Jewish, Single…and Lame?

Jewish, Single...and Lame? HBI eZine - Vol 6, Issue 1

Why American audiences are led to believe single Jewish women are social losers.

by Rachel Bernstein

Surely the reason we are seeing more Jewish women postponing marriage or opting out entirely has to do with the fact that they are more financially independent than ever and no longer willing to marry someone just for the sake of it. What’s fascinating is that rather than showing this growing independent spirit, the media has chosen to present single Jewish women as smart and professional, but completely socially incompetent. I went back and looked at several Jewish female characters in film and TV over the last decade and found five, all of whom are highly creative—often portrayed as writers or artists—as well as highly intelligent. They are good students or brainy intellectuals, but all of them turn out to be social self-saboteurs, or put more simply, social losers.

Media Message 1: Jewish women are super-smart and creative…

Let’s start with the good news: the creativity and smarts of these Jewish women. In Kissing Jessica Stein, an independent film from 2001, Jessica works at a local newspaper and paints in her spare time, and later in the film her work is displayed in an art gallery. Jessica is also portrayed as sitting alone in her apartment reading and marveling over passages from Rilke, and the emphasis on Jessica’s intelligence is further developed in her cerebral connection with Helen, who places the same Rilke quote in the singles advertisement that captures Jessica’s attention. In the Showtime series The L Word, which aired from 2004 until 2009, Jenny Schecter evolves from a struggling creative writing student to an accomplished author to a Hollywood writer and producer on the film version of her published work. In the 2009 film Adam, Beth Buchwald works by day as an elementary school teacher as she simultaneously prepares her manuscript as an aspiring children’s book writer. The world of high school also presents highly creative, young Jewish women, as seen in the Fox network television show Glee, which features Rachel Berry as the show-stopping vocal talent behind the glee club. In the film Bart Got a Room, Camille Goodson is the brainy student involved in planning prom with three other misfits; she also serves as one of two anchors on the school’s morning news program.

Media Message 2: Jewish women are socially clueless…

Now for the bad news: While these young Jewish characters are successful in art, writing, singing, and planning prom, they fail in relationships with romantic partners, as well as in their friendships. The enigmatic ending of Kissing Jessica Stein shows her failing in her relationship with Helen, her first relationship with a woman, because of her lack of interest in sex. Jessica sabotages the relationship when she puts her intellectual pursuits before her romance, which is demonstrated in a scene of Jessica and Helen in bed, and Jessica refuses to stop reading a book when Helen attempts to make the evening more intimate. Eventually, Helen ends their relationship because they have become "roommates." While the film hints at a renewed connection between Jessica and her Jewish ex-boyfriend Josh as they meet in a bookstore while she posts fliers for her artistic studio space, their relationship is left indefinite at the end. Jessica is left at a crossroads of failed relationships; for, after meeting her ex-boyfriend, she goes to meet her ex-girlfriend for lunch.

Jenny Schecter has perhaps the most dramatic failure in relationships. As Gina Abelkop describes Jenny’s trajectory in The L Word in her 2009 online article "R.I.P. Jenny Schecter: In Memory of a TV Lesbian" on the Jewish site Jewcy, Jenny "fucked over her friends & and was generally unpleasant and completely egomaniacal," and is the one character that is "widely disliked." While Jenny attempts many relationships during the six seasons of the show, she consistently ruins those relationships, even one with a stand-in for herself, the actress that plays the character based on her in the film version of her book. In the end, Jenny is "killed off," for she "must die for her sins."

Less dramatically than The L Word, the film Adam pairs a young Jewish woman Beth with Adam, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Beth hints at the doomed nature of the relationship by babbling to the principal of the school where she works that it is probably not a good idea for her to get involved with a man with Asperger’s. As their relationship plays out, Beth is alienated from her friends and family through her relationship with Adam, and then their relationship ends. Adam is seen as experiencing the most growth in the film, for he is able to relate better to people in the end, but Beth is left unseen in the final moments of the film, and her only accomplishment is publishing a children’s book based on Adam, the object of her doomed and lost romantic relationship.

Finally, teenagers Camille and Rachel are similarly ostracized and left alone. Camille makes a desperate, yet platonic, attempt to ask main character Danny Stein to prom in Bart Got a Room, but he rejects her. Camille is never shown with friends as Danny is, and is eventually seen alone at prom after her last-minute date, a friend whose girlfriend could not attend the prom, ditches her. Danny eventually reunites with Camille, but on a platonic level as he revels in spending prom night with his "oldest friend," as well as his parents. Camille is left in the unsatisfying position of second-best, condemned to a lonely prom night only partially assuaged by the friend who left her alone in the first place by not asking her to prom, and who does not seek any sort of romantic relationship with the homely, though creative and intelligent, Jewish girl.

Rachel Berry displays much more of a range in relationships and failures. In the first season of Glee, Rachel pines after Finn, the high school football star who often uses Rachel to advance his own interests in the glee club. Her short-lived relationship with Noah "Puck" Puckerman fails because it was "built on a fantasy" due to their shared Jewish heritage ("Mash-Up"). Throughout the first and second seasons, Rachel attempts to have a relationship with Finn, and eventually Rachel and Finn end their relationship, after which Finn reunites with his non-Jewish, blond, cheerleader ex-girlfriend. Even beyond these typical high school flings and broken relationships, Rachel is ostracized by the rest of the glee club members. While her talent is appreciated—her voice takes the team to regional glee club championships—her person is ridiculed and rejected. Puck comments: "That Rachel chick makes me want to light myself on fire, but she can sing" ("Rhodes Not Taken"). Even Rachel realizes that "people just don’t like me," to which Finn replies, "yeah, you might wanna work on that" ("Wheels"). In later seasons, Rachel may be dating Finn and has created some shaky friendships with other members of the glee club, yet she continues to make morally questionable choices in her relationships, over and over again causing tension and alienation in the group. She may successfully heal these relationships in the end—for instance, by apologizing to Finn for trying to sleep with him to better understand the character of Maria in the school’s production of West Side Story, or by dropping out of the class president race to heal her relationship with Kurt—but it seems Rachel Berry can’t help but have her own best interests at heart. Rachel’s difference and rejection by the group becomes a taken-for-granted aspect of her place in the group of misfits that make up the glee club. She may be talented, but she is not wanted.

No matter what kind of relationship they try to build with lovers or friends, the creativity and intelligence of these young Jewish women eclipses their relationships, leading to their ultimate demise. This image of Jewish women is not contributing to the alleviation of the strains of delayed marriage and childbearing, but rather promoting it, for if young Jewish women are portrayed as blindly following their ambition or alienating friends and lovers with their intelligence, they are not depicted as attractive partners. Additionally, and perhaps even more tragically, the amazing accomplishments of young, single Jewish women are overshadowed by their social failures. If this is the new image of single Jewish women, what kind of message does that send about Jewish women fostering their creativity and intelligence if their reward is rejection and isolation?

About the Author

Rachel Shaina BernsteinRachel Shaina Bernstein
Rachel Shaina Bernstein is a graduate student at Brandeis University in the Joint Doctoral Program in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Sociology. Her research interests include emerging adulthood and contemporary Jewish culture and the arts.

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