Sunday, July 6, 2014

On Jewish Characters in American Television Series

 In my previous post, A Jewish Take on Amusing and Amazing, I discussed the Jewish Standard, an award-winning weekly periodical serving northern New Jersey and Rockland County, New York, and shared with you the piece they published on Amazing Ourselves to Death, based on an interview with me conducted by the paper's editor, Joanne Palmer.

The interview ranged across some very interesting territory, and as a result, Joanne invited me to write an occasional op-ed piece for the paper, and I was quite happy to agree. And since one of my areas of interest is media and popular culture, I decided to use the the awarding-winning AMC cable television series Mad Men as a jumping off point for getting into a pet peeve of mine, concerning Jewish stereotypes. 

I should add that the focus is on Jewish males because that's what I am, and of course there are stereotypes of Jewish women as well. But it hits me on a personal level when I see a stereotype of a group I belong to and say to myself, I'm nothing like that. And what really brought it all home for me was the similarities and the differences between Mad Men and another series about an advertising agency that included a Jewish character in a secondary role, The Crazy Ones. That was the foundation on which the rest of this essay is built.

The op-ed piece was published on May 16, under the title of Advertisements for Ourselves, with the subtitle, "Jews in Mad Men and Beyond" (and I am identified as a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in the Bronx, and president of Congregation Adas Emuno in Leonia). I should add that at the time I started writing the piece, we were only into the first couple of episodes from the first half of the final season of Mad Men, and I actually had to rewrite and add a bit after I  had competed it and sent it over to editor, due to a major plot development involving the series' Jewish character.

Anyway, here's how the piece begins:

Mad Men is back.
Don Draper
The AMC series created by Jewish writer, producer, and director Matthew Weiner has returned for its final season, having taken us through that most transformative of decades, the 1960s. And while the main character, Don Draper, isn’t Jewish, there is something hauntingly familiar about the story of a man who adopts a different name and identity to hide his true background, and then works his way up from poverty to a comfortable middle-class existence. Reflecting the experience common to all European immigrants during the first half of the 20th century, Draper personifies the belief that in America it is possible to shape and fashion your own individual identity, to recreate yourself in your own desired image.

In some ways he seems to echo the Jewish-American novelist Norman Mailer, who was known for his media savvy and penchant for self-promotion. In fact, he called his 1959 anthology of short pieces Advertisements for Myself.

Speaking of advertisements, in case you're interested in the book, here's a quick way to get a hold of it:

Returning now to the article:

The message of commercial advertising, taken as a whole, is that we can become whoever and whatever we want to be simply by buying the right products. And the title of the series is a pun based on the fact that New York City-based advertising firms all used to be located on Madison Avenue. Much like Hollywood, it was an industry in which Jews were quite prominent. In fact, Thomas Cahill included advertising in his celebratory book, The Gifts of the Jews, a remark that generated some criticism among reviewers.

And once again, for your convenience, in case you're interested:

And back again to the opinion piece:

Michael Ginsberg
But Mad Men avoids this association. Draper and his partners are WASPs, and it’s not until season five that they hire a Jewish copywriter, Michael Ginsberg. Much like the famous beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Michael is quite talented and creative, although his gifts are not given the respect that they deserve by Draper and his partners. There even are instances where he is used simply as a token Jew—for example in an attempt to secure an account from Manischewitz. Still, the character is given a compelling background—he was born in a concentration camp. And like Draper, Ginsberg tries to disguise his origins. His ethnicity, however, makes it impossible for him to construct an entirely new identity as Draper did.

HAL Reading Their Lips from 2001
In the most recent episode, “The Runaways,” Ginsberg again parallels Draper in suffering a nervous breakdown, but in much more extreme fashion. He succumbs to paranoid delusions and engages in self-mutilation; the catalyst for his action was the agency’s addition of a mainframe computer. The episode includes an homage to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the homicidal computer HAL reads the lips of the two astronauts he is supposed to be aiding, thereby learning of their decision to shut him down.

Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001
Presumably Ginsberg had recently seen this movie, which was released on New Year’s Day 1968. It is worth noting that 2001 is considered one of the greatest films ever made, and its director, Stanley Kubrick, one of the most important film directors of all time. Kubrick was one of many prominent Jewish-Americans who grew up in the Bronx during the early and mid-20th century, and the strong distrust of authority evident in his films would have struck a resonant chord with any child of the Holocaust. Moreover, the Nazis, being meticulous record keepers, were quite fond of the technological forerunner of the computer, tabulating machines of the sort produced by IBM, the company that became the pre-eminent computer manufacturer of the postwar era. (It often has been noted that moving each letter of IBM back one step in the alphabet yields HAL, the name of the computer).

While Michael Ginsberg is a minor character on Mad Men, he remains a major example of Jewish stereotypes. He is clever and funny, but also awkward and often inappropriate in social situations, and otherwise nervous and neurotic. (In his case, his neurosis intensified into psychosis.) It was probably the influence of all of those immensely popular Woody Allen movies of the ‘60s, but for a long time it seemed as if any Jewish-American male character who appeared on a TV sitcom or dramatic series was cut from the same cloth: whiny, nervous, short, unattractive, not handy or athletic, smart and intellectual, but not exactly leadership material. After all, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy may have been Jewish, but Captain James Tiberius Kirk was just another WASP, and his first officer, Mr. Spock, was an alien from the planet Vulcan—albeit one who incorporated some Jewish influences. While the Enterprise was populated with a veritable melting pot of crew members, there never seemed to be a Shapiro or Levine out there on the final frontier.

Gabe Kotter
Josh Lyman
Of course there have been exceptions, like Gabe Kotter on Welcome Back, Kotter, Barney Miller on Barney Miller, Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld, and Josh Lyman on The West Wing, but these characters’ ethnicity—and especially their religion—was rarely mentioned or acknowledged.

Barney Miller

Jerry Seinfeld

Speaking of Barney Miller, you might want to check out my previous post on that series, A Sitcom to Remember, in case you missed it. The subject of stereotypes comes up in the course of a wide-ranging interview with me on that series from the 70s.

Miles Silverberg
At the same time, the Jewish identities of stereotypical characters, such as Miles Silverberg on Murphy Brown, Joel Fleischman on Northern Exposure, and Ross Geller on Friends, were continually on display, and very much an integral part of their characters.
Joel Fleischman
Ross Geller

This fall, a new sitcom was introduced, a vehicle for Robin Williams, called The Crazy Ones. Clearly inspired by Mad Men, the series is set in a Chicago-based advertising firm and features several Jewish actors, including Sarah Michelle Gellar (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame), Amanda Setton, Brad Garrett, and James Wolk. What is remarkable about Wolk’s character, a copy writer named Zach Cropper, is that he is extremely confident, likeable (he is the favorite of the agency head, Robin Williams’ character Simon Roberts), handsome (he is a veritable ladies’ man), and maybe a little bit shallow, although certainly a talented and innovative professional. And he is Jewish. In fact, in an episode called “Zach Mitzvah,” it turns out that he once was a very successful bar mitzvah DJ, and he reprises that role in order to please a client.

The Crazy Ones (left to right: Gellar, Williams, Garrett, Setton, & Wolk)

Not only does the Cropper character counter the typical stereotype of the Jewish male, but another character, art director Andrew Keanelly, embodies many of those stereotypical attributes. He is intelligent—but also insecure, awkward, and jealous of the favor shown to Zach. You might expect his character to be Jewish—but he is identified as not Jewish.

For this reason, I believe that The Crazy Ones merits our respect and recognition. Unfortunately, however, the series failed to catch on with television audiences and garner the kinds of ratings its creators had hoped for, and so CBS has cancelled it. And truth be told, it’s no Mad Men. But as far as Jewish characters go, Zach Cropper has been altogether refreshing. Series creator David E. Kelley has a track record of creating interesting and unique Jewish characters in programs such as Picket Fences, Chicago Hope, The Practice, Boston Public, and now The Crazy Ones. For that he deserves our kudos.

And that is where the column ends. As an opinion piece, it is meant to provoke further thought and discussion on the topic, not to close it off. 

Stereotypes are a tricky subject, and this is an area where general semantics makes a major contribution, in reminding us that any generalization, about any group or category, is bound to be selective and subjective, more a projection of the individuals invoking the stereotype than a reflection of those being stereotyped. Stereotypes are a by-product of the process of abstracting, a process that takes us away from concrete reality, and in this case a focus on the individual person. 

While we do need to be able to make generalizations, we have to remember to ground them in factual evidence, to keep them open to testing and to continue to test them over time. Popular culture makes use of stereotypes because they are easier than trying to create unique characters and convey them to audiences, and because audiences recognize stereotypical characters without much effort. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to eliminate them entirely from our popular narratives, so if they are being used, they need to be used in a careful, thoughtful manner. 

We need to keep in mind that every stereotype is, indeed, an advertisement for some portion of humanity, and therefore, an advertisement for all of humanity.

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