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.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

COVIDing in Summer 2022

So after two and a half years, COVID finally caught me (and my wife). We tested positive on Tuesday morning.

First thing is first: We're both doing okay, with only mild symptoms (mine slightly more severe than Jill's, though part of that might be attributable to me being much more of a baby about being sick). Over the past 36 hours or so, I've gone through essentially every symptom even remotely related to a flu or cold, including:

  • Sore throat
  • Sore chest
  • Cough
  • Vomiting (from the coughing)
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Lost voice
  • Loss of appetite
  • Upset stomach
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Fever
  • Chills
Individually, none of these symptoms were that bad -- I've had worse iterations of all of them (and the one symptom I haven't had is low blood-oxygen levels). But having every single one of them in rapid succession wasn't exactly fun.

Right now, I'm feeling okay -- mostly the congestion and lost voice linger. My biggest worry is the timeline for recovery, which seems markedly inconsistent across cases. Some people shake it off after a few days, others linger more or less indefinitely. I already had to cancel a surgical procedure I had scheduled for next week (great timing!), and my parents who were visiting this week have checked into a hotel (really great timing!). I really hope this won't endure into the school year. I doubt it will, but again, the uncertainty is weighing on me.

Most of all, though, I'm grateful that I'm fully vaccinated and boosted. Even under the best of circumstances, I have breathing issues (initially, I thought the COVID symptoms were either allergies or GERD), and I can easily imagine that if I were unprotected my experience with COVID could've been a lot worse. It is a sobering thing to realize that, if this had happened two years ago, I could have died. The development of these vaccines, in such a compressed timeline, is a true miracle, and I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who worked so hard to make it happen. It's not implausible to say I owe my life to it.

Here's to feeling better very shortly!

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Imagine What They Can Do To You

 The GOP response to the FBI's raid on Mar-a-Lago has been very straightforward:

The immediate response to this was that I never doubted that the FBI was capable of getting a warrant to search my house if they established probable cause that I had committed a crime. Not only was that well within the realm of imagination, it'd be very bad if I couldn't imagine it!

But it when it comes down to "imagine what they can do to you", this isn't the story that is haunting. It was this Atlantic deep dive into how Trump's "family separation" policy was implemented.

Obviously, the basic fact patterns found in that story are terrifying. Imagining your small children ripped away from you, shipped to God knows where, with no guarantee you'll ever see them again -- it beggars belief. But there's a more fundamental horror at work here -- the impunity of power. In contrast to the formal legal process that resulted in the Mar-a-Lago raid, processes which will be challengeable in a courtroom and held to significant judicial scrutiny, the parents and children victimized by Trump's family separation policy were thrust into a chaotic state of legal limbo defined by the fact that nobody would, or could, help them. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine your child gone missing, and your frantic pleas for help just ... ignored? Not even that people try to help and fail -- they won't help at all. You're in the most dire crisis imaginable, and the men and women in uniform who seem like they should be tasked with helping you, who seem like they have the power to end the nightmare, just leave you to twist?

The argument against allowing the Mar-a-Lago raid is little more complex than the belief that if you become powerful enough, the law should no longer apply to you. That form of entitled impunity is not at all unrelated to the administrative lawlessness and abandonment that characterized how the family separation victims were traumatized. In either case, the message is that one's ability to claim the protections of the law is wholly a function of whether you possess the requisite amount of social power. If you're part of the favored in-class -- the Trumps of the world -- then law will bend over backwards to ensure you have your hearing. If you're on the outside looking in, then law will ignore you no matter how loud you scream.

Imagine what that could mean for you.