August 10, 2011
The new Jewess: A rising generation of actresses overturns old tropes
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“Jewish girls are not pretty,” she tells him. “They can be interesting or cute, but not pretty.”
Stunned, Oliver replies, “You’re kidding, right?”
Noting a shift in the public perception of Jewish women, writer Christopher Noxon penned an essay for the December 2009 issue of Details magazine titled “The Rise of the Hot Jewish Girl: Why American Men Are Lusting After Women of the Tribe” in which he noted, “America can’t get enough smoking-hot Semitic tush.” Looking beyond Hollywood, Noxon even dug up statistics from the porn blog, Fleshbot, in which “Jewish girls” were ranked second among sexual preferences. But, just how much does this “hot” generation own up to its Jewishness? While many are openly Jewish, they are not outspokenly so. Despite efforts, Portman, “Glee’s” Lea Michele and Dianna Agron, and budding starlet Kat Dennings (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist”) declined to be interviewed for this story.
“They don’t really advertise their Jewishness,” Noxon said. “I’m sure they would say its not their job to fix the image, and besides, I don’t think it would be very interesting to see them do a token Jewish repair project through their acting.”
Just last year, Oscar-winner Portman, the most famous Jew in the bunch (and Jerusalem-born to boot), told Elle Magazine, “I’ve always tried to stay away from playing Jews. I get, like, 20 Holocaust scripts a month, but I hate the genre.” Nevertheless, Portman played a young Chasidic bride in the vignette film “New York, I Love You,” which she said was the first Jewish character that had “intrigued” her. Likewise, the veteran stage and screen actress Gina Gershon, who played an Orthodox Jew on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” described a paucity of rich, complex movie roles for women.
“Forget Jewish women — it’s rare to find good women’s parts, period,” Gershon said by phone from New York. “If there’s a good Jewish part, an actress will play it. But it’s a struggle to get women’s movies out. That’s been a complaint of mine for years.”
Even in an age when Jewish actresses are more desirable, there are still Jewish women characters subjected to old hostilities. Within the last year, portrayals of Jewish women in the films “The Social Network” (2010) and “Barney’s Version” (2011) were overwhelmingly clichéd, if not offensive. Why should Harvard’s Jewish guys love Asian women in “Social Network”? Because, according to one Jewish male at an AEPi frat party, “They’re hot, smart, not Jewish and can dance.” And in “Barney’s,” the Jewish leading man endures two failed marriages to Jewish women — the first, so ashamed of her Jewishness she lies about it; the second, a selfish, spoiled snob who whines and then cheats — he winds up happily ever after with the majestic Miriam, who is a Grace Kelly counterpoint to the graceless Jewish goons.
“I don’t think this recent blooming of Jewish actresses, lovely as it is, changes much,” Leibovitz, who in addition to writing for Tablet is a visiting assistant professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, said. “The key, I think, is not merely having Jewish women on screen, it’s having Jewish women portraying Jewish women on screen. When Scarlett Johansson is as comfortable making on-screen quips about being Jewish as, say, Seth Rogen is, then we would have achieved something real.”
While there is still a gap between the images of Jewish women seen on the red carpet and their counterparts in film and television, it must be counted as some kind of progress that Jewish women are reclaiming their roots in a secular popular culture. Even if stereotypes still exist, which they do, Chriqui believes they serve a purpose in exposing ideas about identity.
“There’s a fine line between reinforcing stereotypes and denying that they exist,” she said. “I mean that for everyone who has a strong identity — whether you’re Greek or Italian or Moroccan — there are those overbearing aunts; food is simply the most important thing, and family gatherings are like carnivals. Should we not show that stuff? Because then, we’re not celebrating a part of us.”
University of Florida’s Turim also believes images of Jewish women are changing. “Today, the situation is entirely different [than it was], and the current Jewish actresses, American and Israeli, are playing a wide range of roles. There is substantial talent in the Israeli cinema, and I wonder if more of these actresses will be cast in U.S. films.”
What Judaism teaches, for better or worse, is that the future is linked with the past. Both American and Israeli Jewish actresses hail from an intellectual tradition that prizes a strong matriarchal culture. In theory, traditional Judaism encourages the realization of female potential, and, at least in the secular world, Jewish women have come to represent the ultimate realization of the feminist ideal.
“I think we’re helping redefine that you can be anything you want to be,” Chriqui said of her acting kin and their influence. “You can be as powerful as you want to be; as a woman, a Jew, whatever. The new generation feels far more empowered because we have so many freedoms. We’re blessed to be born in a country where there is nothing holding us back except ourselves.”