Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Talking Cures?: Jews and Sex Therapy in Nymphomaniac and A Dangerous Method

Academic journal article Jewish Film & New Media

Talking Cures?: Jews and Sex Therapy in Nymphomaniac and A Dangerous Method

Article excerpt

Jewish psychotherapists and sex therapists abound in television and film, and the nonprofessional Jewish advisor on sex, sometimes in the form of a concerned friend, is a frequently seen figure. The Internet Movie Database lists seventy-nine films and television programs in which the figure most commonly associated with psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, appears as a character, and in almost all he displays his well-known preoccupation with sexuality. Dozens more feature a therapist who can be identified as Jewish by surname and in some way impacts the sex lives of his or her patients.1 Because such representations pervade Western visual media, irrespective of genre or intended audience, I will not make distinctions between the national origins of films or their status as art or popular entertainment. Instead this essay will concentrate on how Jewish interlocutors to the sexual problems of others are portrayed both in ways that support anti-Semitic views and in ways that combat anti-Semitism. By examining how anti-Semitic theories about both Jewish sexuality and the universal cultural role of Jews as sex counselors impact cinematic representation of Jews as sexual beings, this essay will reveal some ways ancient myths of Jewish conspiracy are maintained, or critiqued, in film narratives. Additionally, it will elucidate the impact on sexual social justice movements of the difference between imaginingJewish conspiracy and imagining Jewish community. David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method (UK, Germany, 2011) and Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (Denmark, Germany, 2013) will here serve as the objects of a case study.

My discussion will include consideration of the real-life cultural situations that contextualize these two films' narratives because, although the prevalence ofJewish sex-counselor figures can be interpreted in many ways, it also reflects reality, in that many of Freud's most famous followers were Jews and, like Freud, concentrated on patients suffering from emotional problems related to their sexuality. The aim of these therapists, consistent with a strong Jewish tradition, was to alleviate the persecution and resultant self-hatred of those minoritized by the dominant culture, in this case sexual minorities. Perhaps for this reason Jews have been heavily represented in the development of academic theories of sexuality and gender, as exemplified in the leadership roles in gender/sexuality studies taken by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler. This tradition is carried on in popular culture, where Dr. Ruth Westheimer and Isadora Alman were among the most notable pioneers of the "sexpert" pundit role. An interesting example of how much this figure has become a stereotype across film genres is Barbra Streisand's reprisal of her therapist role as psychologist Susan Lowenstein in The Prince of Tides (Barbra Streisand, USA, 1991)-this time for laughs as the rambunctious sex therapist Rozalin Focker in 2004's Meet the Fockers (Jay Roach, USA) and 2010's Little Fockers (Paul Weitz, USA). Much of the humor in these two films comes from the reactions of the conservative and inhibited gentile parents of her son's wife to Rozalin's sex-positive ideas, but in the end they acknowledge her superior understanding of sexuality. This conclusion adheres to the most common way Jewish sex counselors are represented in Western visual media.

Jewish Racialization and the Sex Counselor Role

Looking at the history of Jewish racialization is crucial to understanding not only why Jews appear so often as sex counselors in film narratives but also why they do so in real life. Since its inception the American film industry has been deeply involved in debates over anti-Semitism. An instructive moment relevant to American cinematic depictions of Jewish identity is recounted in Sylvia Barack Fishman's The Way into Varieties ofJewish Experience (2007). In 1954, when asked by Ben Hecht to advocate for Palestinian Jews, David O. Selznick demurred, saying that he was a "non-Jew. …

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