Why Do Non-Jewish Actresses Get All The Best Jewish Roles?
Recent groundbreaking films like Black Panther, Get Out, and Crazy Rich Asians have proven that films can be cast with non-white people and they can still rake in the dough. These aren’t perfect times, but the issues of inclusion and representation are at the forefront of casting conversations more than ever before. Hollywood is being called out on its racial and cultural insensitivities, and it’s responding in mostly appropriate ways. But there’s one area where I’m noticing a glaring blindspot: the actors playing ethnically Jewish female roles.
Felicity Jones playing Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex, Rachel Brosnahan playing The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Melissa McCarthy playing Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? I’ll be honest, I’m not finding verification that Lee Israel is Jewish, but I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the assumption. To be clear: I’m not criticizing any of these women’s performances. I am wondering, in an industry so filled with Jewish writers, producers, directors and executives, why are gentiles playing these Jewish female characters? Could they really not find anyone to cast?
We all know they could find someone. There are scads of talented Jewish women out there. Lizzy Caplan would have made a fabulous RBG. So the question is: Why did they choose to cast non-Jews? Is it because Ashkenazi Jews are so white now that we’re interchangeable with the white gentiles? Never mind the Holocaust and millennia of discrimination, we can let whoever play us on screen? Are we not an oppressed minority anymore? It’s true that white Jews benefit from white privilege, but we’re also subject to an increasing number of hate crimes. According to FBI statistics, only Black Americans experience more hate crimes than American Jews. And yeah, yeah, Judaism is a religion and anyone can play, but Ashkenazi Jews have a specific cultural and ethnic identity that isn’t interchangeable with the identity of other white people.
Having perused the creative teams behind the aforementioned projects, it seems certain that Jews contributed to the casting choices. Not every power broker and gatekeeper in the film industry is a Jew, but lots of them are. If Latinos and Asians and Indigenous People and Black folks are holding Hollywood up to a standard, why are the Jews in Hollywood not holding themselves up to the same standard for their own people? Especially with roles like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an icon of the Jewish community, and the entire cast of Mrs. Maisel, a show completely steeped in New York Ashkenazi Jewish culture. Lee Israel’s Jewishness may be incidental, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s and Midge Maisel’s definitely are not. So why are we leaving ourselves out of the representation conversation?
I suspect the answer involves a certain degree of self-loathing. Whether it’s coming from the actors, the producers, or both…I’m not sure.
There’s a long-lingering effort to obscure and hide Jewishness in actors. Historically, Ashkenazi Jews have rarely fit the Hollywood ideal of attractive. Here we are in 2019 and Jewish actors continue to change their names or use their middle names as last names. Gatekeepers still suggest plastic surgery to actors with unsuitable noses. As if trying to stay L.A. skinny weren’t already a full-time job. It makes me wonder: are Jewish actresses shying away from roles about Jewish characters? Are people not auditioning for these roles because they don’t want to be pigeonholed as Jewish, or are they not being considered because producers want someone with a more classic look?
Either way there’s an element of self-sabotage at play where Jews don’t hold themselves up to the same standard of representation as everyone else.
I suspect this issue won’t sort itself out easily. Jews have a historical penchant for justice and don’t like to be called insensitive, so I think Hollywood will start to get the hang of appropriate cultural representation as it pertains to everyone else. But confronting why the Jews in Hollywood aren’t casting Jews? That’s going to require self-examination and unpacking of the shame Jews have been made to feel about themselves. And that, I’m afraid, will take some time. And probably therapy.