Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The voice of Mrs. Wolowitz

Dear readers-arrived-from Sullivan,

-For the record, I don't think the character of Kyle's mom is the best example of the annoying-Jewish-woman stereotype, because, as Sullivan correctly notes, "South Park" is a world of equal-opportunity mockery. However, there's no better, immediately-recognizable visual representation of this cliché. The character most emblematic of this phenomenon on TV today is, to my knowledge, Wolowitz's mother. Granted Wolowitz himself is something of a leap backward as far as representations of Jewish men are concerned, but at least he's not a grotesque disembodied voice.

-Sarah Silverman is not a character created by a Jewish man or a non-Jewish man, for that matter, but the alter ego of one Sarah Silverman. Of course she's not hahruhhble in the way that the fictional Jewish woman often is. That she's considered both Jewy and sexy is unusual, exceptional, and probably has something to do with the fact that she was not created as the would-be date of a male Jewish protagonist, but rather is herself the protagonist. That she exists in no way negates the crap image of Jewish women in American entertainment of the last several decades.

-While I am of course delighted that my readership now (temporarily) extends beyond immediate family, I fear that Sullivan's introduction to what I posted - that I'm writing about Jewish women's "difficult position" - may give the impression that I believe crap images of Jewish women in media to be The Greatest Problem Facing the World Today. To preempt any such assumptions, let me be clear: it is not. Even for those of us who are Jewish women. OK, I won't speak for us all, but in my own life, at least, this problem ranks rather low. Perhaps because, as the Slate post I was originally responding to points out, so many actresses considered beautiful are in fact Jewish, for real-life Jewish women, being Jewish, looking stereotypically Jewish, these are not obstacles to attracting male attention. Again, even if it were terribly difficult for lady-Jews to get dates, this would not rank among the world's major catastrophes, but the fact of the matter is, it's not. This is what makes the crap images at once frustrating and irrelevant. OK, not irrelevant, but what exactly is the impact of these images on the lives of the women ostensibly being represented? My sense is that there is one, but I'm not quite sure how to articulate it without going the anecdotal route. Any ideas?


MrJeremy said...

I quite agree - the disembodied voice of the mother is not funny in the slightest, and to be honest, neither are the "jokes" about Wolowitz's misunderstanding of his own religion. That part is something makes me sad more than anything else really, because it's so pervasive.

However, I'm not sure if the mother is really being associated with anything Jewish in most audience members' minds, though. It's one of those things that's really hard to know for sure how people interpret.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

See, I think the voice is funny but also offensive. Paradox!

As for viewers not getting that this is a "Jewish mother," I mean, maybe not when the show is broadcast internationally, but this is mentioned all the time on the show, as is the "shiksa" concept. It's not going over heads the same way as the physics content.

PG said...

I suspect that the impact of these images which represent Jewish women as being generally unattractive, on real-life Jewish women who know that lots of people actually do find them attractive, will

(a) be more evident to someone who's actually at the Jewish-mother age than to someone at the belle juive age (because after 40 or so most women aren't as attractive as they were 20 years earlier); and

(b) manifest itself either in a reasonably sophisticated "the media, including the male Jews in the media, don't know what they're talking about" analysis, or in a troubled relationship with Jewish identity. Even if you know that you yourself are attractive, to have a particular aspect of your identity generally represented as unattractive calls into question whether you are *really* identified with that aspect. To resolve the paradox of the following propositions
(1) Media says Jewish women are unattractive, but
(2) I know that I am attractive;
you have to resolve that either the media is stupid (pretty much what you've done), or you're an exception to the general rule promulgated by the media and thus not really a Jewish woman.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Personal experience suggests, re: (a), that something like the opposite is true. I was most affected by these images when I was too young to have any idea if any members of the opposite sex found me attractive. I'd absorbed enough of the Roth/Allen/"shiksappeal" message to assume my features would basically condemn me in that regard. I assumed (and I realize, in retrospect, how silly this was) that because UChicago was in the Midwest, and the Midwest was full of Scandinavians and so forth, I'd be going to college with a sea of Claudia Schiffers and would never get a date. It's not as though I was corrected and lo and behold I was god's gift to men, but my ethnicity didn't hold me back, and if anything made me "exotic" in a positive way to some. It could be, when I get older, that I'll be disturbed once again by these images, but the many Jewish women I know of Mrs. Wolowitz's generation don't seem too worried about it.

As for (b), you're right, but I think it helps, rather than just to declare the media stupid, to know where these images are coming from. Reading Paula Hyman on how anti-Semitism got internalized, with Jewish men making their female counterparts "the Jew" in their own creative endeavors, it all made much more sense. Indefensible (i.e., stupid) but not inexplicable.

But yes, some respond to the images by thinking they're exceptions to the rule. This is, I guess, a normal response of many minorities to their non-resemblance to cultural stereotypes.