"Cutting off Your Nose to Spite Your Race": Jewish Stereotypes, Media Images, Cultural Hybridity

Article excerpt

This paper explores the growing acceptability of the "Jewish" nose amongst women in Hollywood and in television as an indicator of Jewish acceptability. At a time when cosmetic surgery to alter appearances of media stars as well as ordinary people has become a growth industry, rhinoplasty ("nose jobs"), so popular amongst Jewish women in the 1950s and 1960s, has declined amongst Jewish women. It is not just that such Jewish superstars as Barbra Streisand have refused the standardization of a nose job. It is also that identifiably Jewish stars have made their names playing non-Jewish roles, as is the case with Sarah Jessica Parker, the apparently ethnically standardized star of Sex and the City. This paper theorizes that the change from unacceptability to acceptability is based on an increasingly successful challenge to the American myth of melting pot sameness by the politics of ethnic difference, based on a realization by the dominant culture of the reality of ethnic hybridity and erasure.

"Looking Jewish" and "Passing": An Introduction

This is a paper about'Jewish noses" and how perceptions of them have varied in American popular culture in the twentieth century. The importance of the "Jewish nose" is that it is perceived as one of the most obvious defining features of Jews. Jews with non-Jewish noses are often able to "pass," by which I mean being able to blend into the dominant culture and thereby being able to become invisible as Jews.1 Hollywood at least until the 1960s provides many examples of Jewish stars (I provide the names of some of the most famous later in this paper) who had theit Jewish identities erased. Hollywood images not only reflect but perpetuate mass trends, so Hollywood's de-Semitization of Jews had a cultural impact far beyond the movie theater.2 The importance of the de-Semitized, commodified Hollywood image is that it both reflects and perpetuates mass trends.3 Hollywood's (and, later, televisions) insistence on erasing Jewish identity, widely practiced until the 1960s, tells us a great deal not only about the attitudes of the Hollywood studio bosses, many of whom were Jewish, but about the attitudes of the viewing public, including Jews, toward Jews.4

Hollywood passing is not as easy as it used to be.5 Celebrity culture, facilitated by television and the internet, obliterates the distinction between the public and private lives of the stars, both past and present. There are even websites devoted to listing, as comprehensively as possible, the names of actors and directors known or believed to be Jewish (see, for example, "Jewish Actors and Directors").

Passing, now so undependable a strategy for the stars, still remains available to ordinary Jews on whom no limelight shines. So why pass? Passing is often chosen to avoid any potential (or actual) negative social or economic fallout associated with being Jewish. I am not only talking about the in-your-face, red-neck, Archie Bunker type antisemitism,6 but even more so about its genteel, covert, and far more insidious variations. Subtle discrimination is pernicious precisely because it does its damage almost invisibly, is difficult to pin down, and is therefore virtually impossible to document, challenge, or change. Passing is abetted by the anxiety that haunts the Jewish imagination, as Philip Roth's recent work, particularly The Plot Against America (2004), makes extravagantly clear, an uneasy sense that polite, dinner-party antisemitism is easily able to morph into its more virulent formations.

We are, after all, only two generations removed from rhose university quotas that limited Jewish admissions to many American universities, and especially to their medical and engineering schools. It is wordi remembering too the restrictive covenants that excluded Jews from owning property in certain areas, or the "gentlemen s agreements" that denied Jews membership in various clubs, fraternities, and sororities, and perhaps still do. …

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