I saw an Off-Broadway show called bare: A Pop Opera over the break. As a sort-of-racy pop opera, it’s been touted as Spring Awakening’s second coming and has garnered an impressive cult following, particularly among theatre students at Northwestern.
Its story is simple: Two gay teenagers – one closeted, one not – fall in love at a Catholic boarding school, and though their relationship is depicted with remarkable honesty, the rest proceeds exactly as one might imagine. There’s an outing. There’s a goth girl. There’s an accidental pregnancy. And amidst all these teenage archetypes, there’s a Jewish boy.
His name is Alan. His entrance is funny – the writers capitalize on the humor of his enrollment in Catholic school with a sarcastic quip about fearing the New Testament. Alan seems like a cool dude. All we know is that he’s Jewish, but we figure that he’ll be fleshed out as the show progresses.
Over the course of the showing, as Alan continued to crack joke after joke at the expense of his Jewish heritage, I grew uncomfortable because he never uttered a word about anything else. By curtain call, I knew no more about this boy than I did at the show’s beginning. He’s a one-dimensional character with ethnicity as his only attribute. Most anyone today could recognize the problem with this type of portrayal, so why did this particular role seem so oddly normal?
bare goes out of its way to ensure that its cast is diverse. Featured in it are two black actors, an Asian and a Latino, and none of their roles call for a particular background. Each part could’ve been played by anyone. The only character whose heritage is touched upon is Alan – but for him, the script touches upon virtually nothing else. We’re supposed to laugh at his Jew-centric zingers.
I lost the ability to laugh after a while.
The two friends I saw bare with were not Jewish and did not notice anything strange about Alan. I doubt that I would’ve either if I weren’t Jewish myself. The nondescript nature of Alan’s total ethnic categorization is precisely why I find such a role to be so insidious. If a Hispanic character’s only demonstrated trait were that he was Hispanic, it’d be unacceptable – and rightfully so. Why, then, does a Jewish character constitute exception?
I grew up in a town in which the Jewish population came closer to a majority than a minority. Though I’ve never been religious and am quick to make fun of my heritage – I might be photogenic with a different nose and could ramble on for hours about the blessing and affliction of Jewish mothers – there are limits to my self-deprecation. Cultural Judaism is a component of the fabric that makes up my identity. It’s not the whole thing. To treat even a Hasidic Jew as nothing more than the sum of their religion is a grotesque misjudgment. There’s not a human being in this world who can be categorized so easily.
Jews certainly aren’t the only ones whose ethnicity seems incapable of subtle consideration. For example, when was the last time that a Native American character’s background was irrelevant? Unlike Native Americans, however, Jews are generally Caucasian, which means that any Jewish character must have been so designated deliberately. A character can never just happen to be Jewish, because there is almost always a motive behind the inclusion of a Judaic background. Under most narrative circumstances, it’s hard not to wonder what the point of a Jewish character is at all. On the flip-side, would anyone really advocate that Judaism be removed from the creative equation?
Given the difficulty of rendering a character Jewish in any subtle fashion, I’m willing to give writers and directors some leeway on the matter. Situations like the one in bare, however, remain frightening. Jews have been marginalized throughout history, and even in today’s more enlightened creative climate, our entertainment still runs the risk of further isolating a group that, while resembling a white majority, adds up to a cultural minority. There’s a fine line between wit and a sort of socially acceptable bigotry, and I think it’s emphatically important not to forget where that line is drawn.
Granted, there are reasons to remain hopeful. I’ve encountered little to none of this ethnic oversimplification during my time at Northwestern – so far. It’s encouraging that a school with two Jewish organizations and a president named Morty Schapiro is pumping so many fresh minds into the entertainment industry. Quality television’s not so far behind either. On Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan turned the stereotype on itself: Seedy lawyer Saul Goodman’s last name is actually McGill.
“The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys,” he explained. “They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe.” Shows like Breaking Bad help me stay optimistic in the face of some deeply disconcerting depictions of my people.
I can only hope that media audiences, meanwhile, are smarter than the homeboys.