People like to talk about the importance of seeing themselves onscreen — in characters who represent their background, heritage and ethos.
But what happens when characters that “represent you” have been onscreen since the early days of the medium? Characters whose traits are so ingrained in the public imagination that it may be just as accurate to call the archetype a stereotype?
What happens when the characters meant to represent you are TV’s Jewish women?
Consider one of the most prominent recent examples, Midge Maisel. Actress Rachel Brosnahan’s much-lauded heroine from the Amazon comedy series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is smart, small and silver-tongued. She’s a spendthrift with a hat obsession, opinionated on pretty much everything, an excellent cook and could probably stand to talk to a therapist about her parents’ expectations of her.
Although she’s the star of a period piece and starts the series as a New York City housewife in the 1950s, Midge is a modern-day amalgamation of all the most desirable qualities of a character who’s evolved out of routines popularized in places like the Borscht Belt comedy circuit.
She’s funny, sure. She’s pretty and well-dressed. She’s also more poised than Valerie Harper’s Rhoda Morgenstern, considerably less meddling than Gertrude Berg’s Molly Goldberg or smothering than Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Beverly Goldberg. But Midge most definitely “plays on Jewish stereotypes,” says Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor emerita at the University of Minnesota’s Department of American Studies who looks at both gender and Judaism.
“I think what ‘Mrs. Maisel’ does is to draw on the stereotypes while constantly undermining them [by] showing you the complexity of her character,” Prell adds.
“Mrs. Maisel” has had a polarizing effect on the Jewish community. Some find the show endearing. Others, as Paul Brownfield described it for The Times earlier this year, feel it’s “blithe tribal sarcasm.”
“For probably good reasons, there’s a stereotype of Jewish women being more verbal, more opinionated and less deferential than, say, the WASPy stereotype,” says Henry Bial, a professor studying performance and Jewish popular culture at the University of Kansas and the author of “Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen.”
He adds that, although there have been arguments that these tropes came from “some psychological complex of the Jewish men who were creating these characters,” they also exist “because Jewish culture really does encourage that.”
For its part, “Maisel” never lets you forget for a second that it’s a Jewish show about Jewish characters. A chunk of the third season, which premiered on Amazon Prime Video on Dec. 6, revolves around Midge’s parents’ confusion over why she’d break off an engagement (with a wealthy doctor!) to focus on her emerging comedy career. There’s an episode with a bris — the circumcision ceremony that welcomes Jewish baby boys into the faith — and, at one point in the season, Midge feigns horror that her daughter talked to a gentile boy on the playground. The Season 3 finale is even titled “A Jewish Girl Walks Into the Apollo ...” (Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, herself the daughter of a Bronx-born Jewish comic, declined multiple requests for interviews through publicists. Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke said that the show is meant to be “a love letter to the Jewish community” when asked about the criticism during the winter 2019 Television Critics Assn. press tour.)
But “Maisel” speaks to a specific time and type of person. 2019 also saw the end of the comedies “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” on the CW and “Broad City” on Comedy Central. Both series were created by Jewish women and had Jewish female leads — and both attempted to thread the needle of addressing those characters’ religious identities candidly without making them the focus.
“I love specificity. … I love to know as much from the characters and to feel like the creators have thought about all their different aspects,” says Aline Brosh McKenna, the showrunner and co-creator of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” “And people’s religious identity is often important to them even if they’re not religious.”
But, she says, “Being a Jewish woman in America has kind of a specific baggage” when it comes to stereotypes and parental expectations. (It took a long time for her own father to get on board with her career choice, as he wished she’d gone into a more stable industry.)
So, when “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” did talk about its heroine’s Jewish identity, it hit hard. Over its four-year run, the musical dramedy had not one but two rap battles between a couple of “hard-as-nails shebrews from Scarsdale.” There was also a song entitled “Remember That We Suffered,” in which guest star Patti LuPone sings that the younger generation has “no idea what pain is” before mentioning the Holocaust (a lot). It was featured in an episode, Brosh McKenna notes, about “the epigenetics of trauma … that many Jews carry with them and, in certain respects, take for granted.”
And then there are instances where a character just happens to be Jewish. “Batwoman,” which is currently in its first season on the CW, stars Ruby Rose as Kate Kane, a gruff and determined advocate for justice who takes over for her cousin Bruce Wayne as Gotham City’s resident masked vigilante. She’s also suffered family trauma stemming from a calamitous event that happened on the way home from her bat mitzvah — a fact that is barely more than a footnote thus far in the story, and intentionally so.
“We’re handling Judaism as Kate’s heritage rather than a big religious aspect,” says “Batwoman” showrunner Caroline Dries. She adds, “It’s a part of her in the same way that being gay is part of her. … [We’re] not shining a huge light on it yet.” (The fact that Kate is a lesbian who has no time for homophobia, however, has gotten a decent amount of screen time.)
Dries adds that this is why the decision was made not to completely cover up star Rose’s own large collection of tattoos, even though the body art has traditionally been strictly forbidden by the more adherent in the Jewish community.
“There’s a difference between Judaism and Jewishness,” says Rebecca Rossen, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin involved in women and gender studies as well as Jewish studies. She adds, “There should be Jewish characters whose Jewishness is just about telling who they are, but it isn’t given the same significance [as Judaism] because I think that’s the experience for so many people.”
Depictions of underrepresented groups in popular culture often come under a magnifying glass. But subtext has traditionally been as important in identifying Jewish characters on TV, which may explain why more explicit attempts to deal with the subject — on “Maisel,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and Amazon’s “Transparent” — attract heightened scrutiny.
“In the days of [primarily] network TV, a lot of times the Jewishness of the character had to be coded,” Bial says, explaining that there was an understanding that Ross, Rachel and Monica on “Friends” were Jewish even if it wasn’t explicitly stated because you don’t want to “alienate people who don’t have any experience with Jewish culture.” Similarly, some actors, like “The Nanny” star Fran Drescher, can deliver a performance in such a way that the audience sees what society has been taught to understand as “Jewish” traits even if that identity is never stated.
As a result, he says, “What we tend to think of as Jewish stereotypes have very little to do with actual Jewish religion or ethnicity and really have more to do with stereotypes of New York in a particular period or particular areas or neighborhoods in particular parts of the world.”
That’s why the evolution of Jewish women on TV will have to start, simply, with more of them: It’s harder to see yourself onscreen when there are so few reflections to choose from. Especially if you’re not from New York.