From Ugly Duckling to Cool Fashion Icon: Sarah Jessica Parker's Blonde Ambitions

Article excerpt

Sarah Jessica Parker is a cool Jew, or so we argue in this essay. That is, the actress and the role that made her most famous - Sex and the City's iconic Carrie Bradshaw - offer fans a particular kind of pleasure that comes from identifying with an actor and character who are presented as, if not explicitly Jewish, then Jewish to those in the know. We argue, however, that Parker's ascent to superstar status necessitated a shift in the way her physical body has been produced, a shift away from those physical traits that might be read as explicitly or stereotypically Jewish. In this way her career mirrors the deep ambivalence we feel about postmodern identity and its dual promises of privilege: the privilege of uniqueness and the myth that we can all somehow attain the universal.

Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP) is doubdessly one of the "Cool Jewz" currently populating the collective western imagination. Much of her cool status can be linked to the hip, fashion icon status of the character, Carrie Bradshaw, Parker played on the popular HBO series Sex and the City (SATC) (HBO, 1998-2004), which she also co-executive produced. We argue that Carrie and SJP have merged in the collective mind; SJP has come to embody her fictional personas fashionista status, culminating in the GAP endorsement deal she won after the final episode of the series aired. In this essay, we examine the career of SJP and the changes in both her body and image that have attended her climb towards coolness in her most memorable role to date. How, we ask, are these changes related to myths about the star's body, a body that is at once unique and universal, and in what ways has this need for a universal uniqueness inflected the way Parker's (Jewish) body has been produced for the screen?

Through our own readings of Parker s work, as well as those offered by scholars, fans, and journalists writing about the actor and the roles she has played, we ask how the changes described above mitigate, but never actually deflect, a reading of both Parker and the charactet s she plays, particularly Carrie Bradshaw, as deeply, though in no way essentially, Jewish. In his introduction to Too Jewish?: Challenging Traditional Identities, a companion piece to the exhibition held at the Jewish Museum in New York, Norman Kleeblatt writes that as a price for having achieved "visible success . . . individual members [of the Jewish community] were becoming invisible." Thus, he argues, "admission into the mainstream had required the shedding of . . . ethnic and cultural specificity," the very things "upon which die new identity- centered art is based."1 Identity- centered art is no longer new; films that put racial and ethnic identity (among other things) at their centet, from My Big Fat Greek Wedding (Joel Zwick, 2002), to Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), to Bend it Like Beckham (Gurinder Chadha, 2002), have found international audiences and both mainstream and critical acclaim, and racial and ethic identities and differences are a staple of many television series (although, certainly, some identities are more visible than othet s, and these representations are open, fragmentary, and conflicted).2 To return to Kleeblatt, although today we (Jews) have more freedom to keep ethnic and cultural specificity in die (picture/film/TV) frame, we still often go to quite great lengths to downplay that difference, or to avoid naming it explicitly. It is the problematic quest for the mythical universal (still unnamed and imagined as white, middle-class, Anglo, and secularly Christian) - a performance that is attempted, but never quite achieved-that we interrogate here.

As June Sochen so eloquently explains in her work on Jewish women entertainers and social reform, "entertainers become 'texts' in American popular culture ___ Their very beings, in addition to their work, become part of the collective identity they project to the public."3 Thus we ttace both SJP and the characters she has played as texts, looking for the way her body moves increasingly towards a position of visual ambiguity in relation to Jewishness, a position of greater sameness or universality, and yet is read by many viewers as very Jewish, hence Other, even stereotypically so. …