love interest? Or do Jews always have to date "out" in popular culture?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Well, right, because the belle Juive is like the "shiksa" - exoticized. What's more bizarre is that in 19th C France, even Jewish authors addressing a Jewish audience would depict "belles Juives" - how did that make sense?

But now you have me trying to come up with examples of Jew-on-Jew romance in entertainment. Just because Jewish women can't exactly be exoticized by Jewish men doesn't mean one couldn't be the Jewish male protagonist's love interest...

On some episodes of "Seinfeld," Jerry will be with a Jewish woman - and his real-life wife is quite the belle Juive, as was his scandalous prep-schooler girlfriend Shoshana. But yeah, pickings are slim. Natalie Portman in "Garden State" and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on... we're back to "Seinfeld" both play - preposterously - "shiksas" with holds over Jewish men. Even when a man and a woman who both read as Jewish are k-i-s-s-i-n-g, the "shiksa" narrative prevails. Or the wife is Jewish, but she's either an ex-wife ("Annie Hall") or hovering in that vicinity (the Greenes in "Curb Your Enthusiasm"). Jewish men can have Jewish wives, but not love interests. Or, if love interests, too-sensible ones. (I have no interest in seeing "Two Lovers," for example, because the summary gives me the sense I already have.)

If we include Jewish female protagonists, there are some possibilities. "The Nanny" is always extra turned on when she learns that an eligible bachelor is Jewish - I'm not aware of any male Jewish protagonist having that attitude... but of course her intended all along is Mr. Sheffield, whose non-Jewishness comes up constantly. Grace on "Will and Grace" gets a Jewish doctah, but my vague memory of the show is that things don't work out - she's too much the perennially-single Jewish gal, not enough the belle Juive. (Neither curvy nor raven-haired, for starters!)

Adam Lawrence Miller said...

I think you're right in identifying a particular stereotype of Hebrew women portrayed on television. But it's certainly not the only type.

Aside from the obvious Sara Silverman example, you have the many, many Hebrew women who appeared on Seinfeld, probably the most popular "Jewish" show of all time. Many of these women were beautiful, had a good sense of humor, and defied stereotypes simply by being, well, normal.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


See the comment above yours - Seinfeld has some exceptions, but these were occasional dates on a show that mocked itself for giving Jerry a new date virtually each episode. This was also a show with an episode devoted to "shiksappeal" - where that term was coined. Plus, the George-Susan relationship, one of the few sustained romances on the show, was pretty much a remake of Annie Hall - it's not that the WASPs aren't mocked, but the pairing doesn't exactly push things in new directions.

Anonymous said...

"Am I saying Jews control the entertainment industry? No, but Jews do have a disproportionate role in the entertainment-with-a-Jewish-theme-intended-for-a-mainstream-audience industry."

Ha ha! Oh god, the cowardice, the abject cowardice...

Anonymous said...

I am shocked that the current season of Bored to Death has not come up in your discussion of Jew-on-Jew romance in entertainment. The relationship between Jason Schwartzman and Jenny Slate is charmingly devoid of stereotypical crutches. She works at a food co-op and espouses a desire to be in a polyamorous relationship. He is a struggling writer who moonlights as a private detective. Mr. and Mrs. Gold they are not.

Yet, there is something organic about their chemistry that conveys a real authenticity to their pairing. There is a fantastic scene in the first episode where Schwartzman's character exclaims, "Stella you are the best thing in my life right now." You believe Schwartzman as he delivers the line and can't help but feel as if you or someone you know could be that couple.

This authenticity, I believe, extends to their jewishness as well. Their religion informs their actions, behaviors, and even choice of words, but it does not overwhelm their on-screen presence or become the label we immediately associate with their characters. In fact, if anything I would say they are Brooklynites first Jews second.

Dara said...

The best thing about Lisa Edelstein in re this post is that she did play that sort of woman in a cameo in the (probably forgotten) 2000 priest-and-a-rabbi-walk-into-a-romcom "Keeping the Faith."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Anon 1,

I assume this is meant as criticism, but not sure what precisely the insult's meant to be.

Anon 2,

I did enjoy Rushmore... Can't speak for the others, but I didn't mention "Bored to Death" because I've never seen it. I'll have to check it out!


Which sort of woman - male Jew's Jewish-female love interest?

PG said...

The only other Jew-with-Jew relationships in pop culture that comes to mind are on "Friends," when Monica Geller is dating the millionaire played by Jon Favreau and the Rachel-Ross relationship. Monica is explicitly Jewish (and I suppose fits the belle Juive type? though as standard for Hollywood, not very curvy), and Favreau always comes across as Jewish to me (I think it's the hair). Rachel Green is a stereotypical Jewish-American Princess and Ross, like Monica, is also Jewish.

I was disappointed that the "Glee" writers didn't go with their brief foray into a relationship between Puck and Rachel.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Haven't seen Glee (yet). As for Friends, all the characters except Chandler and Joey struck me as Jewish-as-in-Jewish-stereotypes (Rachel the princess, Monica the uptight clean freak/nerd/high-maintenance type, Ross the nebbish, Phoebe the lefty-hippie), but I don't remember if any of them were supposed to be Jews. I feel like there were many Very Special Christmas Episodes, but I could be conflating the show with Frasier or whatever else was on and mind-numbing at the time. I also vaguely remember some reference to Monica being thought Jewish but correcting someone, but this too could be misremembering.

PG said...

Ross and Monica definitely were ethnically Jewish; though they weren't really practicing, once Ross had a kid, he wanted to teach the child about Hanukkah and give him some vague connection to his Jewish ancestry.

I don't think there was any indication that Phoebe was supposed to be Jewish. Also, I'd never realized that lefty-hippie of Phoebe's vegetarian, guitar-strumming style was a Jewish stereotype. I thought the Jewish lefty was supposed to be the glasses-wearing, brow-furrowing intellectual, possibly a ScaryForeignCommunistSocialistAnarchist.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Maybe I was thrown off b/c the actress who plays Phoebe is Jewish (recently tracked down some relative who died in the Holocaust for a documentary or something? am I imagining this? do I care enough to Google?), and because I once found my very own real-life self being conflated with that character on a white-supremacist website. But "Friends" has never been more than background noise to me, something I tune out as much as possible if it's on and not by my choice, so its ethnic politics remain something of a blur. That said, I'm almost certain Monica once said she was not Jewish, which makes me think the show itself probably wasn't consistent. Few sitcoms are, so I think we have our answer. (However! It's interesting, gender-wise, if they made Ross=Jew but not Monica intentionally. I doubt it, though.)

Britta said...

I think Rachel was supposed to be Jewish, not because I watched the show but I once read something a million years ago where Jennifer Aniston explained that in real life she was of Greek heritage, although she played a Jewish character on friends.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm going to stand by the 'it's such a horrible sitcom, they never even decided what religion the characters were' hypothesis. Why the show has to live on, under the name "How I Met Your Mother," is beyond me.