"Invisible in Hollywood: Jewish women"

A women's studies prof can't recall the last time she saw a richly textured Jewish female character onscreen.

Published January 18, 2006 10:15PM (EST)

A recent Boston Globe editorial by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines slams the film "Munich," director Steven Spielberg -- and all screens big and small -- for limiting the roles of Jewish women to "caricatures" of "simpering victims," "loyal, hapless wives committed to tortured Jewish men" or "kindly grandmothers who run a country but leave the real work to men." "Munich," Dines says, offers yet "one more example of how Jewish men relegate Jewish women to roles that are supportive at best and belong in the silent era of movies, at worst."

For all the storied presence of Jews in the ranks of producers, writers and actors, Dines writes, "when was the last time you saw a richly textured Jewish female character? TV character Jerry Seinfeld, another angst-ridden Jewish man, managed to avoid dating a self-identified Jewish woman in New York for all of the show's eight years. But then why would he date a Jewish woman if his cloying mother was an example of what was on offer?"

Dines, who teaches women's studies and sociology, mentions Meryl Streep's unappealing "suffocating Jewish mother" role in "Prime," which at least no one saw. Missing from such images -- and, Dines adds, "JAP" jokes -- is "the authentic story of Jewish women. During the Holocaust, we fought together with Jewish men in the resistance and died alongside them. We have been at the forefront of liberation movements, including feminism, gay rights, antiwar protests, and peace movements in Israel. Israeli women were the first to build joint Jewish-Palestinian movements, not because we are simpering victims or overbearing mothers, but because we have a long history of activism, courage, and a commitment to sisterhood."

I can't say I disagree with Dines. But I also think there's another dimension to this grievance. How often, really, do we see Jewish (or Jew-ish) characters -- male or female -- who are not some sort of caricature? When do we ever see folks who just happen to be Jewish -- or who, God forbid, are happy about it? My husband (qualified to opine here as both a TV addict and a rabbi) and I constantly lament the lack of complex, "real" Jewish characters in mainstream pop culture. In fact, here's what he said when he read this article: "Jerry Seinfeld didn't choose Jewish women? That is a problem. You know what is also a problem for the Jews? Jerry Seinfeld."

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of BreakupGirl.net. She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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