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Jewish Women on TV

Playing Princesses, Punishers and Prudes

By JOSEPH HANANIA | Published: March 7, 1999

AS the title character on ''Frasier'' wound up his radio show on a recent episode, his straitlaced ex-wife, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth), arrived. ''Someone walked into the room and just frightened me,'' announced Frasier. ''It's my ex-wife, and if you're a regular listener, you know what I'm talking about.''

Moments later, Lilith revealed why she was seeking solace. Her second husband, Brian, ''was looking for someone a bit more feminine,'' she said, her voice breaking, ''and he found him.''

On the premiere of ''Friends,'' Rachel (Jennifer Aniston), still in her wedding dress, hysterically called her father from her friend Monica's apartment. After realizing she loved a ''gorgeous Limoges gravy boat'' more than she did her bridegroom, she had walked out on her wedding. When her father threatened to cut her off, she answered, ''Well, maybe I don't need your money.'' But as he hung up, she added, ''Well, wait, I said maybe.''

The title character's corpulent mother on ''The Nanny,'' played by Renee Taylor, announced to her daughter at the kitchen table: ''If no one is going to have any more of the cake, I'm going to put it away. Out of sight, out of mind.'' Feinting toward the refrigerator, she instead ran toward the kitchen door, absconding with the cake. This was followed by quick cuts of Ms. Taylor stuffing down more than a half-dozen dishes before telling her distraught daughter: ''Oh my God, I'm having palpitations. Get me my medicine.'' The ''medicine''? Hershey's chocolate syrup, straight from a spoon.

Sure, these scenes are funny, but would they be any less humorous if the butt of the jokes were not Jewish women? About 30 Jewish professionals in television and film think so, and a year ago they organized as the Morning Star Commission under the auspices of Hadassah to work toward changing the women's image.

Jewish men, who a decade or so ago were mainly characterized as angst-ridden Woody Allen types or as victims of anti-Semitism rescued by Christian counterparts, have largely escaped stereotypes in recent years. Compare Dr. Mark Greene on ''E.R.,'' for instance, with Fran Drescher's high-maintenance Jewish American princess on ''The Nanny,'' Ms. Neuwirth's sexless character on ''Cheers'' and its spinoff ''Frasier,'' Ms. Aniston's daddy-dependent princess on ''Friends,'' and the overbearing Jewish mothers on ''Mad About You'' and ''Seinfeld.''

According to Morning Star-sponsored focus groups composed of both Jewish and non-Jewish viewers, these portrayals help promote images of many non-Jewish women as ''athletic and very fun-loving'' while identifying Jewish women ''most obviously by their prominent noses, their dark Middle Eastern complexions and an inclination to be overweight.'' The focus groups also characterized Jewish women on screen, in general, as ''pushy, controlling, selfish, materialistic, shallow, domineering,'' although the report doesn't reveal what specific characters the groups had in mind.

Maureen Rubin, a professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, agrees with those findings, adding that Jewish women are portrayed in a ''disturbing'' stereotypical manner akin to that of blacks on early shows like ''Amos 'n' Andy.''

And that's when Jewish women characters are actually created for the tube. The ones who aren't are more noticeable. Thus, ''Mad About You's'' protagonist, Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser), puts up with his mother's intrusive shenanigans, but only with the help of a non-Jewish wife (Helen Hunt). Similarly, Michael Steadman (Ken Olin), the advertising executive on ''Thirtysomething,'' explored his Jewish angst with the help of his Christian wife, Hope (Mel Harris). And on ''Northern Exposure,'' Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) was obsessed with a sexy Christian airplane pilot, Maggie O'Connell (Janine Turner).

Why the stark differences in the treatment of the sexes? One reason may be the discomfort many Jews feel about others who appear ''too Jewish,'' like the Hassidim with their long black coats, sideburns and shawls. A similar kind of thinking may extend to television executives, who have few objections to Jewish themes as long as they, too, are not ''too Jewish.'' And what better way to provide cover for a character's Jewishness than to give him a non-Jewish mate?

Stephanie Liss, a screenwriter, encountered similar attitudes when she was told to ''tone down the Jewish parts'' of her 1997 Lifetime film ''Hidden in Silence,'' about a Roman Catholic teen-age girl who rescued Jewish women during the Holocaust. Scenes of the Jewish Sabbath were cut, as were scenes exploring the character of the Auschwitz-bound protagonist.

''I was told it was the Catholic girl's story,'' said Ms. Liss. ''The Jewish women were relegated to background roles.''

The often harsh depiction of Jewish women is also part of a larger trend, however, one that encompasses nearly all women on the small screen. ''We're at the end of the interesting, complex woman on TV, the Rosanne, the Murphy Brown, the Cybill, the Ellen,'' said Joan Hyler, a producer and personal manager and a former senior vice president of the William Morris Agency. Even a few years ago, a show could be built around complexity of character, she said, but now ''the whole trend on TV is to dumb down women in order to sell product and get higher numbers.''

Not everyone agrees that Jewish women are victims of the ratings game. ''Let's all relax and be able to laugh at ourselves,'' said Chuck Lorre, the executive producer of ''Dharma and Greg.'' ''Sometimes these identities get too heavy and rigid. Gee, lighten up.''

MANY New Age Americans prefer exploring various religions and philosophies to limiting themselves to a single strong group affiliation, says Mr. Lorre, who is Jewish. Thus, the character of Dharma Finkelstein -- the Morning Star focus groups' favorite Jewish woman on television -- was born to ''searchers, who found each other in San Francisco in the 60's, trying to sculpt out a third identity for themselves,'' he said. Of course Dharma, who has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, would not even be considered Jewish under religious law.

Marshall Herskovitz, the executive producer of ''Thirtysomething,'' says that Mr. Olin's character was given a Christian wife for dramatic reasons.

Television dramas are built around conflicts that play out for months or years, he points out. A couple of the same religion has less conflict, he said, and thus less interesting dramatic potential, than does one from differing religions.

Ms. Drescher, too, has little patience with criticism of Jewish women characters.

''I'm the first Jewish woman in decades who is playing a Jewish woman on TV,'' she said. ''My character does not try to assimilate to a WASP ethic in appearance or speech. I speak Yiddish and celebrate the Jewish holidays'' on the series.

Ms. Drescher, whose character's frequently over-the-top costumes include tight faux-leopard mini-dresses, takes umbrage at suggestions that her character reinforces a stereotype. ''One law in comedy is to write what you know, do what you feel is funny,'' she said. ''I can only represent one person, and that person is how I grew up.''

Still, Ms. Drescher said, ''I understand why people take this platform; they have a passion about this.''

''There are no perfect ethnic examples,'' she continued. ''There are a million different types of Jewish women. She doesn't have to be educated, but she can be. She doesn't have to speak the King's English, but some of us do. To even think there's one thing that's politically acceptable is naive and rooted in a fearful post-World War II mentality that a good Jew is an assimilated one.''

Perhaps, then, what's important is not to complain about what isn't there but rather to build on what is. Although the first talking picture, ''The Jazz Singer'' (1927), was about a cantor and his son, Hollywood has only sporadically identified characters' religions and rarely explored religious values. And when television came along, stars like George Burns and Jack Benny avoided nearly all on-air mention of their Judaism on their comedy shows.

There are some positive roles on television, and the broader range of characterizations may help dissipate negative stereotypes. The characters on ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer,'' for instance, include Willow (Alyson Hannigan), a Jewish 17-year-old who handles herself just fine, thank you, said Gale Berman, a producer of the series. When a trio of girlfriends recently discussed Christmas, Willow reminded them that not everybody celebrated it. '' 'Hello, I'm a Jew here,' '' Ms. Berman said, suggesting a line the character might have been thinking.

In this context, the attractive if befuddled rabbi's wife played by Kathy Griffin on ''Suddenly Susan'' seemed to be a historic breakthrough in exploring her Jewish identity. In a Thanksgiving episode, at her husband's urging, she helped feed the homeless as a mitzvah, or good deed, while insisting to a friend that as a reward, ''He'd better get me a good Christmas present.'' Unfortunately, the rabbi was killed off in an episode last month. So much for happy Jewish marriages in prime time.

Joseph Hanania's most recent article for Arts and Leisure was about ''Network Q,'' a gay news program.

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