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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Why Jewish producers kept Jewish women off stage and screen

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A friend of mine—I’ll call her S.—has much to be proud of. She’s an accomplished actress, a terrific mother, and a loving wife. Yet the one thing she’s best known for doesn’t involve her at all: when she was a teenager, she had a brief but tumultuous affair with Woody Allen, a man many years her senior, a tryst that ended up serving as the raw material for Allen’s Manhattan. When the writer and director recreated the relationship on film, however, he did not choose someone who looked like S.—a Jewish beauty with dark, curly hair—but opted instead for Mariel Hemingway, so much of a stereotypical all-American girl that her blue eyes and  blond hair came across even in the black-and-white film.

While S. is too prudent to comment on this switcheroo, one does wonder what may have motivated the transformation: why turn a bright-eyed brunette into a fair-haired ingenue?

This, of course, is not a new question, nor is it limited to S.’s experience. Since the dawn of American entertainment, Jewish women were largely rendered invisible, absent everywhere from burlesque to Hollywood to prime-time television. Instead, they watched as their sons and brothers and husbands became successful producers, directors, and impresarios, powerful men who then chose to populate their works with a parade of sexy, sultry shiksas who looked nothing like their female kin.

Perhaps the first exponents of this tradition were the Minsky Brothers, the influential proprietors of a popular New York City burlesque empire in the first decades of the last century. “If you were a burlesque stripper, you had to be a blonde or a redhead, never a brunette,” Rachel Shteir, author of Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show told me. The brothers, she added, had a readymade explanation for their proclivities: Jewish women, they argued, were simply too pure to lust after. “They would say, ‘we’re not stealing your mothers and sisters and aunts and putting them on stage and taking away their honor,’” Shteir said. “They would say that they were only putting the shiksas on stage. As heinous as it is, that was their reasoning.”

And yet the Minskys’ aesthetic exclusions may have played a part in helping their patrons, many of whom were first-generation American Jewish men, adapt to their new society by becoming accustomed to its ideals of beauty, whether real or imagined. “I think one of the functions of striptease in that time period,” Shteir said, “was that it became a social space where men could be Americanized by watching these women who were nothing like their sisters and mothers. The Jewish women, however, would stay at home and in the community. They were not exposed.”

For the Minskys, American beauty was exclusively yellow- or red-haired, cute and perky, never dark, never familiar. And the same ideal of beauty they helped cement found its way into the mainstream of American culture through that much more influential maker of popular entertainment, Hollywood. The Minskys’ contemporaries who went out west, men like Adolph Zukor and Louis B. Mayer, banished Jews in general, men and women alike, from their productions, in part to avoid accusations that they were using film to subvert America’s traditional values.

“As Hollywood Jews were being assailed by know-nothings for conspiring against traditional American values and the power structure that maintained them, they were desperately embracing those values and working to enter the power structure,” wrote the historian Neal Gabler in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

A few decades later, as the zeitgeist shifted and Jewish producers, directors, and writers found themselves increasingly comfortable with allowing Jewish characters into the spotlight—Allen himself being perhaps the most obvious example—that light shone exclusively for Jewish men. They, usually jittery and neurotic and smart, were allowed to roam the savannas of the movie screen, usually in search of the same idyll the Minskys knew so well, the blonde American vixen.

Which, of course, left the few Jewish actresses who managed to achieve a modicum of success flummoxed. Take Jennifer Grey: the actress, best known for her role as the romantic lead in Dirty Dancing, eventually decided to have a nose job and alter what was, perhaps, her most prominent facial—and, stereotypically speaking, ethnic—feature. “The thing is,” she told a newspaper reporter who questioned her about her rhinoplasty, “Hollywood is run by Jewish men. We all know the Jewish syndrome in high school. The Jewish boys don’t like the Jewish girls.… They really want the goddesses and Michelle Pfeiffers.”

The same Jewish boys very often ran not only Hollywood but the large television networks as well. In his pioneering account of Jewish representations on TV, The Jews of Prime Time, David Zurawik, the Baltimore Sun’s television critic, noted that long after Jewish television executives became relatively comfortable allowing male characters named Fisher and Steinberg and Seinfeld to entertain the heartland, they still required their creations to lust after women who were decidedly non-Jewish.

In the last two decades alone, a slew of shows centered around that very theme found its way to prime time, some successfully and others less so. There was Anything But Love, about a neurotic Jewish writer pining after a gorgeous and free-spirited researcher; Flying Blind, about a neurotic Jewish business executive pining after a gorgeous and free-spirited libertine; Chicken Soup, about a neurotic Jewish pajama salesman pining after a gorgeous and free-spirited activist; Mad About You, about a neurotic Jewish filmmaker pining after a gorgeous and spirited public relations executive; the list goes on.

Each of these series, Zurawik wrote, were designed around the idea of transformation, or, more accurately, around the power the non-Jewish woman—a goddess, after all—had to extricate her Jewish lover from his suffocating, crass, and unhealthy environment and introduce him to her clean, well-lit world. It’s no wonder, then, that a survey conducted a decade ago by the Morning Star Commission, a group of writers, scholars, actors, and journalists funded by Hadassah Southern California, found that Jewish women, on the rare occasions they did appear on screen, were mostly perceived as “pushy, controlling, selfish, unattractive, materialistic, high maintenance, shallow and domineering.”

Will a new generation of producers, many of whom are Jewish women, change any of these stereotypes? Lynn Roth, a former executive at 20th Century Fox, is not optimistic. “It’s odd,” she told Zurawik, “because there are so many [Jewish] women involved in the decision making process now and they’re just continuing the stereotype. I don’t think they’re making any difference.”

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Arnold Handelman says:

This theme of a Jewish male hankering for an American blonde gentile woman seems to have been there in literature as well as movies and TV.
In Joshua Then And Now, Mordecai Richler has his Jewish male protagonist, a writer, with lower middle class socio-economic origins, swoon over, court and marry a very Waspy blonde upper class shiksa: the daughter of a Senator. The interaction between Jews and Gentiles, whether French-Canadian or Anglophile, in Montreal society was so ably explored by Richler. The hiding of Jewish women is there also. In the Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Duddy’s deceased mother is not in the novel, and he carries on with a French Canadian shiksa girlfriend.
With all the Jewish novelists, one would think that it is finally time for Jewish women to belatedly make their debut. After all, doesn’t the public love being given insight into hidden worlds?

Joseph says:

All this skirts the main issue: American Jewish society is a matriarcahhl society, where women rule. Dating an American Jewish woman is often dating an empress– a kind hearted one, but an empress jsut the same. She behaves as she was taught to behave at home. And, more recently, she has also become a faminist. Feminists usually talk about themselves, their needs, their career, their views, their ex, their families, and their monthers. In other words, she has to get the attention which is due to the man. A shiksa, blonde, redhead, or brunette, usually pays attention to the man and makes him the focus of the relationship. It’s about him, not about her. In other words, Jewish women are often high maintenance; shiksas maintain their man. Or, stated yet differently, and in commercial terms, the Jewish woman’s Ask is often far higher than the man’s Bid. So there’s no trade.

Leah says:

Joseph, why is it always the woman’s fault? Where’s the accountability? Let’s just be real here, the shiksa goddess is held up as a standard of beauty because traditionally back in the shtetl the shiksa female was exotic and forbidden. An obsession was born. In the new world that obsession flourished on screens, big and small. I thank Leil for shedding some light on something that needs to be considered, not just for Jewish women but for all women. Hollywood is very powerful. It influences culture, sets standards and starts memes. Those who have so much power over the culture need to consider what they are influencing people to believe.

I think the male Jewish writers (both print and screen) who kept alive the “shiksa goddess” archetype had deeply ingrained, toxic attitudes about Jewish women – the same as Joseph. I am a Jewish woman, and I know a few Jewish women who are like that, as well as some “imperial” Jewish men. I don’t like those people either! But I know that not all Jewish women or men are that way. Sweeping generalizations are usually without merit. Still, the stereotypes about Jewish women generated in books, movies and TV persist and cause a lot of damage, I think. If a young man is in the dating world and believes that all Jewish woman are ugly, hairy, dark, fat, demanding, frigid, shrill, whatever (interestingly, the Jewish women I know say much the same about Jewish men), he will never judge each woman he meets as an individual. She’s just lumped into a stereotype and judged before she has a chance to speak. There have always been Jewish beauties in Hollywood (Hedy Lamarr, Lauren Bacall, Paulette Goddard), but they were often forced to change their names and play down their backgrounds. Luckily, Hollywood has grown a bit in that regard! I also think that Jewish women perpetuate the stereotype in a sense: My mother and her generation always said, “You won’t be viewed as pretty because you look Jewish, instead of looking like a ‘shiksa.'” There is no single standard of beauty. While the Jewish men I know avoid me (and I’m naturally pale, blonde and blue-eyed with zero body hair, although curvy), plenty of “shaygitzes” chase after me like you wouldn’t believe. I turned them down for years, in vain pursuit of only Jewish men, but I finally gave up. Now I date mainly Christian men. Because the Jewish men assume I’m a materialistic shrew (I’m not), frigid (NOT), and ugly (not).

My mother’s main warning to me was that because I was not a tall, thin, curveless girl like many (not all) of the Christian girls in my class, but was instead 5’2″ with a rear, hips and breasts, I would not be considered “pretty,” because I wasn’t “skinny.” I think the beauty trends regarding female curves change depending on the era, but in some women’s eyes, the size-0 look is the ideal. I think some men see that differently.

Liel Leibovitz needs to read through this, and find out at last which actors are Jewish and which are not. It is, of course, incomplete.

And thanks for the lovely picture of the hideous Woody Allen, the ugliest Jew in the history of cinema, with the gorgeous Muriel Hemingway. Joseph Goebbels would not have been so cruel.

Maybe next time you should post a picture of the late, and Jewish, Tony Curtis in his prime, or of the current, and Jewish, Logan Lerman — with the female co-star of your choice. I assure you in both cases the boy will be prettier than the girl.

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I’ve said that least 3249381 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

I love the callousness and flippancy with which people here use these Yiddish terms, shiksa and shegetz. Perhaps one may feel it culturally relevant (therefore justifiable?) to speak casually of others not belonging to one’s tribe as unclean, an abomination or impure. Yet how vulgar are those who employ the odious slang long used to denigrate and dehumanize Jews? We call them red necks and racists. What should we call people easy with the word shiksa?

I think the article and all of you have missed the point. Hollywood was created in a time when America was deeply antisemitic… Although you can argue it still is today. The Jews were careful about how they represented themselves, to the point where they were underrepresented in the media. The majority of America simply did not want to see Jewish leading actors and actresses. So they changed their name and downplayed their origins. Thus Hollywood was a place where America’s dreams go to get a glamorous makeover…. Even the Jewish actors and actresses, into all-American stars. Only later would the Jews come out from behind the screens to be conspicuous. As strange as it may all seem, the Jewish Hollywood omitted Jewish culture from film and only left “American” culture, not because of some strange self-hatred, but because they were protecting their best interests in their identity. And you can still see how movies from that era simply don’t portray Jewish Stereotypes, at the cost of portraying Jews. That was because Hollywood could protect itself from Antisemitism, and create a “clean” representation of America, one that is free of class, race, and other struggles.


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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Why Jewish producers kept Jewish women off stage and screen

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