Jewish tropes on television
This trope plays up stereotypes about Jews and mental illness. Jews in entertainment are often depicted as neurotic, anxious, whiny/complaining, obsessive, paranoid, and more. While it’s true that many Jews live with mental illness (as Jews, we have so much intergenerational trauma!), the issue with this trope is that it doesn’t provide legitimate representation, but rather, Jews with mental illness are played up for laughs. Some examples of this trope include Seth Cohen from The OC, Monica and Ross Geller from Friends, and even Golda from The Fiddler on the Roof.
Of course, these characters are often created by Jews as a form of self-deprecating humor (which I personally appreciate!). However, there’s a fine line between self-deprecating Jewish humor, proper representation, and making Jewish characters palatable to majority non-Jewish audiences.
The “ambiguously Jewish” trope is related to Jew-coding (see my recent post WHAT IS JEW-CODING?). This trope comes up when a character is “coded” as Jewish by displaying “stereotypically Jewish” characteristics (e.g. stereotypes about appearance, neuroticism, money, materialism, spoiled behavior, using Yiddish words, complaining, etc.) but is never explicitly stated as Jewish. Some examples include Rachel Green in Friends or Cher Horowitz in Clueless, both of which play on the Jewish American Princess stereotype. The fact that the creator of Clueless has stated Cher is not Jewish is irrelevant, because most viewers will pick up on the context clues and will read her as Jewish anyway.
The ambiguously Jewish trope (and Jew-coding in general) often plays up antisemitic stereotypes. An example are the goblins in Harry Potter. They run the banking world, are depicted suspiciously similar to antisemitic cartoons and are characterized as conniving, cheap, and stingy. In the Harry Potter films, Gringotts, the wizarding bank, even has a Star of David on the floor. Again, whether JK Rowling or the movie producers/writers intended for the goblins to be read as Jewish is irrelevant, because they will be anyway, whether subconsciously or not.
ALL JEWS ARE ASHKENAZI
Jews in movies and television — particularly in the United States (as opposed to Israeli television) — are almost exclusively portrayed as Ashkenazi. In fact, Jewishness in entertainment is almost always reduced to Ashkenazi identity, implying that to be Jewish is to be Ashkenazi, even though the Jewish diaspora is multifaceted and diverse. A perfect example of this is Seinfeld: though Jerry Seinfeld is partially of Syrian Jewish descent, Jewish identity in Seinfeld is clearly depicted through Ashkenazi culture (the use of Yiddish, for instance).
Obviously, Ashkenazi Jews form the majority of world Jewry, making up about 80 percent of the worldwide Jewish population. Ashkenazi representation in television is homogenized (e.g. Ashkenazi culture is reduced to a very specific subset of American Ashkenazi culture), stereotyped, played for jokes, and lacking. As such, the issue is NOT Ashkenazi representation, but rather, the implication that to be Jewish is to be Ashkenazi.
Since the earliest days of Hollywood, Jewish producers and creators had to find ways to make Jewish characters palatable to non-Jewish audiences. To do so, they had to play down or whitewash the characters’ Jewishness, to “prove” that Jews were “just like everybody else.” Considering the rampant antisemitism of the time, it’s no wonder that Jewish creators wanted to show non-Jewish audiences that Jews were, indeed, human. Instead of highlighting the positive aspects of Jewish culture and identity, however, these creators made Jewish characters just Jewish enough that non-Jewish audiences would accept them.
Most Jewish characters in entertainment are secular, Americanized, and play up their Jewishness as the butt of the joke. If Orthodox Jews are depicted at all, they’re usually depicted negatively. Jewish holidays are rarely depicted on their own but instead are used as the “sidekick” to Christian holidays for inclusion/diversity points (the only time Jews are counted as “diverse” in the first place). For instance, Hanukkah is depicted as a “Jewish Christmas,” even though Hanukkah is a holiday about Jewish Indigenous resistance to a foreign invader and has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, nor does it always take place during Christmas (I want to mention there is a fine line between interfaith representation — such as Chrismukkah in The OC — and whitewashing Jewish holidays. It’s up to the viewer to decide where the line is. What’s important to me, personally, is that Jewish holidays are depicted accurately. I think The OC often misses the mark).
One of the most popular television tropes about Jews is that of the stereotypical overbearing Jewish mother. She will usually use plenty of Yiddish, nag and complain, boast about her son, and obsess over her daughter marrying a “nice Jewish boy” (meaning: a Jewish man who is a doctor or a lawyer). She might be passive aggressive and highly critical, particularly of her daughter. She will probably cook and insist people eat, even if they’re not hungry. Most of all, she will demand grandchildren.
There are plenty of examples, but an obvious one is that of Golde in Fiddler on the Roof.
JEWISH AMERICAN PRINCESS
Tropes about Jews in television, films, and other forms of entertainment usually reflect antisemitic stereotypes, and the Jewish American Princess trope is no exception. “Jewish American Princesses” are also known as “JAPs” (not to be confused with the anti-Japanese slur).
This stereotype characterizes Jewish women as materialistic, spoiled, selfish, pampered, and wealthy. Oftentimes they’re also depicted as “Daddy’s girls.” Interestingly, the Jewish American Princess stereotype originated with Jewish male writers post-World War II. The stereotype arose from pressures for the Jewish community to maintain a visibly affluent lifestyle in the 1970s.
Oftentimes, the Jewish American Princess trope is used on ambiguously Jewish or “Jew-coded” characters, such as Rachel Green in Friends and Cher Horowitz in Clueless.
Jews on television, specifically Jewish men, tend to be portrayed as geeky, nerdy, and awkwardly unattractive. This trope plays on stereotypes about Jewish physical appearance, such as the “Jewfro” and stereotypes about Jewish men being skinny and physically weak or feminine. Oftentimes, the character is “nasally” and has a Yiddish-inflected accent.
The Jewish nerd stereotype has its origins in tropes about Jews as a “model minority,” where Jews are stereotypically considered highly educated and intellectual. Very rarely are Jewish characters on television and films depicted as unintelligent. Jews, like everyone else, have different interests and levels of intelligence, but this diversity is hardly ever represented adequately in entertainment.
An example of the geeky Jew trope is Seth Cohen in The OC.
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