Off the Shelf: Defining and defying stereotypes

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Is it possible to objectively critique films, TV, books and music? In the past, scholars/researchers acted as if they were independent observers whose socio-economic and religious backgrounds had no impact on their opinions. In contemporary times, though, there are critics who make clear that their critiques result from their personal identification. Take, for example, Carol Siegel’s most recent work, “Jews in Contemporary Visual Entertainment: Raced, Sexed, and Erased” (Indiana University Press). In this alternately frustrating and fascinating book, Siegel – who is a professor of English, film and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Washington State University Vancouver – makes her biases clear: at one point she calls herself as “a Jewish feminist sex radical.” She also offers a thought-provoking discussion of the difficulty of determining who is a Jew in contemporary society. Her work left me with a long list of films and TV shows that I never want to see – and that includes some she praises.

Siegel has a focused agenda, which is less about the films and TV shows she discusses than about her worldview. She opens her work with noting she seeks “to illuminate, through examples taken from visual entertainment media of the last twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, how Jews have been raced and sexed in the time period leading up to today. As the book’s subtitle indicates, representations in visual entertainments contribute to the racialization of Jewishness, its sexualization, and even its erasure.” This academic jargon can be frustrating since it makes it difficult for a non-scholar to determine Siegel’s exact meaning. 
What are easier to understand are her discussions of how Jews and Gentiles may have different reactions to the entertainments she discusses based on their background. For example, the author notes that she and her husband had very different reactions to the ending of “A Serious Man,” which was written by Joel and Ethan Coen. She found the ending hilarious, while the humor escaped her non-Jewish husband. She does note that not all Jews agree about every film: while Siegel calls “Inglorious Basterds” “the World War II revenge fantasy I have waited my whole life to see,” others saw the squad as “psycho killers,” not people whose actions should be admired. 

Questions about the nature of Jewish sexuality arise because Siegel sees Jewish and Christian cultures having different ideas about sex. While celibacy has been seen as a Christian ideal, something which still permeates American culture, Judaism generally sees sexuality as positive. The author notes that Jews have been seen in films as stereotyped (what she calls racialized) according to sex roles (for example, feminized men who spend their days indoors studying), although she does admire films like “Hester Street” that offer characters who defy these roles or, at least, take them in a different direction. While Jews might see themselves as sex positive, Siegel believes many films portray their behavior as deviant. 

While in her introduction Siegel lists plans to discuss only a few examples, she frequently refers to other material (films, books, tv shows) to explain her point: her filmography fills three, small print pages. It’s not always clear exactly what she is trying to accomplish, at least not for this layperson. But in the midst of this material, interesting discussions about specific aspects of Judaism and what it means to be Jewish break through.

In fact, her discussion in the introduction about Jewish identity and what it means to be Jewish was my favorite section and offers a great deal to ponder. It might come as a surprise to learn that Siegel would not be considered Jewish in the Conservative and Orthodox worlds: her father was Jewish, but her mother was not. Siegel also does not practice Judaism as a religion. However, she strongly identifies as a Jew. She notes the continuing discussions concerning whether Judaism is a religion, a race or an ethnicity, and offers no one answer. But, she wonders, can someone be Jewish solely based on their ancestry? Do cultural practices define one as Jewish? Are ritual practices necessary? Within this discussion she talks about the fallacy of Jews becoming “white folks.” Although she acknowledges that most American Jews accrue benefits not offered to people of color, their Jewishness still does not allow them to blend into secular and/or Christian culture.

“Jews in Contemporary Visual Entertainment” is a challenging work that is not for everyone. Siegel uses entertainment as a way to offer her opinions on culture in general, making her analysis one that far more personal than those offered in many scholarly works. In fact, the author offers her personal take not only on visual entertainment, but the state of contemporary American culture. Those latter, very left-leaning sections could have easily appeared on the oped pages of a newspaper or magazine.