Woody Allen always gets the girl, well at least for a time. Barbra Streisand is the ugly duckling. Comedian Seth Rogen gets a couple jabs about his appearance but ultimately can be in an on-screen relationship with Katherine Heigl. Lena Dunham was fat shamed for her nudity scenes in the TV show Girls.
It’s no secret there’s a troubling double standard in our culture for women concerning appearances but there’s an additional layer that’s specific to Jewish women who look . . . “Jewish.”
There is the stereotype of the “nice Jewish girl,” a kind and curvy family woman who loves Judaism, home life, and indulging in the odd bagel. Typically sporting frizzy hair and asymmetrical features, the nice Jewish girl also holds promise to be a diligent wife and mother. It’s the family choice, not the exciting choice. (I should emphasize, there is no one way to look Jewish, but there is an idea of what a Jewish woman looks like in North America and it most closely resembles this definition.)
Because of this, rarely can stereotypical looking Jewish women be leading ladies in mainstream media. Only Jewish actresses who don’t look stereotypically Jewish can—those with symmetrical features, svelte figures, and near perfect hair. Facial symmetry is universally associated with beauty and attractiveness. Most people don’t have perfect facial symmetry—the Margot Robbie’s of the world are few and far between. Though not in Hollywood, where the industry has skewed peoples’ perception of what beauty is, for the worse. Increasingly, I find this phenomenon frustrating as a viewer, and I think it’s harmful for young Jewish girls who feel a nose job, or any other procedure, is necessary for greater acceptance.
I can’t help but feel that Jewish women who look stereotypically Jewish don’t offer the sexy or appealing option to the male protagonist. There’s something almost sexless about them. We’re mothers, not the muse.
If we start to see a more authentic representation of a spectrum of Jewish women on screen we’ll be able to see that Jewish women, frizzy hair and all, can be desired and seek desire. They can be the leading lady. They can express themselves apart from their Jewishness, even if they embrace their Jewishness. They can have rich stories based on their everyday struggles of being a human in this world, not just of being a Jew.
To date, I’ve only seen movies and shows that prove Jewish actresses that secure leading roles all have conventional beauty traits, such as Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson, and Mila Kunis, who’ve sparingly played a character in relation to their ethno-religious background.
In fact, many notable Jewish female characters and figures are almost always played by non-Jews—think Rachel Brosnahan in Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Rachel McAdams as an orthodox Jew in Disobedience. While all very talented, I can’t help but think their attractiveness made them more appealing for the part.
And if a Jewish woman is allowed to play Jewish, then it’s often in relation to her looks. Many of Streisand’s movies are about her being too unattractive for a man, there’s Funny Face, The Way We Were, and The Mirror Has Two Faces, which takes the ugly duckling trope to new heights. In the film Streisand laments about her face and body for over two hours. In one scene her mother shows a photo of Streisand’s character as a child saying she was an attractive little girl. “I was pretty?” Streisand responds. It’s a painful watch.
Why does it seem, more often than not, that the Jewish women on screen who look like me have to defend their looks? I love Streisand but so many of her works focus on her appearance. While the representation she brought was progressive at the time, she was still confined by restrictive ideas of what a leading Jewish woman, who looks unmistakably Jewish, can do or be on screen.
Recently, I watched the TV show Fleishman Is In Trouble, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes, and became deeply troubled (no pun intended). It shows a couple going through a separation and how they got there. He’s a doctor and wants to live a more “down to earth” life and she’s a high powered talent agent who wants to climb the social elite Manhattan ladder. Eisenberg plays a Jew—who looks and acts stereotypically Jewish with his curly hair and neurosis on full display. Danes plays a half-Jew. Her straight blonde hair and traditional attractiveness make her more appealing to Fleishman. She wasn’t the “typical” Jewish woman he dreaded having to marry. During a scene, when he’s reminiscing on the start of their relationship and what made her attractive, he says she was different from other Jews he’d dated.
Jesse Eisenberg’s character wants the exciting choice. The bonus being she’s half-Jewish and her looks came from the non-Jewish side. He hit the lottery.
But what if he married a woman who looked, I don’t know, more like a young Streisand? Why could she not strive to be a part of the Manhattan elite? They are in New York after all. Would her outward Jewishness prevent her ability to play a Jewish character who rarely discusses her Judaism?
I have my heart set on Natasha Lyonne becoming a leading woman—Margot Robbie-level success—on the big screen. Her bright red frizzy hair, smoky voice, and Brooklyn edge make her not just a fantastic Jewish lead on screen but a fantastic female lead that can grab the heart of any man or woman. She doesn’t need to be the character actor that plays odd people because of her Jewish characteristics. Her Jewish characteristics can make her a Hollywood star. A classic lead. A muse.
Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein and Orly Zebak.
Clarrie Feinstein is a journalist based in Toronto where she is currently a reporter for Toronto Star. She previously was a reporter for Metroland Media where she covered education in Peel Region. Her other work can be seen in Daily Hive, Business Insider, Salon, and Bedford + Bowery. Clarrie earned her M.A. in journalism from New York University.