Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Orange is the New Black" doesn't have a Jewish problem

I've been binging on Netflix's Orange is the New Black all week and have been searching out articles on the interwebs about the show. I found some reasonable critiques of the portrayal of race and class. And then I found this piece in The Daily Beast citing the show for having "a Jewish problem."

For those of you who haven't been watching, there is one Jewish character on the show--portrayed by Jewish character actor Jason Biggs (who ironically isn't actually Jewish.) He's a writer who is a little bit of a neb (but not extreme by any measure). His parents are nasal and pushy but also caring and minor in terms of the show's universe.

So this otherwise excellent show--though there have been valid concerns raised about the portrayals of race and class--does a lazy job of portraying its one Jewish character. To that I issue a Nancy Pelosi-esque, "Who cares?"

Jason Biggs' character is not the focus of the show. It's Piper and the women of the correctional facility. That he would be portrayed as something of a stereotype is disappointing but hardly worth getting up in arms about. Hollywood TV shows and movies are sprinkled with many, many, many examples of complicated Jewish characters often written by Jewish writers and producers. (Orange's creator is in fact Jewish.) As are many of the less complex iterations because we are not afraid of stereotyping ourselves, especially for laughs. I mean, Jon Stewart plays up his nebbishy, athletic Jew self yet actually played varsity soccer. He may not have been an elite athlete but he also wasn't the wheezing Jewish stereotype he sometimes makes himself out to be.

The paucity of minorities in producing and writing positions is the reason other groups, such as African Americans, are rarely given this sort of complex treatment. I mean, there's a trans woman played by an actual trans woman and she's actually fleshed out into a multidimensional character with a redemptive arc. How often do you see that on TV?

The author of the Beast piece is really reaching here, finding fault with a character that echoes every Woody Allen character ever written, and then making a tenuous connection--at best--to America-Israel relations. Yes, that's where her critique of Orange ended up. Seriously.

Part of me recognizes that this analysis is, at least in part, cynical: You take a show that everyone is talking about and connect it to your particular zone of interest--the peace process and the Middle East--and maybe you'll drum up hits. (That's how Tablet ended up writing a piece that connected Breaking Bad to the Holocaust and accusing survivors of monstrous behavior. Yes, really.)

Though we're in a "golden age of television," it is still unreasonable to expect that one show can hit every mark. Orange is doing a great job (as far as I'm concerned) with portrayal of relationships between women. (It most definitely passes the Bechdel test.) It depicts the complicated intersection of sex and love in that cohort too. It shows actually friendships between ladies. It doesn't perform as well on the race/class report card--as one writer noted, blonde Piper is the only one elected to the jail council who voices concern for things like the prison's defunct GED program whereas the rest ask for much more trivial things when in reality, minority women have agitated for prison reforms as high minded as Piper's. These are issues I hope the writers work on in the second season.

I want to see race and class better explored. I want to see what's possible in terms of changing and deepening the bonds between these women. I'd like to see a stronger critique of the prison industrial complex. (Unlike Piper, most of these women are not in jail because of they made a bad choice off of a menu of good ones but because society mostly offered them "bad choices" and no way to escape the consequences as many Piper-like people are able to).

But I honestly don't care if Biggs' character Larry strays from the Jewey stereotype because even if he does, he'd still be the least interesting aspect of the show. 


grubers said...

Yes, it does have a Jewish problem. It has cast hideous non-Jew Jason Biggstein as a Jewish caricature for the hundredth type. Nothing racist about that.

How about he is banned from playing anymore Jews, until young, attractive, Jewish actors like Natalie Portman, Logan Lerman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Andrew Garfield, and so on, all play at least one explicit, clear, unmistakeably Jewish character, at least once? Or how about at least two times? Is this unreasonable?

Dvora Meyers said...

So the problem is that you find him unattractive? Jews can only be portrayed by "attractive" people? (For the record, I think Biggs is cute and I am Jewish. And I have dated many Jewish guys who look like him.) As for the caricature you're so troubled by--as I wrote, he's not the focus of the series and you can't imbue every single character with complexity in such a large cast. Also, he's based on real-life Jew Larry Smith, who is not the hottest person around. (By the way, I don't think the actress playing Piper is gorgeous either, but that's also besides the point.)

Or is the problem that he isn't Jewish? By that logic, should gay characters only be portrayed by gay actors? And vice versa.

As for those big names you mentioned, how do you know the sort of roles they've been offered that they've turned down? Perhaps they don't want to play Jewish characters. Why should they have to? Can you only identify with Jewish characters played by hot Jews?

grubers said...

Larry Smith isn't that bad looking, and he doesn't look like Biggs. Besides, characters are often made more attractive than they are in real life. And in real life, Piper Kerman is at least of partial Jewish heritage, herself.

"he's not the focus of the series"
-Most things people complain about and find offensive are not the focus of anything. Paula Deen did not spend the majority of her professional career using the N word. George Allen's speech in 2006 was not about "The Joys of Macaca". Eliot Spitzer probably spent 98% of his time NOT visiting prostitutes. And so on.

"Jews can only be portrayed by "attractive" people?"
-No, but it would be nice if they were portrayed by attractive people at least around as much as the vice versa. Especially by attractive Jews (and Biggs doesn't qualify under either criteria). Jews are highly overrepresented among young, attractive, American, actors, but most of them never or almost never play Jews. The reasons you said may be accurate to one degree or another, but that doesn't mean I can't complain about it.