On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 1998 / 24 Elul, 5758

Sherrill Kushner

According to a recent Hadassah study,
Jenna Elfman, Dharma, on the ABC sitcom,
is one of a select few that give Jewish women
a positive image on TV. Why? Because
she doesn't "look-Jewish."
Invasion of the J.A.P.s or "So the Jews control Hollywood, huh?"

JEWISH WOMEN PERCEIVE THEMSELVES as "well-educated, intelligent, very giving and supportive of others." In contrast, here are some other unsurprising findings from a recently released report on how we're doing in popular media such as television and films:

These findings are among those 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.

(Those non-Jewish participants were screened to include only those who had little or no contact with Jews and thus were more likely to receive their information about Jews primarily through the media.)

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, 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 not intellectually surprised at the findings of our study, but I was profoundly emotionally 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 to those who create these portrayals and to viewers as well. To encourage media policy- and decision-makers to respond to their recommendations, the commission hopes 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 aboput the powerful part. The advisory group includes Ed Asner, Gil Cates, producer of the Academy Awards, Paramount president and chair Sherry Lansing, Leslie Moonves, president of CBS, producer Lili Fini Zanuck, and Jerry Offsay, president of Showtime.

"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 America Online website at morningstaronline.org or hadassahsc.org or call (310) 659- 5168.

Sherrill Kushner is a lawyer and author.

Courtesy of Lilith Magazine. Lilith is available for $18 by e-mail at lilithmag@aol.com or through their website www.lilithmag.com.