August 6, 2020

TV Family Tree: The Racial Roots Behind Jewish Media Stereotypes

By Jonathan Branfman

They crack us up, they make us proud, and sometimes they embarrass us: the neurotic Jewish men and domineering Jewish women of American TV evoke complicated feelings for many Jews. From lovably bawdy Jewish women like Fran Drescher and Tiffany Haddish to castrating terrors like Debbie Wolowitz; from cute “nice Jewish boys” like Seth Rogen to emasculated losers like George Costanza; these TV Jews shape how non-Jewish Americans view Jews, and how Jews view ourselves. 

While many American Jews know and love/hate these media stereotypes, most of us don’t know the racial history behind them. Today’s “common-sense” notion that Jewish men are neurotically feminized and that Jewish women are masculinized (aggressive, domineering, sexually overpowering) descends from about eight centuries of racial anti-Semitism. Tracing this history can be tricky because scholars debate when precisely the modern notion of “race” emerged and when it was first applied to Jews. By the fourteenth century, though, European Christian art and writing had begun to depict Jews as bodily different from gentiles, introducing patterns that would later shape anti-Semitic racial pseudo-science…and American TV. By the sixteenth century, this imagery depicted Jews not only with swarthy skin, curly dark hair, and beaked noses, but also with “deviant” Jewish gender and sexuality. For instance, medieval Christian Europeans commonly claimed that Jewish men menstruate as punishment for crucifying Jesus, and that Jews had originated the “sin” of sodomy before spreading it to Muslims and Christians. Centuries later, Nazi propaganda similarly alleged that homosexuality was a “Jewish disease” by which Jews sexually corrupted white Christians. 

Like many generations of one family, stereotypes about deviant Jewish gender have taken different forms and meanings from the 14th century to today, and from Europe to the Americas. But across all these times and places, the notion that Jewish men are emasculated, Jewish women are “too masculinized,” and both are sexually perverse has bolstered the belief that Jewishness is a bodily difference, not only a religious faith. For instance, accusations of abnormal Jewish gender and sexuality were central to 19th and early-20th-century ideologies that cast Jews as a separate race of “Orientals,” “Semites,” “Hebrews,” or “Asiatics.” Although American society largely reimagined Ashkenazi Jews from a separate race to a variety of “white ethnics” in the 1950s, long-rooted ideas about Jewish gender deviance still contribute to the ongoing ambivalence about Jewish racial status. Partly because of these gender and sexual stigmas, the sense lingers that even a Jew whose driver’s license says “white” and who often benefits from white privilege may still not fully “be white,” or at least not so white as other (gentile) white people. 

Today’s Jewish media stereotypes like the aggressive “Jewish American Princess,” overbearing “Jewish mother,” and emasculated “nice Jewish boy” are all variations on this long lineage of anti-Semitic racial-gendered-sexual imagery. This history doesn’t mean that all of today’s TV strong Jewish women and nebbishy men are automatically anti-Semitic images, though some are. Jewish performers—and especially Jewish women comedians—have often harnessed these old gender stigmas to laugh back in the face of anti-Semitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The point is rather that today’s American Jews inherit a bundle of gendered and sexual stereotypes without understanding why. Learning the history behind these stigmas can help us all better make sense of the Jewish gender stereotypes that confront us in our homes and on our screens.

It may sound abstract to say that beliefs about Jewish gender, sexuality, and racial status overlap, or that today’s Jewish media stereotypes descend from an eight-hundred-year history. To make these ideas more concrete, an especially clear and hilarious example is the award-winning Comedy Central series Broad City (2014-2019). Broad City stars its co-creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer as exaggerated versions of their millennial Jewish selves, enjoying wild romps around New York City. Racial stereotypes about Jewish gender deviance form a vital but little-noticed engine that drives Broad City’s success. From the opening moments of Broad City’s pilot, its protagonists call themselves “Jewesses,” an outdated racial term for Jewish women. While the word “Jewess” might strike many American Jews today as oddly archaic, few now remember its specific gendered and sexual meanings, which play a prominent role in Broad City’s humor. The term “Jewess” and its role on Broad City thus exemplify how American Jews inherit a racial history we don’t recall, and how learning this history can help us to understand ourselves and our media representation. 

By calling themselves “Jewesses,” Broad City’s leading ladies resonate with a once-popular stereotype called “the beautiful Jewess.” The roots of this hypersexual character stretch back to a Spanish folktale from 1292, about a Jewish woman who sexually enthralls a Christian king. By the eighteenth to twentieth centuries, this Jewish female figure evolved into a stock character across British, European, and American literature, art, and media, known variously as the belle juive (French), judía fermosa (Spanish), bella ebrea (Italian), shöne Jüdin (German), and prekrasnaia evreika (Russian). Using her dark Eastern features to titillate white Christian men, the beautiful Jewess combined hypersexuality with exotic racial ambiguity. Beautiful Jewesses often appeared as tragic victims awaiting salvation by white gentile heroes, as in plays like The Merchant of Venice (1596), novels like Ivanhoe (1820), operas like La Juive (1834), and films like Romance of a Jewess (1908). Yet, Jewesses could also be threatening femmes fatales luring Christian men to ruin, just like the biblical Jewess, Judith, who seduces the Assyrian general Holofernes only to behead him. Similar to stigmas on today’s drag queens, the beautiful Jewess stood accused of possessing an exaggerated femininity that was just a deceitful veneer, concealing her true “masculine” sexual aggression. As American society began to envision Ashkenazi Jews as white in the mid-20th-century, though, this racially exotic image of the Jewess was increasingly replaced by tropes of the domineering “Jewish American Princess” or “Jewish mother,” stereotypes that are compatible with viewing Jews as white, but that still imply something physically off about Jews.

Broad City’s millennial leading ladies not only reintroduce the older term “Jewess” to American screens, but also harness the “beautiful Jewess’s” image of deceptive hyperfemininity: they instrumentalize the notion that Jewish women conceal aggressive masculinity beneath seductive, exotic façades. Broad City’s comedic appeal often depends on almost meeting dominant norms of proper, sexy femininity, but then aggressively refusing those norms in order to mock sexism. In the pilot episode, for instance, Ilana tries to make some cash by posting a Craigslist ad for half-naked housekeeping, with the headline, “We’re Just Two Jewesses Tryin’ to Make a Buck.” When she and Abbi get a response, the john tries to worm out of paying them—in other words, he tries to draw free sexual and housekeeping labor from them, as men often expect from women. Instead of accepting this exploitation, the two “Jewesses” ransack his apartment to take payment in clothes and alcohol, pivoting the situation back onto their own terms to get what they want from the john. Throughout Broad City, similar cases of socially critical comedy show Abbi and Ilana riotously refusing to act like “proper ladies,” and laughing at anyone who would pressure them to appear passive, pleasing, or beautiful for men’s enjoyment, while actively reminding the audience that they are “Jewesses.” Perhaps the most spectacular example of this seductive-yet-masculinized “Jewess comedy” comes in the episode “Knockoffs,” when Abbi straps on a dildo to peg (anally penetrate) her male partner, and then brings the dildo to Ilana’s grandmother’s shiva, where the sex toy sparks an unexpected lesson for the older Jewish guests about pegging and about questioning gender stereotypes. This storyline actively links Abbi’s gender transgressions with her Jewishness, as multiple characters describe her as a “Jewess” throughout the episode. And with her strap-on, this “Jewess” flips dominant gender expectations in her own bed while encouraging other women to do the same.  It is precisely this kind of socially critical comedy that has won Broad City such an impassioned fandom and feminist acclaim.

By revamping anti-Semitic “Jewess” stereotypes to mock American sexism on 21st-century TV, Broad City exemplifies how very old racial, gendered, and sexual ideas about Jews continue to shape present-day pop culture. If you’d like to learn more about these histories and how they structure American media, the reading list below offers a great starting point. Whether we know these histories or not, they powerfully shape our lives today. 

Jonathan Branfman is an HBI Scholar in residence and a visiting professor of English and Jewish Studies at Cornell University. 

Read Topic of the Week for additional resources and readings. 

Comments

  1. Jesse Rosen says:

    Curious as to how you identify Jews becoming white in the 50’s. My personal experience was that inclusion as sort-of white didn’t occur till the 60’s, after the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 6 Day War.

    • MerryLynne Glastein Lincove says:

      Depends on what part of the country you lived. I grew up one of the few Jews in Pine Bluff, AR. I experienced Anti-Semitism throughout my childhood. I graduated high school in 1972. It was quite a few years before the Pine Bluff Country Club allowed Jews and that was because they needed money. Only about five Jews are left and the downtown looks like a bomb hit it.
      Friends of mine from other cities became “white” earlier.

  2. Geri Drexler says:

    Enjoyed the lesson.
    Thanks!

Speak Your Mind

*

Protected by Akismet
Blog with WordPress

Welcome Guest | Login (Brandeis Members Only)