Academic journal article MELUS

The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture

Academic journal article MELUS

The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture

Article excerpt

The comic stereotype of the Jewish mother, from domineering to grotesque, is a cultural construct developed by male writers in the United States in the 1960s, the era of political turbulence that coincided with the second wave of feminism in this country. Among other objectives, feminists hoped that their efforts to expose the misogyny behind negative stereotypes would help to end them. Yet the representation of the Jewish mother both as a nagging guardian of ethnic identity and the embodiment of its worst traits continued to pour forth in newly minted versions from the pens and comedy routines of Jewish men. Some feminist writers like Erica Jong attempted to fight humor with humor while others in novels, screenplays, and essays tried to add complexity and nuance to the image of the Jewish mother. The history of the stereotype thus follows a jagged pattern of vilification and vindication, of male action and female reaction, of call and response, that left the caricature firmly ingrained in popular imagination. Overall, feminist responses to men's comic devaluing of the Jewish mother failed to disrupt the persistence of the image. But in recent decades, as Jews' concerns about assimilation have decreased and new cruxes of female identity and vocation have arisen, the expansion of women's roles outside the family has gradually defused the comic exaggeration of the overprotective mother. Not direct critique by feminists and social commentators, but the indirect effects of shifting social expectations and goals have brought solace to the stigmatized figure of the Jewish mother.

Feminist critics of several schools of thought have developed ideas about women's laughter as a means of disrupting the structures of patriarchal discourse and ideology. They stress women's creative energy and humor as distinctive features of feminist writing with the potential to unsettle the logocentrism of male authority. Helene Cixous in "The Laugh of the Medusa" metaphorically describes women's verbal spontaneity, generosity, and jouissance as part of a defiant, liberating stance. Julia Kristeva, from a psychoanalytic perspective, writes that a pre-Oedipal phase linked to the maternal chora can resurface in texts to interrupt the symbolic order of the father. Similarly, the disruptive power of laughter is treated in Patricia Yaeger's "theory of play" as having political as well as cognitive effects. Contemporary feminist theory, then, valorizes the transformative potential of humor and language to subvert male dominance and regulation of social norms.(1) When the ranks seem to close in around a personification like the Jewish mother, comedy itself can refurbish and redeem her image. This essay, in tracing the gender wars fought over the stereotype of the Jewish mother, examines how that negative image became rooted in popular culture in the 1960s and the difficulties women writers faced in their attempts to intervene and revise it.

The myth of the manipulative Jewish mother is a complex formulation, ranging from affectionate to hostile, that grew to color perceptions of Jewish womanhood in a way that shows the triumph of comic expediency over social reality, even within a minority group that generally considered itself tolerant and liberal. Whether the Jewish mother is represented as protecting her children or demanding their loyalty, she is seen as exceeding prescribed boundaries, as being excessive. Her claims to affection, her voicing of opinions, her expressions of maternal worry are perceived as threatening in part because she acts as a free agent, not as a subordinate female according to mainstream cultural ideals. Even when she is represented as self-effacing, cast as the martyr, she is interpreted as being manipulative or passive-aggressive, secretly striving to impose her will on others. The Jewish-mother stereotype is fraught with contradictions that have not served to deconstruct it, but rather to let critics of the mother have it both ways. …

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