Jenny Schecter and the Strange Case of the Present Absent Jewish American Woman on the Queer Screen: The Ghostly Failures of Jewish American Assimilation

By Karp, Amy Tziporah | Gender Forum, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Jenny Schecter and the Strange Case of the Present Absent Jewish American Woman on the Queer Screen: The Ghostly Failures of Jewish American Assimilation


Karp, Amy Tziporah, Gender Forum


I seek to avoid the problem of hierarchies of suffering by working, as it were, horizontally rather than vertically, extending a wide embrace beyond the immediate site of suffering to look at the experiences of those who are feeling its effects even if they are removed from it (whether historically or spatially). In looking at emotional responses that are tangential to trauma yet that still touch on it, I am arguing not that they are the equivalent of trauma but that they help illuminate its emotional dynamics. The nuances of everyday emotional life contain the residues that are leftby traumatic histories, and they too belong in the archive of trauma... They can make one feel totally alone, but in being made public, they are revealed to be part of a shared experience of the social.

- An Archive of Feelings, Ann Cvetkovich

1Jewish American assimilation is currently understood to be a completed, and highly successful, project. Yet the persona of the young queer Jewish American woman (whether real or fictional) in popular culture who is maligned or caricatured problematizes this notion of completed Jewish assimilation into whiteness, such as Jenny Schecter on The L Word. [1] What proves most interesting and revealing about such personae (and to some extent, the writers who created the fictional iterations) is that they have all been deeply influenced by post-WWII ideologies of Jewish American identity. Not only have they absorbed the notion that they are assimilated, and thus cannot acknowledge the omnipresent 'ghost' of the process of assimilating, but they have also been deeply influenced by stereotypes of Jewish American women created and reiterated by various aspects of popular culture. [2] Rather than coming to terms with traumatic Jewish historical ghosts as the personae of young Jewish American men often do, the personae of the queer Jewish American woman is concerned with the struggle to maintain normalcy (e.g., a WASP-like whiteness), the struggle of living as a stranger, or both. While Jonathan Safran Foer, a secular contemporary Jew in Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, goes to the Ukraine to try to find remnants of his family from after the Holocaust, the characters/personae examined here cannot afford to spend much time listening to the whispers in the walls, although they are troubled by the ghosts that they sense are there.

2I contend that the myriad stories being told by queer Jewish American women artists, particularly in cinema and television, are important and complicate the standardized notion of completed Jewish American assimilation. I focus here on the story that Jewish American lesbian television producer and writer Ilene Chaiken tells in The L Word of a California queer/lesbian women's community in which the queer Jewish American woman still inhabits the tenuous, fragile position of the stranger. contradicting the portrayals of assimilated Jewish American females such as the Monica Geller character on Friends, those personae who are relegated to being strangers-such as Jenny Schecter on The L Word-serve to illuminate the failures, problematics, and questions leftin the wake of supposedly completed and closed inclusions. To that end, I will examine the persona of Jenny Schecter, a highly marked and yet highly invisible queer Jewish American character on Showtime's The L Word. Jenny Schecter is clearly marked as Jewish by her explorations of her Jewish history and present in numerous story lines, yet her Jewishness (or her Jewish matters, as I call them, evoking Avery Gordon's "ghostly matters") is ignored by the other characters on the show creating the paradox that the persona of the Jewish female stranger may be highly visible and invisible at the same time. Ghostly matters, according to Avery Gordon, are those manifestations we can feel haunting-particularly in theory this can manifest as a feeling-a feeling that something is being leftout, that there is some 'matter' that hasn't been attended to, that there is something one cannot put one's finger on though one knows it is there. …

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