The Nanny

Fran Drescher's show caused controversy for its portrayal of Jews.

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Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The Nanny, a show about a thirtysomething Queens-born former salesgirl who finds a position as nanny to three children of a British theatrical producer, debuted in 1993. Written and produced by Fran Drescher, who plays the title character, and her ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, the show became an unexpected hit and was often at the top of the Nielsen charts. While Jewishness is not essential to the plot, which requires only that the uneducated, lower-class Fran winds up teaching her social betters, aspects of the character's Jewish background are featured in most episodes.

Negative Stereotypes?

From the nasal whine, to Yiddish words (a Nanny Web page includes a Yiddish glossary), to the nanny's Jewish female desires-like getting married, preferably to a nice Jewish doctor-and certainly, shopping ("My first words" says the nanny, "were can I take it back if I wore it?"), mannerisms that are identified as Jewish along with Jewish princess stereotypes fill the air. The contrast--the key to the show's slim plot device--is between the nanny's authenticity, however coarse and ostentatious, which is a product of her ethnic, supposedly lower-class origins, and the sterility of the British upper class and their hangers-on.
the nanny
The Nanny has received a great deal of critical comment-much of it negative. Typical are those from the Jewish press, which see Drescher's character as a "princessy, irritating, Jewish woman," a "whiny, manipulative, clothes-horse hunting rich (non-Jewish) men" a "flashy, materialistic, and champion whiner." With The Nanny, comments one source, "the woman of valor has become the woman of velour" one who "loves shopping, gabbing, whining, polishing her nails at every moment, spouting 'Oy!' after every sentence, searching for a rich husband, and putting plastic seat covers on the furniture.

How an exaggerated Jewishness provides the central image and dramatic device of the show is exemplified in an episode aired in April 1996, on which the nanny is dating the young cantor of her mother's synagogue. When the star of Mr. Sheffield's forthcoming Broadway musical falls ill, he taps the cantor to play the lead. "God has sent us a nice Jewish boy" Mr. Sheffield intones. But Fran's mother Sylvia (played by Renee Taylor) is deeply agitated that no one in her temple will talk to her since they blame her for the loss of their cantor. Sylvia threatens her daughter that she will get even: "our God is not a merciful God" she warns. With that, locusts appear and there is lightning and thunder. Overlooking the disturbances, Fran's eye falls on an advertising circular on the hallway table. "Oh my God, I missed the Loehman's yearly clearance" she wails. "God, why are you doing this to me?"

In the final scene of the episode, Fran and her mother, dressed in pastel miniskirted suits, enter their temple and take seats in the last row. "We've been exiled to Siberia" Fran moans as her mother takes out a ham-and -cheese sandwich. "At temple?" Fran asks incredulously. "Nobody can see us here" Sylvia replies. "I can [even] throw a luau." Fran's discomfort increases when she sees her friend Debby, proudly sporting an engagement ring, seated a few rows ahead. Envious, she asks what she ever did to God to deserve such neglect. Remembering that she scammed $500 from an airline, Fran goes up to the rabbi to contribute the airline's check to the temple. Immediately her luck changes. Debby is overheard in a dispute with her fiance and returns the ring, while another congregant tells Sylvia that she can be first for the front row seats she no longer needs for the High Holidays. Thankful, Fran and her mother bow their heads: "Find her a doctor;' the mother prays."Find me a doctor" Fran says simultaneously.

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Joyce Antler

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