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Desperate Housewives And Beyond
By Susan H. Kahn
"Jews run Hollywood" is accepted common folklore and for the most part this is an assumption that turns out to be true. From Louis B. Mayer to Steven Spielberg Jews have always dominated the movie business.
Logic would dictate that this is good news for me. I am a Jewish actress living and working in Hollywood. I am in the movie business and the power brokers of my profession are also my lansman. What an advantage one would think. Turns out being Jewish and in front of the camera is more of a liability than an asset. That irony was the subject of a panel discussion hosted by The MorningStar Commission and The Foundation for Jewish Culture at the Skirball Cultural Center last Sunday afternoon.
In front of an audience of more than two hundred people panelists Hank Steinberg (Without A Trace), Bill Prady (Gilmore Girls), Carol Leifer (Seinfeld), and David Sacks (Malcolm in the Middle) all executive producers, or producers and writers of primetime hit TV shows; Iris Grossman uber agent of ICM and myself answered questions posed by moderator Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of The Traveling Pants). Ms. Tamblyn, the only non-Jew on the panel is an actress (who recently completed two years on "Joan of Arcadia" for CBS) and is in the break out lane to stardom. While ostensibly we were there to discuss the depiction of Jews in the media, right out of the gate, Hank Steinberg answered his first question by saying if you are looking for Jewish characters on television you won't find any.
So how Jews are depicted was eclipsed by a discussion of where are the Jewish characters? Each writer had a different theory. Bill Prady offered up the possibility that because almost all the writers are Jewish there is a reluctance to only represent yourself in your writing. Carol Leifer said all characters on TV are Jewish in one-way or another because they are created by Jews. Their humor their foibles their triumphs and defeats are all ripped from the headlines of personal stories of the writers. Even though the characters are not named as Jews everyone knows they are. And David Sacks, an orthodox Jew posed the idea that Jews for the most part don't know what Judaism is about so they are indifferent to the idea of putting forth positive Jewish images. Iris Grossman revealed that she has had actors she represents shut out of the casting process because they are "too Jewish".
My head was spinning, here I was sitting on stage with the best and the brightest all these people could hire me represent me help me and yet one by one they said there is no place for Jews on TV and in the movies. But why I wanted to know if you are in charge could you not write about the Jewish experience. And Bill Prady quickly and honestly answered we try, we submit ideas and then are shut down by the networks and went on to say, "when they say no I fold like a house of cards." The audience chimed in passionately and voiced their frustration. But naming the issue is not enough what can we do to see complex, human, and balanced portrayals of Jews as characters on TV and in the movies? The panel suggested get active, get involved, write the networks letters. Let your voice be heard and you will be surprised at how your needs will be addressed.
Get organized as a group, put pressure on the media to eliminate negative stereotypes and replace those with real Jewish people. Let the advertisers know that you will boycott their products if you see the nagging Jewish Mother or the wining Jewish princess populating the programs they buy ad time on. When you do see a Jewish character often it is a kind of racial profiling reinforcing the image of Jews as loud and cheap and complaining and manipulative. Amber graciously led the way for the afternoon saying as a young actress she too is frustrated with the lack of truly accurate portrayals of young women. Her experience also echoes an overall frustration that real human beings in all their variety still escape the sensibility of the entertainment industry.
Our afternoon at the Skirball was full of interesting, exciting, different kinds of people and I would be happy to have seen any one of them as a character on TV.
Caroline Aaron is a board member of The MorningStar Commission and a well known actress to film tv and theatre audiences. She has starred in several Woody Allen movies and originated the role of Dr. Gorgeous on the west coast in Wendy Wasserstein's hit play "The Sisters Rosensweig."