Culture, Identity, Sex & Gender

Jewesses in Hollywood

“Lights, Camera, Social Action – Jewesses in Hollywood”
Olivia Cohen-CutlerOlivia Cohen-Cutler, senior vice-president of ABC Television, chair of the Morningstar Commission, and board member of the Jewish Women’s Archive will lead a discussion on the diversification of the Jewish woman in Hollywood on October 28, 2009 at 7 pm at Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York.
A few days ago, I had the chance to speak with her. As one would expect, she is a funny, well-spoken woman. At ABC she is, essentially, the censor: she ensures that community standards are upheld, including monitoring for obvious things like racial slurs, but also for stuff you might not otherwise notice. (I have to admit, all I could think about when she mentioned her job was John Waters‘ autobiography in which he talks of his interactions with the Maryland censors’ board, back in the 1960s when he was starting out.) But while I’m sure her job at ABC is really fascinating, what I was really interested in was the topic of her discussion: the changing face of Jewish women in television and on film.
The Morningstar Commission was started in 1997 to counteract the nearly invisible faces of Jewish women. When they appeared in media at all, Jewish women were almost always portrayed negatively. Gallons of ink have been spilt over discussions of why many Jewish, male writers wrote Jewish women so nastily (a trend more or less started by the tiresome Philip Roth and Herman Wouk and continued up until today). My least favorite example of this in film being Keeping the Faith in which Ben Stiller can’t find a Jewish girl to marry because they are all self-absorbed, vain, or worse, but luckily for him his blonde, gentile girlfriend may convert! She’s good enough for him!
Early on, Jewish men also suffered from fairly negative representations in popular culture, but as Jewish men became more successful, that changed. The sign of that change was often their acquisition of a gentile wife, usually blonde, but in any case, stereotypically the opposite of whatever Jewish men felt Jewish women looked like.
Jewish women, on the other hand, pretty much were invisible. In the days of radio, however, there were very visible Jewish women (and in fact The Goldbergs was one of the few shows that made a successful transition to television), but with the advent of television dominance, those Jewish women disappeared. On television, if Jewish women weren’t invisible, they were awful.
This began to change in the 90’s. A few women appeared on television in roles like Fran Drescher’s on The Nanny. Drescher herself considers this role a largely positive one, but many Jewish women did not. As Cohen-Cutler pointed out, while many Jewish women were offended at the stereotype of Jewish women as loud and shopping-obsessed, the character also showed a woman who brought warmth and love to a chilly WASP household.
Nevertheless, Jewish women remained in roles where they were the “other,” and typically unattractive too. Usually as overbearing mothers, or nagging, vain, JAP-py wives. Cohen-Cutler points out that Dharma and Greg was the most positive of roles for Jewish women of the time; in other words, not very positive at all.
Thus, the Morningstar Commission was formed in the late 90’s by a group of high-powered, talented women. Started in 1997, a think tank by major philanthropists on the status of Jewish women decided that there should be a group convened to look at images of women in media. The women got Hadassah involved, first in Southern California, but quickly reaching out to the international movement. The Commission had women from every walk of life, not just actors, but lawyers and all kinds of women in Hollywood. Around 1999, they started having programs.
One of the things that Cohen-Cutler seemed most proud of was their work with one of the early reality TV shows, Sorority Life on MTV. The first season was set at the University of California, Davis. It followed 14 girls over 10 weeks as they pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, a 4-year-old Jewish sorority that was previously unknown on campus. I admit to having mixed feelings about her description of the show. The show originally provoked an outcry in the Jewish community because the girls were so similar to “normal” college girls, partying, drinking, etc. (Perhaps people were more disappointed that this is what “normal” means on campus?) Cohen-Cutler was clearly proud that these girls showed the average American what Jewish girls were like. That they had the same problems as anyone else helped destigmatize and humanize Jews for people who otherwise would never meet or interact with Jews. To this end, the Commission worked with the girls to help portray a positive image of Jews. But I would question whether this is, in fact, an improvement. Going from mostly or completely negative stereotypes to “we’re just like you” doesn’t necessarily strike me as better. Still, for a reality television show about a sorority, one can’t expect too much.
But things are improving, albeit slowly: Cohen-Cutler’s example of Sandra Oh, who plays a Jewish women on Grey’s Anatomy, demonstrates a new trend in television: the normalization of Jewish women. Oh, playing Christina Yang, is Jewish in the way most of us recognize Judaism today. She isn’t necessarily Ashkenazi and she has some knowledge of Jewish tradition (although usually not too much). We are starting to see more of Jews as “normal” instead of “other” on television now (Glee and NCIS are other examples of shows where Jewish characters make an appearance in a more normalized way).
Cohen-Cutler believes that the diversification of media will further the trend of normalization quickly. (Film is a slower media to change, which is why we haven’t yet really seen more normalization of Jewish women there.) Television moves fairly quickly, and now that alternative media are widely viewed, Jewish women are able to that is likely to spur more diverse portrayals of all kinds of people, including Jewish women, as Jewish women ourselves take the reins and start producing new vehicles for exploration of our roles in American culture.
Which is apparently what Jewish women are looking for. This generation isn’t willing to settle for stereotyped roles of any kind. Jewish women don’t want to be just Ashkenazi, or exotic, or shlumpy Chassidic stereotypes, nor nagging mothers, girlfriends, or wives. We don’t want to be the ones who are just never quite good enough for the Jewish men out there. What we are looking for, according to Cohen-Cutler, are portrayals of us in all our diversity: observant (can someone please put a tefillin-wearing, kosher-keeping, Shabbat-observing, reasonably attractive woman on film, please?), secular, American, Israeli, French, Moroccan, African-American, Korean, Salvadoran, Ashkenazi, Mizrachi, Italian, or…
I think I agree with her. So, Hollywoodland, catch up, will you? And Morningstar Commission? Thanks for getting the ball rolling!

2 thoughts on “Jewesses in Hollywood

  1. There has been some improvement in film this year. Witness the “normal” Jewish female characters in the movies The Unborn, Adventureland, Inglourious Basterds, and Adam.
    A lot of actresses are Jewish, and many have been in decades past, but they never play explicitly Jewish characters unless they’re a Streisand-Midler-esque stereotype (the same is true for Jewish men, too, which is why Ben Stiller always plays Jews but Harrison Ford never does (they’re both half Jewish by background, though Stiller’s mom converted).

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