Image by AleWi, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jewish Women I Saw (And Didn’t) On TV

Representation matters - in real life most of all

Growing up in a small town in North Carolina, there weren’t a lot of Jewish women around. Jewish women certainly didn’t number among the women in my life I could look up to (besides, of course, my mother).

But I did see Jewish women on TV.

Jewish women were the characters I looked for in the shows I loved. I swiftly realized, though, that seeing them in the shows I watched wasn’t enough. Sure, it confirmed that we Jewish girls existed in popular culture. But they rarely seemed like the kind of Jewish women I wanted to look up to. They were one-dimensional, stereotypical, often abused by their fellow characters and pitied by the devoted viewers.

As a pre-teen, I cringed when I saw the Jewish American Princess (JAP) character in action, and rolled my eyes at the depiction of the Jewish Mother. I watched the naive and all-too-innocent Willow Rosenberg from Buffy the Vampire Slayer fall by the wayside of the titular character and then get turned into a villain within the series; I watched the overbearing, pushy, know-it-all Paris Geller from Gilmore Girls get bullied, made fun of, and still not succeed all that she worked so hard and relentlessly for.

As I got older, I watched the flashy, self-centered, ostentatious Mona-Lisa Saperstein from Parks and Recreation hound her dad and boyfriend for money, have adult temper tantrums, and make petty, insensitive comments to others; I watched the vapid and spoiled Shoshanna Shapiro from Girls enter on screen in her pink Juicy Couture tracksuit, living in an apartment her parents paid for, constantly sticking her nose up at her “friends.” (Not that they were selfless or sweet, either.)

I watched the overwhelming, boundary-crossing Beverly Goldberg from The Goldbergs smother her children, lie to them in order to protect them, and obsess over their every move; I watched the nitpicky Naomi Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend control her daughter’s every move, map out her career for her, make snide comments about her efforts, and criticize her appearance.

Yes, obviously I watch a lot of television… but that’s not the point!

Where were the Queen Esthers? (Happy Purim!) Where were the women worthy of being celebrated throughout March for Women’s History Month (also, Happy International Women’s Day)!

Over the years, I have come to realize that visibility does not equal representation. I was frustrated by the Jewish women I saw on screen, too often nothing more than a plot device or embodying and perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

But they did teach me some things.

They taught me to be an active–rather than passive–watcher and listener.

They taught me that forms of antisemitism are insidious and exist in places we may be least likely to expect.

They taught me that I can’t always rely on television to accurately depict the Jewish women I wanted to see, but that I should seek out Jewish women in my community to look up to (no matter how hard they might be to find in a small town in North Carolina).

Above all, they taught me about who people expect me to be versus who I want to be. So now, I’m more mindful about being the sort of Jewish woman I was hoping to see in my youth. TV doesn’t have the final say in how Jewish women are presented.

We do.

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