Hadassah women out to change image of Jewish women on screen

For many years, Jewish women were hardly portrayed on television, and when they were, the images were overwhelmingly negative. That is changing, slowly, but even in the 1990s, when “Mad About You” was one of the most popular sitcoms on the air, it featured a Jewish man married to a non-Jewish woman. Jerry Seinfeld, too, dated predominantly non-Jewish women.

“That was considered desirable,” since Jewish women were often considered overbearing, said Linda Shayne, a member of the MorningStar Commission.

The MorningStar Commission, a project of Hadassah, the national women’s Zionist organization, consists of Los Angeles-based women in the film and television industry working to improve portrayals of Jewish women in the media. Along with two of her fellow MorningStar board members, Shayne is also part of the MorningStar Performers, who will give a multimedia presentation about Jewish women in the media over the past 100 years at Hadassah San Francisco’s annual donor lunch on Sunday, Nov. 14.

Shayne writes and directs feature

films and television shows. In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Nov. 2, she explained how Hadassah, of which she is also a member, founded the MorningStar Commission six years ago.

The commission began as a Hadassah-sponsored research project that investigated how Jewish women were portrayed in film and television.

One of the images from the ’50s was that of Marjorie Morningstar (née Morgenstern), the Upper West Side heroine of the Herman Wouk novel who was determined to overcome her bourgeois upbringing and become a star. The film of that name, starring the late Natalie Wood, shattered the middle-class stereotype, while the novel’s conclusion did not.

The commission “came out with conclusive results, that both Jews and non-Jews thought the images of Jewish women in the media were overbearing, nagging, not attractive and loud,” said Shayne. “So few positive images were out there.”

Since its founding, members of the MorningStar Commission have served as a resource to producers and writers of new programs. They also sponsor discussions and Shabbat dinners for industry professionals to discuss and study the issue.

Shayne noted that the majority of Americans — particularly those not living in or near cities — have never met a Jew before, and therefore what they know about them largely comes from what they see on television. And when a show like “The Nanny” has the most visible Jewish woman on television, that definitely shapes viewers’ perceptions.

“Even if people are not conscious of the fact that this is affecting them, the research shows that these images impact the way people see you,” she said.

While writers and producers have a large role to play in changing the dominant stereotypes, Shayne said that Debra Messing, who plays the Jewish character Grace Adler on NBC’s “Will and Grace,” has done a lot for putting forward a positive image of a Jewish woman.

“It takes a powerful actor to change things,” said Shayne. “Messing is very proud of her Jewish identity, and in her role, can promote that kind of discussion, whereas if no one pushes for it on any level, it’s not going to happen.”

Another part of the MorningStar Commission has been working with members of the U.C. Davis sorority Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi, some of whom became the subject of ridicule when MTV used the house for its first installment of its “Sorority Life” reality show.

“They were 20 Jewish women, all of them diverse individuals, but the program was skewed and edited for conflict, for a reality show,” said Shayne. And the comments on MTV’s message boards often were anti-Semitic.

Because the sorority women were hounded by the media as a result of the program, members of the commission mentored them. The women who were on television are now using their celebrity to visit Hillels and talk about how to keep their Jewish identity while at college.

In summary, Shayne said that she believes the MorningStar Commission is playing an important role.

“It took a big uproar of African Americans not wanting to play maids anymore, and Latinos are fighting that they are always playing drug dealers,” said Shayne. “Jewish women are not any different.”

The MorningStar Performers will appear at Hadassah San Francisco’s annual donor luncheon at noon Sunday, Nov. 14, at the Golden Gate Club, 135 Fisher Loop, S.F. Information: (415) 771-5900.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."