Saturday, August 13, 2022

Who's Afraid of "Jewish" Steve Carrell? (Or, "Us Too-ism")

The JTA headline reads: "Creators of Hulu’s ‘The Patient’ defend casting Steve Carell as Jewish therapist in latest ‘Jewface’ flare-up". I hadn't heard of the story, let alone the "flare-up," so I was curious to see who was making what argument. Unfortunately, the article doesn't actually cite any live human being objecting to Carrell's casting, just a response to an apparently ambient "controversy" (the linked Variety article also doesn't name any specific critics). That said, I know that the "Jewface" controversy isn't completely made up out of thin air. I have seen real people level such concerns before.

Now I'll lay my cards on the table -- I'm not inherently bothered when non-Jewish actors are cast to play Jewish characters. Indeed, to some extent, I feel that some -- not all -- of the "Jewface" controversy is a sort of vulgar "us too-ism" that one sees substitute for genuine Jewish political engagement these days. 

What is "us too-ism"? Some Jews see a given political demand by another minority group (e.g., that Black actors should play Black characters), and then decide that if the powers-that-be don't give similar consideration to a Jewish parallel (Jewish actors playing Jewish characters), then it's proof that "Jews Don't Count" -- full stop. To be clear, it's not that there aren't valid parallels that can be drawn between the political demands of one group and another. But these parallels aren't automatic, and what defines "us too-ism" is that it doesn't pause to ask whether the Jewish community was actually organically bothered by the "exclusion" in the first place. The fact that another group has a demand suffices to make it into a Jewish entitlement as well -- if they're getting this accommodation, then by golly, "us too!" -- even if it never occurred to us to want it until we heard their demand. It's reactive rather than proactive, and often ends up confusing itself (e.g., simultaneously wanting "CRT for Jews" but also blaming "CRT" for why Jews don't count). 

In practice, "us too-ism" often occludes the rich specific history and context which generate organic demands for particular forms of cultural respect (e.g., that actors of X background should portray characters of that background), instead imagining them to stem from some inherent entitlement of "marginalized people" (and Jews are marginalized, so therefore, it fits "us too"). It flattens important points of distinction and differentiation across various social groups that are essential to understanding what actually is oppressing, hurting, or dominating any given group. That two groups are marginalized doesn't mean they're marginalized in the same way, and so it makes sense that a practice which deeply rankles members of marginalized group A doesn't significantly disturb group B. Normatively, it strikes me as self-defeating and self-victimizing to act as if that's a flaw in B's outlook. But at the extreme, "us too-ism" attacks Jews for not being offended by something, as if it is our obligation to feel marginalized by a phenomenon even if it doesn't actually bother us. This strikes me as a tremendously toxic obligation, and one I just refuse to abide by.

All that said, that something doesn't genuinely rankle me doesn't mean it might not do so for others, and I always want to be respectful of persons who do have thought-out arguments for why it is problematic for non-Jews to portray Jewish characters. I've heard these arguments aired more frequently in the context of Jewish actresses being passed over for Jewish parts (even as elsewhere in their careers they're typecast in particular roles because of their Jewishness), and since I'm situated differently vis-à-vis that debate I try to maintain a posture of open receptivity towards those arguments. Certainly, it strikes me as reasonable to care if Jewish actors and (perhaps especially?) actresses are not getting opportunities based on a too-Jewy/non-Jewy enough double bind where stereotypically Jewish features both exclude Jews from certain roles but then are accentuated or exaggerated in non-Jewish actors to Judaize them for the screen (see, e.g., the Bradley Cooper prosthetic nose controversy).

But beyond that, my primary concern is to care about the respectfulness of the representation far more than the personal identity of who is doing the representation. "Respectfulness", itself, is a site for contestation, and people can disagree. I like Rachel Brosnahan's Mrs. Maisel, and find her and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel an endearing portrayal of the sort of New York Jewish life that my parents were raised in. Others disagree, which, fine, but I defy anyone to say Midge Maisel is more offensive than Howard Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory notwithstanding the fact that Simon Helberg is Jewish and Brosnahan isn't.

Basically, there are dimensions of this problem that are internal and external to the work. Externally, the question is whether Jewish actors and actresses face certain exclusions in the industry on account of their Jewishness -- exclusions which no doubt would make it extra-infuriating if they are later passed over for roles where their Jewish character would seem to be an asset. That was certainly the case for Jewish actors historically, the degree to which it continues to be so is an empirical question I don't know enough to register an opinion on. Internally, the question is whether there is something about being Jewish that is necessary to accurately or effectively portraying a given role in a respectful manner. To that, I say "no". Andre Braugher isn't gay, but his portrayal of Raymond Holt was rightly seen as a watershed performance. Stephanie Beatriz is bisexual, and the same was said for her performance as Rosa Diaz. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

But again, this is a subject where I'm happy to hear other opinions. That JTA and Variety couldn't actually name any critics of Carrell's casting can easily make one think that this "flare up" is a media invention. Is it? If anyone wants to come down to register their opposition to Carroll's casting on "Jewface" grounds, I'm glad to lend you my comment section.


David Lev said...

I think the "Jewface" thing is not so much "us too-ism" exactly, as it is Jews glomming on to a solution other marginalized communities have championed to get authenticity in depictions when the issue is slightly different: essentially, it often seems like non-Jewish creators assume they understand more about Jewish culture than they actually do and so create an Uncanny Valley version of Jewishness that offputs Jews, while (some) Jewish creators seem deeply uncomfortable portraying Jewish culture because they think Gentiles won't get it or won't find it interesting, and/or occasionally seem to translate their own ambivalence with Jewish culture into depictions of Jewishness that either downplays our distinctiveness or plays up harmful tropes about us in a self-deprecatory way. But all of that is rather complicated to talk about, so we settle for "it must be because the actor isn't Jewish that we're noticing these things!"

David Schraub said...

Those problems you described are described are definitely things I've noticed, but I also think (and I think you agree) that "non-Jewish actors are playing the role" have almost nothing to do with them and won't do anything to solve them. It is (and again, I think you agree), a sort of misfire of a solution to the problem -- one that (here I may be on my own) I think combines a (1) genuine sense of woundedness with (2) a misbegotten sense that "this is what wounded people do to get relief" (that's the "us too-ism").