“Had there ever been a successful Jewish actress? Of course: Sarah Bernhardt . . . and now that [Marjorie] thought of it, rumor described half the great stars of Hollywood as Jewish. But her name wasn’t good. It wasn’t good at all. . . . Marjorie Morganstern. . . . Then came a confirming flash . . . a name that could blaze and thunder on Broadway . . . Marjorie Morningstar.”
“Marjorie Morningstar” --Herman Wouk
Marjorie Morningstar was immortalized as the media’s first Jewish American princess by novelist Wouk in his 1955 book and in the 1958 film adaptation with Natalie Wood. Now, she is lending her name to a group whose mission is to fight just such stereotyping in the media.
The Morning Star Commission is a group of 30 professionals from the media and academia, women and men, who want it known that neither Marjorie nor the other stereotype--that of the smothering, nagging Jewish mother--defines Jewish women.
In choosing its name, said director Mara Fein, the commission wanted both “to remind people that central to the issue of stereotyping is the Jewish American princess as created by Herman Wouk, but by breaking apart the word we wanted to suggest that what we are doing is creating a new morning in the representation of Jewish women"--a morning star rising.
“We’ve come a long way since Marjorie Morganstern,” said commission chair Joan Hyler as she introduced, “Jewish? You Don’t Look Funny,” the commission’s recent fund-raiser at the Comedy Store headlining Jewish female comedians.
Among performers was Shelly Goldstein, a screenwriter and playwright who offered up a salute in song to Jewish women in the industry, a parody of Stephen Sondheim’s hit from “Company”: “Here’s to the ladies who launch--TV, films and plays. . . .”
Comedian Emily Levine asked, “Who constructs the images of Jewish women? Who makes the rules? And why don’t we hear very much about Monica Lewinsky being Jewish?”
A joke, granted, but her message was serious: Jewish women have just gotten a bad rap.
Movie Stars Were Not Identified as Jewish
Who’s to blame? Commission members don’t hesitate to lay some of the fault at the feet of Jewish men in the entertainment industry.
Over a recent breakfast in Santa Monica, eight commission members talked about that, about their group’s raison d’etre and of the damaging effects of growing up in the 1950s when perky blond Doris Day was the object of men’s desire--and there were no women on the silver screen who looked like them.
True, there were Jewish movie stars, but they didn’t identify as such, nor did they portray Jewish characters.
“Who knew,” asked Claudia Caplan, “that [Lauren] Bacall was Jewish?”
Screenwriter Stephanie Liss recalled how, as a teenager, she cut school to sneak into the second act of “Funny Girl” on Broadway. It was a revelation.
“I remember thinking Barbra Streisand was the most beautiful, stunning, magnetic woman I’d ever seen,” Liss says. “Because of that, I was actually able to look in the mirror and think that someday. . . .”
Streisand did it her way, refusing to alter her nose or hide her Jewishness. But, commission members lament, she did not create sweeping change. There’s Streisand and there’s Bette Midler, and that’s about it for role models.
And, noted Hyler, president of Hyler Management, Streisand chooses leading men such as Robert Redford or Nick Nolte rather than nice Jewish boys. But, she added, “she’s an icon. Who does she have to choose from? Paul Newman is the only one who identifies as Jewish.”
Then there is the other problem in films, stated by Interscope / PolyGram producer Paula Silver: “Always having the Jewish man lust for the non-Jewish woman--and getting her.”
In her view, it is a matter of Jewish executives in the industry “reflecting their own lives"--including “their need to find that blond trophy wife who is their ticket to assimilation.”
Added Caplan, creative director for Mendelsohn-Zien Advertising, “The culture tells them their wife should look like Claudia Schiffer as tangible proof they’ve made it.”
One program that gets high marks from the commission is “Suddenly Susan,” which depicts a strong relationship between Vicki, Brooke Shields’ Jewish co-worker (Kathy Griffin), and Vicki’s rabbi husband. It’s important, stressed Hyler, that for once a Jewish woman “was the object of desire of a Jewish man.” Los Angeles has a large Jewish population, but Jewish girls growing up in parts of the country with few Jews suffer from persistent stereotyping in the media.
“ ‘The Nanny’ [Fran Drescher] is funny and fine and terrific,” said Caplan, “and at the other extreme, there’s the icon hero woman of the Holocaust--and there’s nothing in between.”
How Jewish Women Perceive Themselves
The Morning Star Commission, formed in 1997, was created and funded by Hadassah Southern California in response to a Hadassah-Brandeis University study of American Jewish women that revealed concerns about the negative stereotyping of Jewish women in movies, television, fiction and advertising.
Also as a result of that study, Hadassah founded the International Research Institute on Jewish Women, located at Brandeis. Streisand serves as honorary chairwoman of the institute, which assists Morning Star with research.
To identify perceptions about images of Jewish women in the media, eight focus groups were conducted for the Morning Star Commission, each with Jewish and non-Jewish women and men of diverse ages. The women included observant and nonobservant Jews; non-Jews were screened to find both people with Jewish friends and / or associates and those who get most of their perceptions about Jews from the media.
A key finding, according to Sharon Krischer, Hadassah liaison to the commission, was that “Jewish women perceive themselves to be well-educated, intelligent, very giving and supportive of others--not, however, beautiful or even attractive, never sensuous, playful or fun-loving” and thus insignificant and likely to be passed over.
Further, Krischer reported, “the high incidence of intermarriage depicted in programs like ‘Mad About You’ reinforced such feelings.”
When Jewish men in the focus groups were asked to name a positive image of a Jewish woman on television, the only one that came to mind was Dharma Finkelstein of “Dharma & Greg” (Jennifer Elfman) for her “non-Jewish appearance"--that is, tall, blond and slender. Streisand was mentioned by non-Jewish men as being very talented.
Non-Jews’ predominant image of Jewish women was of women with prominent noses, dark, Middle Eastern complexions and an inclination to be overweight.
Jewish women in the groups described Jewish women as depicted on television as “pushy, controlling, selfish, unattractive, materialistic, high-maintenance, shallow, domineering. They nag their husbands and spend all their time cooking or shopping.”
Only three positive images of Jewish women in films were mentioned: Amy Irving as a self-sufficient heroine of “Crossing Delancey,” Bette Midler as a caring friend in “Beaches” and Barbra Streisand as a supportive therapist in “Prince of Tides.”
Then there is “The Nanny,” in which Drescher plays Fran Fine, a Jewish stereotype if ever there were one, they say. In and of itself, commission members feel, “The Nanny” isn’t bad--but the character doesn’t represent the spectrum of contemporary Jewish women.
For many non-Jews, observed commission member Beverly Magid, a vice president of Guttman Associates public relations, “That is their only look into the Jewish world.”
They Oppose Stereotypes of All Minorities
Los Angeles, the hub of the entertainment industry, seemed the logical place to establish the Morning Star Commission. The influence of pop culture on Jewish adolescents can’t be ignored, said screenwriter Arlene Sarner, mother of three sons “who never had any interest in dating Jewish women.”
Stereotypes of Jewish women seem to be firmly ingrained, Sarner added, even as “stereotypes of Jewish men seem to have diminished.” The cheapskate has been supplanted by “funny, adorable, nonthreatening.” Think Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen.
At the same time, said Liss, “the Jewish woman has become a laugh. There’s still a cachet if you laugh at Jews.”
The women of Morning Star were quick to point out that they aren’t the only minority stereotyped in the media; they’d like to see the commission as a model for others fighting such labeling. Said Magid, “As we enhance our Jewishness, we’re also enhancing the community around us.” With two women rabbis on the commission, members are also beginning to explore ways in which to incorporate the teaching of the Torah into their busy lives.
They understand, too, that, unlike many minority women, Jewish women are for the most part functioning well in society and are neither oppressed nor impoverished. That, said Caplan, makes people ask, “Who are you to complain?”
Reflecting on their childhoods, the women chronicled the evolving image of Jewish women as it has been shaped by the media. Said Sarner, “Before ‘Marjorie Morningstar,’ the images of Jewish women were of activists, fighters, incredibly strong women who kept their families together. Our role models didn’t have to come from what women looked like. I think after the second World War, that changed.”
When Hyler was 12, she longed to be like Catwoman (Julie Newmar), “who was Jewish but not identified as such.” In real life, she added, the only women who looked like her were women such as anarchist Emma Goldman, but she longed to look like “the women I saw being chased after by men in my schools.”
Molly Goldberg, of the 1940s-50s TV show “The Goldbergs,” was overtly Jewish. So was Molly Picon, a Yiddish theater icon of the 1940s. But, said Hyler, “Bess Myerson [Miss America, 1945] was all we had for leggy and glamorous.”
As commission members see it, things haven’t improved much.
Krischer, who has three daughters, said, “They don’t want to be identified as Jewish. It’s embarrassing"--their perception being limited to the likes of Drescher and Cher Horowitz (the pampered character in “Clueless”), “that whole Jewish princess thing.”
As a screenwriter, Liss knows that “there are restrictions in terms of what we’re allowed to create” for television, where programming is largely dictated by demographics. “I think it’s a vicious cycle.”
In films, added Hyler, “most of it’s negative,” with the exception of Streisand productions. And, she added, if you’re upfront about being Jewish, like Streisand, “you take a lot of heat,” and many performers shy away, recognizing it may limit their roles.
Too often, Hyler said, the decision-makers in the industry are Jewish men “who have not forgiven their mothers. They have been running away from their own heritage,” preferring to carry on the lie of what she calls the “fake America” created by immigrant Jews before them. “Women’s voices in the industry are only a function of the last 20 years.”
Another factor, said Magid, is Hollywood’s current obsession with action films. The action male, she pointed out, is rarely Jewish, and if there’s an action female, “she certainly isn’t Jewish.”
Liss sees education as the key. A step in that direction is a $5,000 grant just given Hadassah Southern California by the Jewish Community Foundation for programs in Jewish high schools, Hillel chapters and synagogues to, as Fein puts it, teach students “to glory in their Jewishness.”
Said Fein, “If for long enough you’re presented with images of something that’s distasteful to the larger society, you learn to hate that,” so you reject it and set out to re-create yourself, down to a new, non-Jewish name. (Would Paulette Goddard have been a superstar as plain old Marion Levy?)
Can the commission change things through consciousness-raising? Yes, said Sarner, mentioning the impact of the anti-smoking campaign on television. Yes, said Silver, pointing out that designated drivers are being written into scripts as a result of changed attitudes about drinking and driving.
Morning Star also plans to issue policy recommendations, establish awards for positive program portrayals and develop image-improving strategies with decision-makers in film and TV. It can’t hurt that the group’s media advisory council includes such heavy hitters as Ed Asner, CBS president Leslie Moonves, producer Lili Fini Zanuck and Paramount president and chair Sherry Lansing.
“I don’t think we’re the Jewish woman portrayal police,” Caplan said.
All we ask, Sarner added, is that “once in a while we have a nonstereotypical Jewish woman.”
Hyler laughed and said, “I’d like to see Shirley MacLaine play a 70-year-old Jewish femme fatale having an affair with Brad Pitt.”