August 10, 2011
The new Jewess: A rising generation of actresses overturns old tropes
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In “Friends With Benefits,” a movie with a similar premise, Kunis and Timberlake also romp outside of a relationship. Stripped to her skivvies, Kunis asserts herself in bed, commanding Timberlake to do things just so because that’s how she likes it. The two spend much of the movie in bed, in undergarments or unclothed. Kunis never worries that she’s “given too much away” or that Timberlake will tire of her once he’s had her. Instead, her real fear is that an absent father has left her “emotionally damaged.” What she’s afraid of is love.
Then there is the most talked-about scene from the Oscar-nominated film “Black Swan,” in which the aforementioned actresses, Portman and Kunis, get lusty with each other. It used to be that actresses who showed their breasts were less respectable (how else could Julia Roberts get away with playing a hooker in “Pretty Woman” without baring an inch of skin?). Now it’s not even taboo to see two A-list actresses having lesbian sex — in an Oscar-nominated film, no less.
More head spinning than the sex is that the women aren’t slandered as unchaste. In Laura Mulvey’s seminal 1973 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” in which she claimed that the classic Hollywood era positioned women as objects of a “male gaze” through which they were either voyeuristically sexualized or psychologically fetishized, it was also expected that promiscuous women would be punished. But in both of the aforementioned films, the girls get the guy. And as far as lesbian sexuality goes, for that role, Portman won an Oscar.
The breakthrough is not that Jewish women are suddenly sex objects — it’s that they’re not just sex objects. They can behave sexually, and unapologetically so, because they are also valued as smart, tough, independent equals to their male counterparts. Sex is not a source of shame, but rather, another source of a woman’s strength. In the review of “Friends With Benefits,” The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis put it this way: “[Kunis] doesn’t play the stock girl, teary and needy or plucky and needy, but rather a woman who can go joking round for round against men. … [The movie] uses sex and bared skin to get at questions about the possibility of romantic love between true male and female equals.”
In the past, if a Jewish woman character was tough, witty and equal with men, she was often shunned romantically. Streisand, for example, played a spate of characters who were punished for their intellectual aspirations. Katie in “The Way We Were” (1973) is so overwhelmingly outspoken, driven, dynamic and politically engaged, she loses the man she loves. She is, in effect, too equal for Robert Redford’s WASPy Hubbell — if only she’d keep quiet, he would stay. Also in “Funny Girl,” (1968) there are consequences for being too successful, as when Fanny Brice, a huge Broadway star, surpasses her husband, a gambling addict, she loses him.
Today a new Hollywood ideal prizes women who are both intellectually and sexually appealing. When she appears, the submissive shiksa seems as outmoded and boring as the old Jewish labels seem offensive and irrelevent. A woman who is exuberant and determined is most desirable by today’s standards, and those qualities stem from the mold Jewish women helped create. The benefit of this new diversity means that the particulars of ethnicity can now be celebrated.
Lisa Edelstein, who played Dr. Lisa Cuddy for seven seasons on TV’s “House” and has appeared in the films “What Women Want,” “Keeping the Faith” and “As Good as It Gets,” is one of those women who couldn’t hide her Jewishness, even if she tried.
“It’s really obvious who and what I am,” Edelstein said. “And it stopped me from being considered for a lot of things on the way to developing my career, but, ultimately, at this point, it doesn’t really matter.”
When Edelstein moved to Los Angeles in 1991, she said, her Jewish-sounding last name precluded her from getting roles.
“The minute somebody thinks you’re a Jew, they have a lot of ideas about what that means.” When executives were casting “Dharma & Greg,” a sitcom that ran from 1997-2002, they cast Jenna Elfman, a tall, trim, blond, non-Jewish actress in the Jewish role of Dharma. “I always found that hilarious,” Edelstein said of the Dharma casting. “There were so many Jews around at that time auditioning for that show,” but, she said, the people who got hired were considered “a more palatable version of that character. It wouldn’t happen now; it just wouldn’t happen.”
She says the stigma surrounding Jewishness has lessened over the course of her two-decade career. “Nowadays, there’s such a multiethnic, multicultural presence on television and in film that it’s become less of a big deal,” she said. “What’s nice about this change in representation is that things have gotten more subtle, more humanized. You’ve got Jews who are warriors and heroes rather than nebbishy or whiny. It’s not all ‘Seinfeld.’ ”
Some of that nuance is evident in Edelstein’s character on “House.” At least on the surface, Dr. Cuddy is a normal, unremarkable Jew. “That’s why I like that my character is a Jew — she just is. It isn’t commented on; it isn’t an issue. She just has a menorah,” Edelstein said.
Part of what has led to this shift may be the mainstreaming of American Judaism. Hollywood, despite its penchant for reducing complex themes to easily digestible fare, should be credited for integrating Jewish imagery, idiosyncrasy and symbolism into American — and, for that matter, international — popular culture. Now that Judaism is a common trope, what began as idiosyncratic and strange has become merely incidental.
In an entrance worthy of a star turn, the actress Laurent subverts almost every Jewish stereotype in history by making her screen entrance in “Beginners” in complete silence (digest that one for a minute). Laurent, an elegant, understated presence with messy blond hair and deep-set blue eyes, plays an actress, Anna, who at the beginning of the movie is suffering from laryngitis. When she meets Oliver (Ewan McGregor), soberly dressed as Freud at a costume party, Anna reclines on the couch before him, communicating with warm, vivid facial expressions, relying on her eyes and her smile, and, sometimes, the aid of doodles on a notepad. After they part, she doesn’t wait for him to call, but dials him as he’s walking to the car, using beeps on the dialpad to communicate. By night’s end, she initiates the kiss and asks Oliver to stay over, to “just sleep.” Anna is soft-spoken and subtle, feisty only at injustice (she curses at a skating rink manager in French when the woman insists Oliver leave his Jack Russell terrier in the car), sexually confident, but not aggressive — you know, French in all the good ways. When Oliver tells her she is pretty, she is surprised.