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How We Look on TV

Jewish women perceive themselves as “well-educated, intelligent, very giving and supportive of others.” In contrast, here are some other findings in a soon-to-be-released report from L.A. on how we’re doing in popular media such as television and films:

• We do not see ourselves as “beautiful or even attractive,” nor as “sensuous, playful or fun-loving.”

• The high incidence of television intermarriages reinforces our feelings of being “insignificant or passed over.”

• Jewish women envy non-Jewish counterparts for their physical beauty, their ability to attract many men, their athleticism and fun-loving spirit.

These findings are among those to be released this summer in a report of the Morning Star Commission, a group of high-profile producers, directors, agents, screenwriters, studio executives, authors, artists and two rabbis funded by Hadassah-Southern California to study the portrayal of Jewish women in film and television.

According to the study, which surveyed Southern California Jews and non-Jews, non-Jewish women saw the typical Jewish woman in a predominantly negative light, emphasizing prominent noses, Middle Eastern complexions and an inclination to be overweight. Jewish women described the portrayal of Jewish women on television as “pushy, controlling, selfish, unattractive, materialistic, high-maintenance, shallow, domineering. . . . They nag their husbands and spend all their time cooking or shopping,” is the commission’s summary. They also felt that Jewish women and men were depicted as cheap bargain-hunters.

In film, only three positive images of Jewish women emerged: Amy Irving, the beautiful heroine in “Crossing Delancey”; Bette Midler, the caring friend in “Beaches”; and Barbra Streisand, the supportive therapist in “Prince of Tides.” The only positive image of a Jewish woman on television, according to the Jewish men in the study, was Dharma of “Dharma & Greg”— because of her “non-Jewish appearance.”

Jewish men felt that Jewish women were “devoted mothers and very responsible,” but not particularly attractive. As one male participant said, “This is not to say that Jewish women are not beautiful because they are, but they’re usually not the tall, glamorous model types.”

“I was profoundly shaken when I saw the videotapes of the focus groups and actually heard and saw the disfigurement of who and what we [Jewish women] are,” responded Joan Hyler, Morning Star Commission chair and president of Hyler Management, a management and production company. (Hyler was designated by E! Entertainment Television as one of Hollywood’s most powerful women.)

With the first phase completed, commission founder and director Mara Fein hopes “to provide more information about authentic voices of Jewish women in order to ensure more varied and realistic depictions in film and popular culture.” The commission plans to distribute recommendations, and to provide awards, incentives, resources and sponsors for those who create positive portrayals of Jewish women.

But the question remains, can the commission really affect change? “The commission members and those on our Media Advisory Council are extremely powerful people in Hollywood,” notes Claudia Caplan, commission chair for research and the creative director at Mendelsohn-Zien Advertising. She’s right about the powerful part. The advisory group includes Ed Asner, Academy Awards producer Gil Gates, Paramount president and chair Sherry Lansing, CBS president Leslie Moonves, producer Lili Fini Zanuck, and Showtime president Jerry Offsay.

“We can’t expect change overnight, but we can expect more honesty and authenticity,” says Caplan. “We don’t want a distorted or beautiful mirror— just a real one.”

For more information about the Morning Star Commission, check its website at morningstaronline.org or hadassahsc.org or call (310) 659-5168.


Jewish Identity on the Small Screen

“There are a number of powerful women ‘in the closet,’ not only about being Jews but also about being members of Jewish organizations, like Hadassah,” comments Joan Hyler. “We have struggled so hard to come to our jobs that a denial of who we are is no longer acceptable.” Among the heavy hitters, many just out of the closet, who are sitting on the Morning Star Commission:

  • Gail Berman, producer of the hit television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”
  • Hope Boonshaft, senior vice president for External Affairs at Sony Entertainment
  • Robin Green, senior vice president at Castle Rock TV
  • Faye Kellerman, author
  • Nina Jacobson, executive vice president of production, Walt Disney Pictures
  • Arlene Sarner, screenwriter, “Peggy Sue Got Married”