Gender Stereotypes in Television

Both Jewish men and women fell into certain stereotypes on television in the 1990s.

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Loud & Vulgar

Although most Jewish women on television have been "proud, heroic, and accomplished characters," they have also been depicted as loud, vulgar, spoiled, unattractive and unsexy; frequently they appear as caricatures, usually as disagreeable ones, rather than characters." When young Jewish women are on screen, they often fit the model of the spoiled Jewish princess looking for bargains and a man, preferably a wealthy doctor to take care of them (e.g., Fran Fine on The Nanny), or they are frumpy and unattractive (Fran on Mad About You, Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Brenda on Rhoda), or comically wisecracking and brash (Vicki on Suddenly Susan).

Older women are modeled after the tired stereotypes of possessive, manipulating Jewish mothers (the mothers on Rhoda, Mad About You, Seinfeld, The Nanny)." In Maurice Berger's view, such mothers appear as "controlling and hypercritical monsters.

Although Jewish-princess and Jewish-mother jokes make for easy, quick laughs, such humor is cruel and upsetting to Jewish women, lessening self-esteem, particularly for younger women, who especially rely on the media for their role models, while shaping male attitudes toward Jewish women in negative ways. Those non-Jews with little acquaintance with Jewish women tend to accept the stereotypes as real. The negative effect such portrayals have on audiences has been suggested by the Morning Star Commission, a group of thirty top Los Angeles television and film professionals organized by Hadassah Southern California that has explored the depiction of Jewish women in the media.

Focus groups of Jewish women created by the commission reported that they saw Jewish women on TV as "pushy, controlling, selfish, unattractive, materialistic, high-maintenance, shallow, domineering"; they were "cheap bargain hunters" who "nagged their husbands and spend all their time cooking or shopping." (Fran Drescher's character was cited most often as fitting these negative attributes and perpetuating stereotypes.) The commission found that non-Jewish women held equally disturbing images of Jewish women on TV---overweight and big-nosed, sharp-tongued and arrogant, scolds and henpeckers.

Jewish men who were surveyed had only one positive image of a Jewish woman on television-the tall, blonde Dharma Finkelstein (played by Jenna Elfman) who was cited because of her "non-Jewish appearance." And despite the relatively more positive view of Jewish men in contrast to Jewish women, the commission also found that Jewish women saw the Jewish male on television as a "wuss," "henpecked," "nerdy," "a mama's boy" who is unattractive and unathletic.

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Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.