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Invisible in Hollywood: Jewish women

STEVEN SPIELBERG has done it again. He has managed to make yet another film about Jews that reduces Jewish women to caricatures. Only this time, instead of simpering victims, we are either loyal, hapless wives committed to tortured Jewish men, or kindly grandmothers who run a country but leave the real work to men.

The controversy that this movie has stirred up in the Jewish communities just adds insult to injury, as Spielberg has been castigated as a self-hating Jew who is a shill of the Palestinians. At the risk of being similarly labeled, this Jew is outraged, not because ''Munich" sympathizes with Palestinians (which it doesn't; its pro-Israel sentiments are clear), but because it is one more example of how Jewish men relegate Jewish women to roles that are supportive at best and belong in the silent era of movies, at worse.

While Jews are no longer the major owners of corporate media, they disproportionately fill the ranks of producers, writers, and actors. Yet for all this presence, when was the last time you saw a richly textured Jewish female character? TV character Jerry Seinfeld, another angst-ridden Jewish man, managed to avoid dating a self-identified Jewish woman in New York for all of the show's eight years. But then why would he date a Jewish woman if his cloying mother was an example of what was on offer?

The most prominent Jewish woman in the movies recently was played by arch WASP Meryl Streep in ''Prime." Written by a Jewish man (Ben Younger), this film tells the story of another suffocating Jewish mother who, for all her training as a therapist, is an overbearing, control freak who threatens to cut her son out of the family should he marry his blonde lover, played by Uma Thurman. Next to the shiksa goddess image of Thurman, Streep's character is dumpy, poorly dressed (even though she is a professional New York woman) and wholly unattractive in big glasses and bad hair. She repeatedly scratches her body, waves her arms in an ungainly manner, and speaks with her mouth full. Not one of the many reviews mentioned how the elevation of Thurman's goyish beauty depended on the debasement of Streep's ''Jewishness." Stereotypes always dance in pairs, never in isolation; for Jewish women, our stereotype serves to enhance and elevate hegemonic, Christian beauty.

The one place in popular culture where Jewish women reign is the Jewish American princess jokes. Here we are depicted as grasping, selfish, lazy, and sexually manipulative. Have you heard the one about how you stop a Jewish woman from having sex? You marry her. Encoded into these jokes is a level of misogyny that goes unrecognized by the mainstream Jewish community. The only critiques come from Jewish feminists. JAP jokes serve to help Jewish men bond with their non-Jewish brothers on the backs of Jewish women.

Missing from these images is the authentic story of Jewish women. During the Holocaust, we fought together with Jewish men in the resistance and died alongside them. We have been at the forefront of liberation movements, including feminism, gay rights, antiwar protests, and peace movements in Israel. Israeli women were the first to build joint Jewish-Palestinian movements, not because we are simpering victims or overbearing mothers, but because we have a long history of activism, courage, and a commitment to sisterhood.

At the end of ''Munich," the lead character, Avner (played by Eric Bana), is despairing over the fact that he has ''killed seven men." Well, actually, he has killed seven men and one woman, but she is invisible to Spielberg, and indeed to the movie reviewers, as not one mentioned this glaring omission. Jewish women are the disappeared of Hollywood because we are women and it is the sexism of men, not just Jewish ones, that makes popular culture a wasteland of sexist images that ridicule, degrade, and caricature real women's lives.

Hopefully, the next movie Spielberg makes about Jews will be a talkie for Jewish women.

Gail Dines is professor of sociology and women's studies at Wheelock College.

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