Monday, March 09, 2009

Being the Other

Feminist Mormon Housewives are discussing the HBO series "Big Love", which is about a family living in plural marriage--a fundamentalist sect of LDS. I left this comment:

As a Jew I think it would be wonderful if there were a major television show about Jews, treating them as normal people with normal problems and portraying something about daily life as a Jew, showing the variation in observances and the many different ways people live as Jews.

Choosing to portray members of the LDS as normal means you are not considered outsiders, weird, or alien. Very little of the show focuses on actual matters of faith and practice except the plural marriage principle, and even that is almost never explained, so the message I take from the show is that members of LDS are people just like me: they have problems with their kids, fights with parents, scheduling issues. They have dinner together, sometimes have trouble paying their bills, wonder whether they've made good decisions in their lives.

Try to remember the last time you saw Jews portrayed in the movies or on television. Now try to remember when you've seen them and it wasn't about the Holocaust: Jews portrayed as just regular folks with the same issues everybody else has, plus a few religion-specific ones. Not as victims (e.g., anything about the Munich Olympics or the Holocaust) or oppressors (e.g., anything about the Palestinians--and I'd like to remind everybody that not all Jews are Israeli, so why are all Jews held responsible for what happens in Israel?), just normal people with average lives.

That it can be done for LDS means you're considered part of the mainstream. That's a wonderful thing!


Laura Back said...

I don't watch a particularly good cross-section of popular TV shows (and my movie knowledge is far more erratic), so my perspective may be skewed, but I think some of what's happening here is that religious observation in general is somewhat "other" in mainstream media. (I'm guessing you're not counting portrayals of secular Jews here, as those portrayals don't seem rare to me, though that could again be skew in what I'm seeing.)

However, I think you're right that Judaism has been especially neglected. In the past decade, I can think of only two shows I've seen that depicted clearly-observant Jewish characters, and both (Toby on The West Wing, Charlotte on the later seasons of Sex and the City) were individual members of ensembles. I have not seen any show center observant Jewish characters in the way that The Sopranos centered Catholic characters, or Big Love centers Mormon characters.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I believe that Big Love portrays members of the LDS church as "normal" -- the tone of the show feels *very* othering to me. Religion is window dressing rather than the center of the story, but to me its handling feels not matter-of-fact but exoticizing, like the producers are using the LDS backdrop to add flavor, more than just telling a story that happens to be about Mormons.

Bryan Hasson said...

All that comes to mind is Howard Wolowitz from Big Bang Theory..... :)

Stef said...

There was the occasional episode with an observant Jew on Babylon 5.

Kai Jones said...

Yeah, and I recently saw a made-for-tv romance movie on cable in which the two leads were Jews (along with many of the supporting roles). But the point is it was such a refreshing surprise to have Jews as leads, and Jewish life as a part of a normal story instead of being othered in some way.

Kai Jones said...

Bry: Wolowitz is an offensive stereotype, and so's his mother. I enjoy the show and the character, but they're still offensive stereotypes.