Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." (Photo/Eddy Chen-The CW)
Rachel Bloom as Rebecca Bunch in "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." (Photo/Eddy Chen-The CW)

Q&A: Samantha Pickette on Rhoda, Midge, Susie and ‘Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman’

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One of the topics we discuss regularly on “The Bagel Report” is how Jewish women are portrayed on TV. We were thrilled to speak with Samantha Pickette, author of “Peak TV’s Unapologetic Jewish Woman: Exploring Jewish Female Representation and Contemporary Television Comedy,” for our latest episode. The conversation touched on the origins of the Jewish Mother and Jewish American Princess stereotypes, the reasons there are more fully fleshed-out Jewish female characters on TV today, and the blindspots that still exist.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Listen to the complete episode here.

The Bagels: Was there a moment for you where you felt represented on screen? What was that like?

Samantha Pickette
Samantha Pickette

Samantha Pickette: When I first watched “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and discovered Rhoda Morgenstern [played by Valerie Harper] — and, obviously, this was decades after the show actually was on — I really loved her character. And I loved how we were supposed to relate to her even though she was less all-American and less [put]-together and less perfect than Mary was. She was this sort of loud Jewish woman who was really opinionated and funny and kind of earthy, and we were supposed to see ourselves in her. Encountering that was very special.

This idea of the unapologetic Jewish woman, where do you think that originates? Historically, when did Jewish women start to come into their own as fully fleshed-out or nuanced characters?

We haven’t had a great time of it in terms of TV and popular culture. I feel like fully fleshed-out Jewish female characters are fewer and further between than they should be. I think that in terms of a great proliferation of strong, nuanced, well-rounded Jewish female characters, it’s really within the past decade or so.

Part of that has to do with how TV is changing, and the fact that we have sort of moved on from traditional network and cable models that limit the number of series and who can be making series and just the way that streaming television works. And so with that, there’s so much more opportunity for Jewish female showrunners to actually create shows that allow for them to tell their own stories.

Within the past decade, you see series that are created by people like Rachel Bloom, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, Amy Sherman Palladino. There are so many Jewish women who are taking the lead in creating really smart, really funny, Jewish-centric series that put Jewish women at the center of the stories, and don’t do the stereotype thing as much because they don’t necessarily need to appeal to a mainstream audience. They can just appeal to the people who want to watch the series.

How have TV’s Jewish characters evolved?

The origin of both the Jewish Mother and the Jewish American Princess stereotype comes from the post-war era when American Jews are largely suburbanizing and they’re trying to basically become white. One of the things that is really exciting about contemporary television, and really contemporary pop culture in general, is we seem to be entering a stage where Jewish representation is much less assimilation-minded and instead is much more about representing Jewishness as it is, and Jewish practice and identity as it is.

One of the ways that this happens is in the adding of cultural specificity to the depiction of secular Jews. Before the streaming revolution happened, [Jewish characters] would only be Jewish for a very special episode where a character celebrates Hanukkah or Chrismukkah, or somebody experiences antisemitism. And I feel like what’s happening now is you have a much deeper sense of Jewish engagement.

Tony Shalhoub with Rachel Brosnahan in season 3 of "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." (Photo/Amazon Studios)
Tony Shalhoub with Rachel Brosnahan in season 3 of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” (Photo/Amazon Studios)

[In] “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” they’re not a religious family by any stretch of the imagination, but over the course of the series, we see them celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At one point, one of the characters fasts for Tisha B’Av. There’s so much more cultural specificity — mezuzahs on the doorposts — things that are both pertinent to the plot and in the set dressing, where it’s just like, if you’re Jewish, and you’re watching these shows, you see your experiences reflected back at you much more so than you would have in something like “Friends,” for example, where three out of the six main characters are Jewish, and yet it’s basically never mentioned.

Are there different types of unapologetic women? And how much unapologetic-ness comes from white and/or financial privilege?

One of the things that’s so striking about Jewish female representation on television now is it’s so diverse in terms of what these characters can do. Characters like Abbi and Ilana, or Julie Klausner’s character on “Difficult People,” are much more unapologetic in the sense that they don’t struggle with the same kinds of insecurities as a character like Rebecca Bunch [on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”], for example, who, even though she defies a lot of stereotypes, she also sort of reads herself through the lens of the same stereotypes.

In terms of the second part of your question, one of the limitations of contemporary Jewish female representation, and really just contemporary Jewish representation in general, is that we’re still very much confining Jewishness to this very specific upper middle class, white, East Coast kind of identity. Even though there’s more diversity in terms of representational patterns that defy stereotypes, there’s not a lot of diversity in terms of where people come from, what kind of background they come from, what they look like and who they are.

That’s something that I’m hoping can be the next stage of developing the unapologetic Jewish woman: building on the fact that we’re no longer confined to everybody being like either a Fran Drescher type or a Rachel Green type and moving on to something that’s a little bit more human, nuanced, and relatable and round, but also doing that in a way that reflects the fact that not all Jewish women look, act and talk the same way and come from the same places.

How much of the time are unapologetic Jewish women played by Jewish actors?

There are a lot of characters that I talk about in the book who aren’t played by Jews. Lily Tomlin’s character on “Grace and Frankie” is such an incredible reformation of the Jewish mother … but Lily Tomlin is not Jewish. Rachel Brosnahan, who plays Midge Maisel, famously isn’t Jewish. It seems to me that the characters who are played by Jews tend to be from series where the showrunners actually just play themselves or play the protagonists.

On “Glee,” Lea Michele, who’s not Jewish, played a Jewish American Princess character and Dianna Agron, who is Jewish in real life played a very stereotypical sort of shiksa cheerleader type, and she played that same sort of character again in “Shiva Baby.” And so I think that we are in a weird moment where even as we’re developing characters who defy stereotypes, we’re still sometimes confining ourselves to stereotypes of like, these people can be accepted as Jews because they have features or mannerisms or accents or whatever that communicate that, and so it doesn’t really matter if that portrayal is authentic.

On “Maisel,” Midge doesn’t have any Jewish friends that she likes, and on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Rebecca’s best friends are not Jewish. It’s like in order to be successful, Jewish women can’t be in a place where they’re competing against each other. Why is that?

Jewish female spaces are always spaces that are contentious and dangerous, and the Jewish woman has to find non-Jewish female spaces in order to find comfort and support and love and female friendship. It’s really strange, and it’s one of the things that drives me crazy about both of the series.

Even as Rebecca and Midge are such groundbreaking Jewish female characters, I think both series ultimately feed into the idea that there are good Jews and bad Jews, and the good Jews are less Jewish, and the bad Jews are more visibly Jewish, and what’s considered Jewish is inherently negative. It’s one of the reasons why I love “Broad City” so much because it does all of the same character building as “Maisel” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” but it does it without any of the shame.

A “Bagel Report” listener asks: Which Jewish characters have set us back? What do you think of Larry David’s approach to Jewish women, for instance, Susie Greene?

I love Susie Essman [who plays Susie Greene on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”], but I can’t stand the portrayal of Susie Greene. If I was a Jewish man, I would be able to watch that show without even giving it a second thought. But as a Jewish woman, every time Susie comes on screen, I laugh because it’s Susie Essman and she’s amazing and she’s funny, but I also cringe because I know that everything that she’s communicating and embodying is just everything that we don’t need people to attribute to Jewish women anymore.

Erin Ben-Moche and Esther D. Kustanowitz
The Bagels

Erin Ben-Moche and Esther D. Kustanowitz are the hosts of The Bagel Report, an award-winning podcast about Jewish representation and identity in pop culture, produced by J. The Jewish News of Northern California in partnership with Jewfolk, Inc. New episodes are available on (most) Mondays on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.