For a group of people frequently accused of controlling Hollywood, Jewish people don’t see proper representation often. Hollywood was established by Jews to have an outlet for their own creative expression in a time when they were excluded from other existing industries, but characters that truly represent Jews are hard to find — especially for women.
Jewish characters are typically present in one of two ways: either it’s irrelevant to the character and the storyline, but peppering in the fact that there’s a Jewish character is an easy way to earn the show some diversity points, or the Jewish character is used as an opportunity to portray negative stereotypes, turning the character, and Jews, into a punchline.
Jewish women have to confront both sexism and antisemitism. Both pose obstacles in our lives, and when combined, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is most commonly seen in the Jewish American princess, acronymized JAP, trope. Most Jewish women have confronted this harmful narrative, and because it is such low-hanging fruit, one of the places we see it repeat again and again is in our so-called representation in the media.
The stereotype draws on antisemitic tropes such as greed and excessive wealth, but there’s a second layer: misogynistic antagonization. There’s no male equivalent; there’s no such concept as a Jewish American prince. This is likely because of how easy and thoughtless it is for people to associate materialism, snobbiness, and lack of independence with women. Hearing non-Jews use the term is offensive, of course, but hearing Jewish men use it against fellow Jews stings in a different way. It’s not just a pejorative “othering.” When Jewish men do it to their female counterparts, it becomes a betrayal, a way to put down Jewish women in hopes it earns them entry into the mainstream.
The terms “JAP” and “jappy” have made their way into the standard lexicon for people in areas with sizable Jewish populations. I’ve heard multiple non-Jews say they don’t even think of JAP as exclusively Jewish, but rather just a way to describe a girl who’s spoiled and materialistic. So not only are Jewish women deprived of positive — or even neutral — representation, but the representation we get is negative and has come to the point of not even having the Jewish connotation, just the one of these negative traits.
Rachel Greene from Friends, perhaps one of the most well-known sitcom characters, is speculated to be Jewish. But why? Because she’s a whiny entitled girl from Long Island, New York who relies on daddy’s credit card. Although she is not canonically Jewish, she is written right into the stereotype of a Jewish American princess. There’s nothing in the 10-season series confirming her background, and there are other characters — Ross and Monica Geller — explicitly written as Jewish, indicating that if Rachel were meant to be Jewish, it would have been overtly communicated.
Most Jews and other underrepresented minorities source feelings of pseudo-representation by scraping together bits and pieces of various characters. For Jewish women, this means finding the character traits that resonate in one show, the Jewish factor in another movie, and the femininity in a third. Jewish women rarely see ourselves accurately, positively portrayed. When there is a Jewish character, it’s either to make fun of Jewish women or it’s merely a footnote in her story.
The only place independent Jewish female characters take space on the screen is in stories of Hasidic women running away from their communities. And while these are important stories to be told, they don’t resonate with the majority of Jewish women. These stories portray the strength and resilience of Jewish women, but they do so at the expense of fetishizing the trauma of leaving an insular religious community.
Many people are familiar with the miniseries Unorthodox that came out in 2020. It was controversial for its portrayal of the Satmar Hasidic community, but also made a statement with the way it portrayed Jewish women. Many people watched it and applied what they saw to all Jewish women or all religious Jewish women. The fact that one of the only successful pieces with a Jewish woman is a story of her pain and oppression implies that that is our entire narrative. Hasidic women who are unsatisfied with the lives they have in their communities are strong and resilient, but Jewish womanhood does not just exist under negative circumstances.
Most Jewish women want to see themselves. We want to see a regular character in a drama or sitcom whose life could look like that of them, their friends, their communities. There is so much Jewish joy and feminine strength to make a presence on screen. The two options are not only JAP or traumatized ex-Hassid.
There is so much to say about the experience of Jewish women. Not just of the snobby, spoiled depictions of us and not the sensationalized trauma of women fleeing Hasidic communities.