Rein in the Jew Jokes

reinInTheJewJokes

Why certain things that some of us find funny&#8212perhaps against our better judgment&#8212should not be spread around.

by Rebecca Honig Friedman

Why are put-downs more acceptable if they’re funny? When is it OK to laugh? And when is it OK to laugh at, or with, Jewish women?

These questions came up recently when a YouTube video about "Coasties" made the web rounds: "Coasties" is a slang term used at midwestern universities to refer to young women from the East and West coasts, but the images evoked in the video scream "Jewish American Princess." The video, meant to be humorous, elicited controversy in the blogosphere between those who thought it was funny and those who found it offensive.

Esther Kustanowitz, a popular blogger and cultural critic, was in the latter camp, and her reaction to the video got me thinking. Kustanowitz explained her position on her blog, Urban Kvetch, in a post about the video and the recent spate of articles about the desirability of Jewish women:

After years of writing about relationships between Jewish men and women, I believe that anything that paints Jewish women in general as superficial damages the reputation of all Jewish women, and empowers others to use this stereotype as fact in conversations and in cultural products.

What an excellent articulation of why certain things that some of us find funny&#8212perhaps against our better judgment&#8212should not be spread around.

And yet, I wonder about humor that plays on stereotypes in order to expose them. I’m thinking specifically about some of Sarah Silverman’s ethnically and racially tinged oeuvre. Some of the lines that stick in my mind include, “I got raped by a doctor, which is really bittersweet for a Jewish girl,” or the shocking ‘quip,’ “The best time to get pregnant is when you’re a Black teenager.”

These lines are meant to make us laugh and cringe simultaneously. Part of the power of Silverman’s comedy is that it makes us uncomfortable when we laugh at it, because it means we buy in, at least a little, to the stereotypes from which she draws. I would argue that the joke makes fun of its audience more than it makes fun of its subject. This is different than the “Coasties” video to which Kustanowitz was responding, which aims to make fun of a specific group of people&#8212arguably in a good-natured way (arguably!)&#8212by perpetuating canned stereotypes.

And yet, in the hands of the wrong audience, the kind that doesn’t feel uncomfortable about their own prejudices, Silverman’s more subtle use of ethnic and racial generalizations could be taken as perpetuating those stereotypes as well.

The bottom line is that playing with humor and stereotypes is a tricky business that can easily get one into trouble.

Maybe that’s why Sarah Silverman seems to have branched out into piss and fart jokes.

About the Author

author_r_friedmanRebecca Honig Friedman
Rebecca Honig Friedman is the senior writer for the Jewess blog (Jewess.canonist.com), as well as the manager of original programming at The Jewish Channel (tjctv.com).

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