“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” reveals how, even in 21st-century America, these stereotyped portrayals of Jewish women remain ingrained in culture. Today, as the United States struggles to renegotiate social class, notions of belonging or “otherness,” and international politics, our popular entertainment shows how these same fears about race, religion and sexuality continue to funnel Jewish women into particular roles and comedic archetypes, never straying very far from their 19th-century counterparts. Modern-day American Jewish women performers and characters remain in the shadow of the “Beautiful Jewess,” demonstrating that assimilation into a larger national identity is never a given, but rather is dependent on the tides of popular opinion, able at any moment to swell in favor of or against religious and ethnic tolerance.
Beginning with the granting of civil rights to French Jews shortly after the Revolution of 1789, Jews received expanded benefits thanks to the rise of a liberal democracy. The government of the July Monarchy (1830-1848), for instance, established a new legal equality for Jews in 1831, extending financial support to rabbis, who received remuneration (though not full salaries) from the public treasury. Along with this initial state-sanctioned religious acceptance, Jews’ presence grew in French institutions and politics, exemplified in the artistic arena by the election of the Jewish composer Fromental Halévy to the prestigious Académie des Beaux-Arts.
Even so, intense debates surrounding these legal and social advances revealed the persistence — and growth — of anti-Semitism and social prejudices. With the rise of Jewish bourgeois elites (such as the Baron James Mayer de Rothschild, 1792-1868, and his wife, Betty, portrayed in many paintings as a paragon of Jewish beauty), worries about unbridled capitalism and industrialization were often channeled into suspicions against Jewish (and Protestant) manufacturers, merchants and bankers. By the 1840s, what historian Roger Berg has called “anti-capitalist anti-Semitism” had clearly surfaced.
In part to ease the integration of Jews into French political and social institutions, operas and ballets (akin to popular television entertainment today) began to feature the “Beautiful Jewess.” This character was typified by perceived sensuality, moral rectitude and abundant and unconditional familial love (often reflected by self-sacrifice to ensure the well-being of others). Works such as “La Juive” (1835), composed by Halévy, captivated audiences while featuring Jewish heroines (often of mixed religious heritage), drawing on literary sources from Shakespeare to Walter Scott.
During French colonial expansion in the decades that followed, the stereotyped Jewish woman’s luminous white skin, coupled with conspicuously nonwhite visual tropes (such as curly black hair and full lips), evoked her status as an imagined intermediary between North Africa and Europe. She was seen as both an exotic “other” and an almost assimilated member of French society — a passionate wife and idealized mother. French journalist Camille de Sainte-Croix summed up this attitude in 1889, when he admired a Jewish woman’s “ivory skin, deep eyes, red, full lips, and thick curly hair the color of blue ink,” as well as her “languid charm, the singular elegance of biblical women.”
But while the original intent of this typology had been to present the wholesome desirability of Jewish women to ease acceptance, with each successive decade, the depiction of Jewish women onstage inched from being one of irresistible beauty and relative purity to that of a dangerous femme fatale, typically embodied by the monstrous figure of “Salomé.” This princess’s infamous dance seduced her own father into murdering John the Baptist, providing her his head on a golden platter. The transformation of the “Beautiful Jewess” into a threatening figure reflected the shifting place of Jews in France and the rise of anti-Semitism.
Indeed, the opportunities Jewish French women had to carve out a national identity through popular entertainment proved to be fleeting. The Jewish woman ceased to be viewed as the biblical predecessor or matriarch of European civilization, and was increasingly sexualized, racialized and associated with the “other,” often evoked in ballets, for instance, as a despotic sultan’s vicious favorite, or a veiled belly dancer. Meanwhile, Jewish models in the visual arts (enormously popular from 1820 through 1850), were eventually superseded by Catholic Italian models, who were in turn subject to racial prejudice in comparison to the pale Parisienne. This shift, art historian Marie Lathers argues, “may be explained by the increasingly racialized discourse concerning Jews during the 1890s.”
In the 20th century, American Jews confronted fairly similar terrain to 19th-century France: Inclusion increased as the decades passed, but anti-Semitism remained a problem, one that is resurgent today. Given this landscape, it is perhaps unsurprising that today, Jewish American female comedians and performers often skirt the line between the archetype of the unruly, sexualized and ethnically marginalized Salomé and the assimilated and idealized Jewish woman. For instance, “Broad City’s” Ilana Wexler enumerates her sexual adventures to great comedic effect (proudly sporting her dark curls), while affectionately teasing her less outgoing counterpart Abbi Abrams for not looking quite “Jewish enough.”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” portrays a comic trailblazer for future Ilanas and Abbis, able to combine dirty jokes with her experiences of family life. (The show runs on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) Yet just as Midge faces the difficulty of melding her career and public persona with mid-20th-century American ideals of stay-at-home wife and mother, viewers might ask whether she can move beyond being one of the two dichotomous stereotypes, either an idealized paradigm of femininity or dangerously sexual. Mrs. Maisel attempts to navigate these stereotypes, freely referencing her pleasure in sexual encounters and her status as an object of physical desire, while also demonstrating in equal measure her intelligence, education and bourgeois social status (accompanied by impeccably refined fashion choices). Similarly, the show displays the elegant Upper West Side lifestyle, the family’s hard-earned status at the highest institutions of learning and social privilege, while acknowledging the Jewish religious and cultural background of their milieu.
Yet while Midge Maisel’s courageous foray into comedy liberates her from otherwise constraining bourgeois cultural norms, she also embodies Jewish American women figures’ exclusion from mainstream femininity (that is, a femininity associated with dominant culture and free from either stereotyped extreme), and showcases their lingering efforts to inhabit their position as a religious minority, at times racialized and sexualized within a larger national identity.