With the sweltering heat in Boston recently, I needed something to keep me entertained as I sat directly in front of the air conditioner, desperately trying to regain a normal body temperature (the perils of living in a top floor apartment where all the heat rises). Watching a movie seemed like an appropriate indoor activity so I searched through my expansive movie collection in order to find a fun, summery option. As someone who will be spending the summer at camp for the first time in my 23 years of living I chose Dirty Dancing, pretending that falling madly in love with a more mature staff member and doing an awesomely choreographed dance number at the end of the summer is par for the course at summer camp. I mean, come on, who didn’t want to be Jennifer Grey as Patrick Swayze triumphantly and effortlessly lifted her into the air? My misperceptions of camp life aside, I started to think more deeply about Jennifer Grey’s character of Frances “Baby” Houseman, the sweet, innocent and somewhat naïve Jewish girl. This sparked an interest in me, causing me to think more critically about the portrayal of young Jewish women in film, specifically those that emerged in the millennial generation. I, therefore, decided to look at the protagonists from two iconic movies from the recent past—Baby from Dirty Dancing and Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz from Clueless.
These characters epitomize the modern American Jewish experience in that they are representative of multiple identities—they are both Jewish and American. It is this hyphenated identity that makes them more complex characters yet their Judaism is never explored or emphasized in these movies; neither of these characters is ever explicitly stated as being Jewish, yet it is an unspoken truth. From my own observations, those of my friends and the general consensus of the Internet, these characters are deemed Jewish. Do we know they are Jewish because Baby’s father is a doctor and Cher’s father is a lawyer? Do we know they are Jewish because we can see boxes of food with Hebrew writing behind Baby when she stands in the kitchen? Do we know they are Jewish because Cher’s last name is Horowitz? It poses the question of if we accept these girls as Jewish based on certain mannerisms, linguistic phrases or appearance are we accepting these stereotypes to be true? Are we assuming they are Jewish because there are certain things that we, as young American Jewish women, inherently know and believe to be true? I fully admit to perceiving these characters as Jewish based on the aforementioned stereotypes—is it wrong for me to come to this conclusion or is there something about being raised in an upper-middle class Jewish family that allows me to make such a decision?
Maybe it’s because I do see some of myself in them. Yes, they are exaggerated characters of what the young American Jewish woman is, but I see some sense of truth in how they are portrayed. They are well-intentioned characters that may be veiled in the naivety of growing up with a privileged life, yet they bring a sense of truthfulness to what it is like to be a young Jewish woman in upper-middle to upper class America. In the end they are good people who strive to help others so does it really reflect poorly on us as young American Jewish women to have these be cultural representations of ourselves?
I feel it is important to note that these are two extremely popular and iconic movies that showcase Jewish women as the lead. Maybe this is emblematic of a larger societal shift in which being Jewish in America is no longer a point of controversy. We are able to be simultaneously Jewish and American without having to choose between the two—we become hybrid identities where being Jewish no longer makes us stand separate from the rest of American society. Portraying the American Jewish experience on film can be complex and challenging but maybe the fact that we are being represented signals a positive shift in the larger American society.
It does, however, beg the question of what lies beyond the stereotype. Embodying multiple identities is like walking on a tight rope; leaning a little too much in one direction can lead to alienation from American society and leaning in the other direction can lead to assimilation. To me, these characters are in danger of leaning towards assimilation, being Jewish in name only and not practice. Their Judaism is used as a shtick, the origin used to explain their naïve and sheltered characteristics. I’m not asking for full on Fiddler-on-the-Roof-status, but I think there is merit in showing a modern American woman, culturally and religiously Jewish, truly representative of the multiple identities. Film is a medium that reaches people of all backgrounds so having a more complex and deep representation of the Jewish American woman, struggling to balance her two identities, will help to not only educate but also hopefully lead to greater understanding of the intricacies of living in two worlds and how that affects the way we act.
Only time will tell how Jewish women will continue to be shown in film so for the time being I will sit back, blast “I’ve had the time of my life” and continue to be on the hunt for new and creative representations of the American Jewish woman.
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