Saturday, May 25, 2019

Jewish Representation on Television: A Random Review

I've been thinking about Jewish representation on television series over the past few days. The trigger was actually an antisemite who was complaining that there are too many Jewish characters on television -- we apparently have taken over his TV. That struck me, because my naive view was that Jewishness actually doesn't get a lot of attention on TV series (even Seinfeld, if I recall correctly, rather famously did not actually say its characters were Jewish).

But I decided to actually think about it more, and look into how Jews are portrayed on the shows I watch. This is therefore not remotely scientific -- though I do watch a fair bit of TV -- and some obvious choices (Broad City!) thus aren't included. I'm most interested in shows that are not primarily about Jews, but nonetheless have Jewish characters whose Jewishness is fleshed out in a substantive way.

I include shows that have no Jewish characters. This is not necessarily a critique -- not every show has to include Jews -- but it is worth including to get a sense if there is any pattern to what sorts of shows have Jews and what don't. That said, I'm not necessarily a superfan of all these shows, so it's possible that I could miss something (though it hardly counts if deep in Season 6 a show briefly mentions so-and-so is Jewish, only to never bring it up again before or since).

* * *

30 Rock: On a show about New York City comedy writers, only Josh -- Josh! -- might be Jewish. This entire show is a case of "just say Jewish, this is taking forever!" C-

Big Bang Theory: Of the major characters, only Howard (and his mother) are Jewish. Neither are exactly positive representations -- Howard, in particular, manages to be the most perverted, awkward and creepy of a cadre of young male scientists whose whole shtick is that they're kind of perverted, awkward, and creepy around women. Interestingly, Bernadette is portrayed as super-goyish even though Melissa Rauch is actually Jewish (Mayim Bialik is more famously Jewish, but to my knowledge Amy Farrah-Fowler is not depicted as a tribe member). D-

Billions: At first I thought this show had no Jewish characters, a decision I chalked up to maybe wanting to step lightly around the whole "ruthless billionaires manipulating the financial system" thing. But then I remembered: Spyros is Jewish! Spyros! By far the worst character on the show along pretty much any metric you might consider, including that he's portrayed as a serial sexual predator. Literally every character is at least written in shades of grey, and we get Spyros. Ugh. D

Brooklyn Nine-Nine: Jake Peralta is Jewish. It pretty much only comes up when he has flashbacks to his Bar Mitzvah (curse you Jenny Gildenhorn!), but at least it is acknowledged as a part of his character with substance. That said, it almost never is visible in his adult life -- most strikingly, there's no portrayal of it being discussed with Amy in terms of how their family will or won't be Jewish. B-

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Angel): Willow is Jewish, but it gets almost no attention -- I think by the end of the series she's outright celebrating Christmas. C

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: No Jewish characters.

Community: Annie is Jewish, but it is almost entirely downplayed. Indeed, it basically never comes up outside the first season. Missed opportunity. C+

Crashing: This is a tough one to judge, since so many of the characters are playing themselves. I know Sarah Silverman is Jewish. I think Artie Lange is? I don't know if Ali Reissen is supposed to be Jewish, but the actress who plays her definitely is. I do know Pete Holmes is not Jewish. I can't give a rating here.

Dollhouse: No Jewish characters.

Elementary: No Jewish characters.

Firefly: No real Jewish characters, though they do briefly show a postmaster wearing a yarmulke. It's actually a really neat moment of casual Jewish inclusion that I really appreciate.

Fresh off the Boat: I don't think any of the regulars (including Eddie's friends) are Jewish, but Evan's arch-rival Phillip Goldstein is definitely Jewish -- and definitely portrayed as a massive asshole. C

Game of Thrones: No Jewish characters (outrageous!).

The Good Place: No Jewish characters (actual sad face here -- though I can see how incorporating actual religious faith into this show might be hard).

I Feel Bad: Probably not worth including -- it was canceled after one season, and I'm not sure it even fully aired the one -- except to give one last plug to my headcanon where it is Sarayu Blue's side of the family that is Jewish. Brian George -- who plays her father -- is Jewish! He should get to play a Jewish character some time. Alas, the show goes down the more predictable route of making Paul Adelstein's side of the family the Jewish one. It does a good job with that. I guess. Still salty. B

Insecure: I don't think any characters are Jewish. Frieda might be Jewish, which would be okay. Joanne also might be Jewish, which would be a less attractive proposition.

iZombie: No Jewish characters.

Mad Men: Rachel Mencken is great. She also stands pretty much alone. B+

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: This is the only show that is explicitly Jewish in focus, and as I said that's not my main concern here. In any event, not everyone likes the portrayal of Jewishness, but I actually find it quite warm on the whole. A.

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: No Jewish characters.

Mozart in the Jungle: No Jewish characters (really?).

New Girl: Full disclosure: I did not watch this show all the way to the end. Anyway, Schmidt is one of the more famous Jewish portrayals of contemporary television. I'm not his greatest fan -- in particularly, that he's a proud Republican is, shall we say, statistically anomalous -- but once I started comparing him to the competition above he turns out pretty decent. Still, he, too -- especially in the early seasons -- doesn't exactly stand out on the "treats women with respect" metric. B

Parks and Rec: The main Jewish characters are the Saperstein twins -- John-Ralphio and Mona Lisa. They are each, in their own way, "the worst person in the world." And with John-Ralphio, we get yet another creepy Jewish harasser. D

The Orville: There are no Jews in space.

The West Wing: This show actually comes out great. Toby and Josh are Jewish, visibly so, yet in very distinctive ways. It comes up, though it isn't obsessed over, in ways that feel authentic to their character. And the pilot includes one of my favorite "Jewish" scenes in all of television. A+

* * *

In sum, I'd say that -- outside of shows where Judaism is a central focus (Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), there are a dearth of characters whose Jewishness is portrayed (a) positively and (b) as a substantive (not all-encompassing) presence in their lives. It seems that sci-fi and fantasy shows are the least likely to have Jewish characters, which is understandably, though it includes series set on Earth or otherwise "near-real world" conditions. This might reflect anxiety around how to portray Jews in juxtaposition with the occult and/or dystopian authoritarianism without reenacting antisemitic tropes.

On the positive side, The West Wing, in my view, stands head-and-shoulders above the crowd; other solid performers include Brooklyn Nine NineNew Girl, and (for what it's worth) I Feel Bad. But these are exceptional, for the most part, the Jewishness of characters either isn't established much beyond its mere mention. And the main exception is when Jewish male characters are portrayed as perverts, creeps, or sexual harassers -- indeed, this might be the most common way of "marking" a character as Jewish, which is worrisome.

Friday, May 24, 2019

A Bleg For Two Judicial Quotes

In my head, I remember two striking quotes from judicial opinions -- neither of which I can remember the source or even the precise verbiage of. In my mind, they're both from Judge Easterbook, though I can't confirm that.

The first goes something like this:
"On appeal, [Party] raises four issues, three of which won't survive the end of this paragraph...."
The second goes something like this:
"This case pits [Constitutional right], which is in the Constitution, against [other constitutional doctrine -- perhaps the Dormant Commerce Clause?], which is not."
Any help? Did they come from Will Baude? Did Will Baude used to have a personal website with favorite quotes? Am I completely hallucinating?

UPDATE: We got one! Bridenbaugh v. Freeman-Wilson (and yeah, it was a Judge Easterbrook opinion):
This case pits the twenty-first amendment, which appears in the Constitution, against the "dormant commerce clause," which does not.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Why is This Antisemitic?

This was discovered in a bathroom at San Francisco State University this week.

For those who can't see an image, it is a swastika labeled "San Francisco State University", with a Star of David in the middle. Below it, the author wrote "Free Palestine".

Most people have condemned this as antisemitic. I agree. But I want to actual go through the steps. In particular, I want to challenge some of the antisemitism skeptics -- the people who think too much is called antisemitic, particularly in the "criticism of Israel" subspecies -- why this is properly deemed antisemitic (or, perhaps, for them to forthrightly assert that it is not).

In doing so, I want to insist on keeping the focus on the graffiti being a case of antisemitism. Certainly, it is vandalism, and therefore is a crime regardless of whether it is specifically antisemitic or not. Likewise it might be described as rude, uncouth, overwrought, insensitive, or any number of other bad things that nonetheless are distinct from antisemitism. David Hirsh describes this pivot as "pleading guilty to the lesser charge" -- admitting that a challenged piece of conduct is wrong in some way while holding the line that it was not antisemitic. I fully accept that many people will agree that this graffiti was "wrong", in some way, but I want to concentrate on establishing it specifically as an antisemitic wrong.

We spend a lot of time insisting that "criticism of Israel is not necessarily antisemitic", which is true. We spend considerably less time establishing that criticism of Israel is not necessarily not antisemitic either. Yet both are important; and in particular, it is useful to test whether our proposed demarcation lines between what is antisemitic and what is not can capture cases such as this.

So, why is the above antisemitic? Here are some candidates:

  • The phrase "Free Palestine". But surely this can't suffice on its own, at least if the "pro-Palestine =/= antisemitic" formulation is to have any legs at all. The fact that the speaker claims to desire a "free Palestine" would not, on its own, establish antisemitism.
  • The Star of David. This is perhaps the clearest hook that the target is Jews, not Israel -- but then, we know that some say it is being used not as a Jewish symbol but an Israeli symbol (this was the justification for expelling the Jewish marchers from the Chicago Dyke March -- their Rainbow flag with a Star of David was coded as "an Israeli flag superimposed on a rainbow flag"). One can certainly imagine the "artist" here making that case -- after all, by saying "Free Palestine" they at least implicitly cast their target as being Israel, specifically.
  • The swastika. Again, we might think this suffices to establish the drawing as antisemitic. But note that the swastika could be symbolically representing two different things here. One possibility is that it is meant to evoke sympathy for Nazis (the artist saying, in effect, "I am a Nazi; I am making a Nazi point"). In that case, the antisemitism becomes pretty undeniable. But the other possibility is that the artist is intending to saying "Israel is a Nazi state, and Nazis are awful" (the artist is putatively making an "anti-Nazi" point, while associating Israelis or Zionists with the terrible Nazis). Is this formulation antisemitic? Note we just went through this, to some extent, with Eli Valley and the "kapos" controversy (and before that, with David Friedman) -- many people are very insistent that it is perfectly fair game, or at least not antisemitic, to compare Israelis or Zionist Jews to Nazis.
If we think that this scrawl was antisemitic, we implicitly reject at least some of these defenses. We have to commit to the position that using the Star of David to denote a group that you hate is antisemitic, or that comparing Israel to Nazism is antisemitic. And that, in turn, should constrain us come other cases. The fact is, if we think this was an antisemitic act, then we can't be so blithe in asserting that other perhaps more elegant acts whose alleged antisemitism rests on similar presuppositions (e.g., that Israel = Nazi comparisons are antisemitic) are mere "criticism of Israel". And, by contrast, if we want to hold the line and say that it is not antisemitic to compare Israel to Nazis, then we are far harder pressed to agree that even an act like this is an antisemitic act.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

It's Just a Flesh Wound!

Donald Trump does not poll well among Jews.

His favorables are a miserable 29/71. His re-elect statistics against a generic Democratic opponent stand at 23/67. Jews overwhelmingly oppose him on virtually every policy: from abortion (40/60) to immigration (33/67) to healthcare (31/69) to the Iran Deal (36/64 -- take note, American Jewish leadership) to antisemitism (29/71 -- really take note, American Jewish leadership). Even his handling of US/Israel relations -- supposedly his strongest suit -- barely squeaks into positive territory (55/45).

Yet if you're the Republican Jewish Coalition, these figures are good news!
Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said the news was good for Trump.
“The Jewish numbers for Trump are a floor and generic Dem numbers are a ceiling,” Brooks said on Twitter. “No one who now says they’re for Trump are going to change their minds. He will get a higher share of the Jewish vote than this.”
Higher than 23%! Can you feel the Jexodus yet?

Oh, and Barack Obama? He stands at a cool 70% favorable, 23% unfavorable spread.

(Another fun bonus stat: Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu inspires deep ambivalence, currently sporting a 45/38 favorability spread. That's worse than Bernie Sanders -- 51/43 -- and far worse than Joe Biden's 66/29. But he's still net positive, so hey, congrats on that).

Monday, May 20, 2019

What Did Eurovision Do To Israel?

This is a truly stellar analysis piece by Abigail Nussbaum on the impact Eurovision had on Israel and -- in particular -- the blow it struck against Netanyahu and his brand of politics.

One thing it does very well, which many analyses do not, is that it understands and recognizes Israel as a fully-fleshed out place -- with factions, institutions, power dynamics, and all the rest that are exactly as deep and complex as any other modern state and society. Israel is a "they", not an "it", and the blithe assumption that "if Eurovision succeeds, that's a win for Bibi" is naive to actual facts on the Israeli ground. To the contrary, Nussbaum does great work in establishing how Netanyahu and his allies have all but declared war on Israel's cultural institutions and sought to instead foster a hermit-nation, "us against the world" mentality that is disdainful (if not outright antipathic) to any sort of effort at global communal engagement. Eurovision does not ratify Bibi's view of Israel; it is a direct challenge to it.

In hosting Eurovision, the Israeli government had little choice but to give Israel's cultural institutions their due and resources (as much as Miri Regev might resent it). It featured a presenter descended from both Holocaust survivors and Palestinian refugees, delivering a greeting in Hebrew and Arabic; it featured the grand success of a public media corporation that Bibi had been desperately trying to kill, and yes, it even featured those little Israeli and Palestinian flags on the backs of Madonna's dancers.

Most importantly, in the context of a cooperative, international event, Eurovision also offered a daybreak, however brief, from the "everyone hates us and will always hate us" insistences of the Israeli political right. Against those forces counseling retreat and insularity in the face of an implacably hostile world, Eurovision showed the promise of continued cosmopolitan engagement. As Nussbaum puts it:
[The success of Eurovision] proves that the horror stories we’ve been told about the hatred that awaits us in Europe are nonsense (not to mention cover for Netanyahu’s increasing coziness with actual Nazis, just because they share his authoritarian tendencies). These are messages that the Israeli public has desperately needed to hear, and maybe for some people, they got through.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Game Over

*Warning: Spoilers for the Game of Thrones finale*

So Game of Thrones is finally over. While I'm certainly in the majority camp that the series seriously stumbled down the stretch, all in all it still was a fun ride. And -- taking into account the corner that the writers had painted themselves into -- I actually think the series finale was a pretty decent episode. Yet quibbles are more fun than compliments, so here are my final scattered thoughts:

* I didn't mind the Daenerys heel turn at the end, though I agree it didn't have quite enough run-up. But the group that really suffered, character-wise, was the Unsullied. If we now view Dany as a fanatical would-be tyrant who casually murdered innocents, what do we make of her most loyal footsoldiers who unquestioningly carried out the slaughter? There's a story that could have been told here that carries an arc from their freedom from slavery to their status as a murderer's shock troops, but we never got it because the Unsullied -- even Grey Worm, outside his love for Missandei -- were never developed beyond mere arms of Daenerys.

* But at least there was a vague gesture at trying to resolve the Unsullied's thread: they were offered the Reach, and ended up sailing to Naath (to do what?). The Dothraki didn't even get that much. And to be honest -- they're a much bigger threat than unhappy Unsullied. Unsullied are at least disciplined -- they wouldn't move unless someone ordered them to. Indeed, once the Queen was killed, you could almost see how they froze up -- not executing Jon or Tyrion in the days(?) it took for the Lords of the Realm to gather at King's Landing, and scarcely thinking to contemplate the argument that they had claim to be rulers of King's Landing now. But the Dothraki are a mounted band of marauders whose default setting is to rampage over the countryside pillaging everything in sight, in a land where much of the security infrastructure has been decimated. They're a recipe for chaos.

* That said, the main Dothraki question is clearly "Where did these alive Dothraki come from?"

* I'm not entirely sure why Arya wants to get on a boat and sail west. But I'm sad that Yara didn't appear to be joining her (yes, yes, objectively she should be running the Iron Islands. I still can be sad).

* Bran as King is ... okay, I guess. I think the main thrust of the choice is that he's more of a figurehead who will leave the day to day management to his advisers. It's part of the slow "democratization" process (poor Sam -- your actual democratization process got laughed out of the room).

* If the North secedes, Dorne obviously would secede too. There wasn't really any way to build that into the show and not sap Sansa's speech of all its drama, but it's still true.

* Littlefinger may be dead, but someone successfully lived out his "Chaos is a Ladder" motto. From sellsword to Lord of Highgarden and Master of Coin -- well done Bronn! (Though what would have happened at the Unsullied taken the offer to be ceded the Reach -- which includes Highgarden?)