The Effect of Media Representation on My Jewish Identity

How societal stereotypes can harm our self-concept.

Posted Oct 02, 2020

During our interview for The Hardcore Humanism Podcast, Bob the Drag Queen said something that really struck a chord with me. He was talking about how important it is for people to see themselves represented in media images, and how the lack of representation or the presence of stereotypical representation can undermine one’s ability to develop a healthy identity.

Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash, used with permission
Source: Ajeet Mestry on Unsplash, used with permission

As part of our discussion, he made a comment about how amazing it would be to see a change in how obese kids were portrayed in the media. This notion resonated as the stigma of obesity is prevalent, driven in part by stereotypical media images. But he took it a step further than simply calling for more positive imagery. “It is important for little overweight children or big kids, fat kids to see themselves in media celebrated,” Bob told me. “It doesn't have to be a story of like, ‘Can you believe that this overweight person … is now being celebrated.’ What if it was just a person being celebrated in general and not in spite of their weight?”

This hit a nerve with me because Bob was articulating something that I deeply craved growing up as a Jewish kid in the 1970s and ’80s. Both of my parents are Jewish and were raised in Brooklyn. I was raised conservative, went to Hebrew School for years — at one point three times a week. I grew up with Jewish family and friends, and feel very fortunate to have been raised with a strong Jewish identity.

And yet the world that I grew up in did not seem like such a safe place for Jewish people. Many of us either lost family members in the Holocaust or had relatives who fled Europe to escape Nazi persecution. The thought of six million Jewish people being deliberately persecuted and murdered created a sense of vulnerability that is hard to explain. I always felt outnumbered and isolated wherever I went. There were certain parts of the country where I wouldn’t feel comfortable living in because there were few Jewish people. Schools were closed for Christmas and Easter but not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. There has never been a Jewish President and there were very few Jewish Senators or Congressmen. And I regularly encountered anti-Semitism throughout my life in different forms — from neighbors, friends, strangers, even teachers.

And yet with all of these very real-world occurrences, one of the things that hit me the hardest was the way Jewish people — particularly Jewish men — were portrayed in media. Let me be clear — I am a cisgender white male in a society in which that identity has extreme privilege. And yet in talking with Bob about his intersectional identity — which includes being Black, non-binary, queer and from the South — I realized that while I felt privilege on one level, being Jewish made me feel not a part of the majority society and vulnerable to the biases that minority groups can experience. And feeling so vulnerable as a cisgender white male because only one aspect of my identity is not represented (or is represented unfavorably) in the media, I can only imagine how hopeless it feels when you see no aspects of your identity reflected in TV shows, movies or magazines. And this further magnifies just how crucial it is to have representation.

Growing up, few of my favorite shows or movies had prominent Jewish characters. And when there were, almost every character was a stereotypical caricature — a weak, whiny, neurotic human being. The men were never “leading” men. They were never the tough guy, the brave soldier, the heartthrob, the cool guy in school. They were all like Abner Goldstein from The White Shadow — the kid who didn’t really play, never got any girls, and was sort of an outsider. Maybe if I was lucky it would be someone like Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall — a Jewish nerd but somehow interesting or funny enough to be accepted or maybe even liked. But really the best I could do was to be content that Arthur Fonzarelli — the coolest guy around — at least had a Jewish Grandma Nussbaum.  

It wasn’t all bad. These stereotypes and cultural reference points were comforting in a way. I mean, based on media representation, I never questioned whether I could become a doctor, a lawyer, or an accountant. They provided a great opportunity for humor. I loved listening to Howard Stern talk about his Jewish upbringing. I felt like I “got” Mel Brooks and The Zucker Brothers movies like Airplane!. On that level, I felt like I belonged somewhere. And I knew many of the actors or musicians I saw in the world were Jewish. But overall, even with all of the privilege, I felt limited in terms of who I was and who I could be.

To be sure I’m not saying media representation is what held me back. Maybe if I was a tough guy, a great athlete, super cool, or a heartthrob at any point in my life, media representation would have mattered less. But I wasn’t any of those things growing up, as I am not now. So, what I had was hope — maybe someone else who looked like me and grew up like me had broken through those barriers. And the lack of media representation further dashed that hope.

And then something unexpected happened to me — the Beastie Boys came along. What was interesting about them was that they fit Bob’s description of what would be helpful to obese kids. The Beastie Boys — Adam Horovitz, Mike Diamond, and the late Adam Yauch, were openly Jewish. But they didn’t make themselves into caricatures or stereotypes. As far as I can tell, Judaism was never directly referenced in their music. And yet there they were — looking like and with names that sounded like kids with whom I went to Hebrew School. When Licensed to Ill came out in 1986 the Beastie Boys were center stage — a hot act in an emerging genre of Hip Hop. Jewish people were being celebrated without their Judaism being a “big deal.”

For whatever reason, it seemed like I started to notice a trend and see other examples turning up in the media. In 1989, Seinfeld went on the air. Jerry Seinfeld played himself and was clearly Jewish. And while the show indulged in some Jewish stereotypes, here he was a leading man — the cool guy, a guy who had women interested in him. Mad About You followed and Paul Reiser’s Paul Buchman character followed the same mold — Jewish without being a caricature. Adam Sandler invariably played Jewish characters in movies that seemed like they had good lives (e.g. Grown Ups). Soon, it felt like I was starting to see a transformation of sorts, where characters were starting off as nerdy Jews and emerging more as leading men. Brian Austin Green’s David Silver on 90210 and David Schwimmer’s Ross Geller on Friends come to mind. Heck, we even got David Green in the movie School Ties — the super cool kid who fought anti-Semitism.

I hate to admit it, but even as a middle-aged man, these images help. And we are by no means “there” in terms of Jewish representation in the media — particularly Jewish men. But things seem a lot better now than they did when I was growing up. And I began to learn that many of my musical heroes — Perry Farrell, Joey Ramone, Scott Ian — are Jewish. And some are even considered heartthrobs like Adam Levine of Maroon 5. The Beastie Boys went on to become enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There have been Jewish Senators and Congressmen. Howard Stern became the King of All Media. John Stewart was perhaps the most beloved comedian on television while hosting The Daily Show.

Don’t get me wrong — anti-Semitism is still prevalent.  I’m still not sure we’ll have a Jewish president any time soon. I’m still waiting for the numerous shows that are built around Jewish athletes, soldiers, and heartthrobs. And I know I’m not alone, as many people, probably most, do not feel that their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and/or culture are well represented in a non-stereotypical way in the media. I hope that we continue to follow the lead of Bob and others who champion the importance of representation so that other people can feel just a bit better about their identity as I have.

References

You can hear Dr. Mike's conversation with Bob the Drag Queen on the Hardcore Humanism Podcast at HardcoreHumanism.com, Apple Podcasts, or your podcast app.