We’ve been enjoying the new Jewish webzine Tablet (the former Nextbook) for its high-quality writing and interesting topics. However, we were disappointed to read a recent piece by Liel Leibovitz called “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Why Jewish producers kept Jewish women off stage and screen.” Leibovitz takes a very selective sampling of Jewish movie history—without a single direct quote from any Jewish movie producers themselves—to reiterate a disturbing claim that we’ve heard before. Like in Sylvia Barack Fishman’s book “Double or Nothing,” Leibovitz seems to suggest that Jewish men’s distaste for their female coreligionists prevented Jewish women from participating in the entertainment industry, and encouraged the widespread portrayal of intermarriage in film and television. (Barack Fishman takes it a step further by suggesting that such portrayals actually help cause intermarriage.)
Leibovitz writes, “Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.”
There are many flaws in Leibovitz’s argument. To name a few: Barbara Streisand; Lauren Bacall; Bette Midler; Debra Winger; and Natalie Portman. Throughout the history of TV and film, there have been great Jewish leading ladies, sometimes even portraying Jewish characters. Only one, Jennifer Grey, is mentioned in this piece.
Leibovitz begins the article by taking Woody Allen to task for his obsession in “Manhattan” with the “stereotypical all-American” Mariel Hemingway. And while this would be a theme in some other Woody Allen films, like “Annie Hall,” it ignores the fact that Allen’s earlier works all starred the brilliantly funny, Jewish actress (and his first wife) Louise Lasser, and that two of his most recent works star Scarlett Johansson, a child of intermarriage who describes herself as Jewish. Yes, for a period of time—mostly in the late 60s and 1970s—the theme of nebbishy-Jew-chases-blonde-“shiksa”-goddess found a niche, because comedy requires contrast, and intermarriage was a relatively new phenomenon. But that theme does not paint the entire sweep of cinematic history. The contrast of intermarriage can still provide laughs, but it has also been addressed with increasing sophistication for decades now.
To back up his case against Jewish producers, Leibovitz quotes actress Jennifer Grey, who says she got a nose job because “Hollywood is run by Jewish men.” This would be a good argument if the nose job happened before her success. The fact that she had her biggest hits (“Dirty Dancing” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”) while still having her “ethnic feature” disproves the theory that she could not be cast because she was “too Jewish looking.”
Of course, the focus on who “looks Jewish” adds another problem to Leibovitz’s theory. Do actresses Goldie Hawn, Gwyneth Paltrow, or Jane Seymour—all of whom consider themselves Jewish—“look Jewish”? Where do they fit into this theory? Does being partially neurotic or a “JAP” nullify the other nuances of Jewish characters like Debra Messing’s on “Will and Grace” or Hawn in “Private Benjamin”? And where does Elizabeth Taylor, as Jew by choice, fit into this theory?
As with so much in America, the issue also goes far beyond “the Jews.” Every minority in the US has valid grievances with the way they have been portrayed in film and television. If we are working with the uncomfortable assumption presented in this article, that Jewish men make all the decisions in Hollywood, then aren’t Jewish men also to blame for the nearly century-long horrendous portrayal of African Americans in film? Or Native Americans? Or the portrayal of Italian-Americans as primarily Mafioso? What are the deep-seated Jewish psychological causes for those stereotypes by Jewish producers? Perhaps there is a simpler answer—that all characters begin with stereotypes, because that’s how the human mind works, and because it’s easy writing, but the good characters are the ones that have enough inner conflict to break out of the mold—and we Jews are just overanalyzing ourselves.
While it is fair to point out stereotypes and negative trends, let’s be balanced about how influential those trends really are, and from where they originate.