Gender Stereotypes in Television

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

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

Television, especially comedy shows, tends to depict both Jewish men and women in formulaic ways.” Some executives and creative personnel argue that stereotyped portrayals are de rigueur in situation comedies that must develop their characters quickly. Even in drama, the tendency is to “heighten, tighten, and simplify.” According to this view, the increasing visibility of exaggerated Jewish characters on television may in fact be cause to celebrate. “It is a healthy development” when ethnic shows are considered saleable, says New York University media critic Neil Postman.”

david schwimmer ross

David Schwimmer played Ross on Friends.

Yet the gender gap in the portrayal of Jewish men and Jewish women is cause for deep concern. Although they are often seen as “neurotic, whining about their relationship problems, writers’ blocks, kvetching about their parents and analyzing their struggles with commitment,” Jewish men usually appear as sympathetic, caring, and sensitive, often with a wry sense of humor. An example is the character Miles Silverberg (played by Grant Shaud) in Murphy Brown, the TV producer with a persecution complex who whines his way through many a script but does get the girl he’s after.

Despite their “annoying qualities,” says one writer about such characters, underneath Jewish men are “mensches.” “We might not find the common media stereotype of glib, verbal, insecure, and neurotic [male] Jews to be especially flattering,” agrees Michael Medved, “but the writers and directors who employ that stereotype unquestionably intend for audiences to react with sympathy and affection.”

Wimpy & Awkward

More often than not, Jewish men on TV are brainy and sharpwitted; however, they can also be clumsy and awkward, both socially and physically. Even the appealing Ross on Friends is a wimp, and Seinfeld‘s pseudo-Jewish George, schlemiel extraordinaire, is the show’s perennial loser. The stock type is easy to call up: a much talked-about show on Fox network’s fall 1999 lineup, Action!, which delivered a devastating critique of Hollywood itself, offered such a character in its premiere show, a writer named Alan Rafkin (Jarrad Paul), whom the tough lead character, producer Peter Dragon (Jay Mohr), hires by mistake. (“You mean we spent a quarter of a million dollars and we got the wrong Jew!” he bellows.)

Nebbishy and meek, Rafkin is a misfit among the hip studio crowd; he can’t even get an invitation to his boss’s party. At least in its opening sequences, this show presents the Jewish male-even in a Hollywood milieu that Jews are supposed to dominate-as the ultimate outsider.

Writing of similar television portrayals of Jewish masculinity in recent years, Maurice Berger draws attention to “ubiquitous stereotypes”–“the passive or subordinated schlemiel, the neurotic, the inferred [assimilated, or cryptic] Jew, and the feminized Jew.” He sees Jewish men most often depicted as “asexual and socially inadept”; even if professionally successful, good- looking, or powerful, they “endlessly kvetch” like the characters Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure and Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown.

In short, although they are “generally attractive and sweet- the quintessential nice Jewish boy” such types remain “nerds:’ “nebbishes:’ and “wimpy schlemiels” who must be validated by Gentile wives or girlfriends. Such pairing underscores the Jewish subject’s marginal status while ostensibly making him less of a minority. Another consequence is to render the Jewish male unmanly, passive, and ultimately subordinate. His masculinity does not roar; it is voiced instead as “the quiet peeps of a mouse.

In Berger’s view, these stereotypes of “social obedience” resemble those of other minority men whose on-screen weaknesses assuage fears of the dominant culture. At the same time, they reprise nineteenth and twentieth-century cultural portrayals of effeminate Jewish men. In earlier times as today, such images responded to perceptions that the general public cannot tolerate full-blooded males who may be “too Jewish” while also playing to internalized anti-Semitism.

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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