The all-singing, all-dancing, Jewish girl on Glee
I have fallen head-over-heels in love with the new Fox series Glee. Often called the "anti-High School Musical," Glee is a series about a group of high school misfits who find their place in the unpopular Glee Club, featuring Rachel Berry -- a Jewish girl -- as the lead female character. The show uses all the usual high school stereotypes (cheerleaders, jocks, freaks, geeks, etc.), to create a deliciously witty and hilarious satire. The students of the Glee Club represent the standard marginalized groups you would find in a high school and it is led by, you guessed it, the strong-willed Jewish girl.
Glee never explicity states that Rachel Berry, played by Lea Michele, is Jewish, but I think it is safe to say she fits the mold. Rachel Berry is an outspoken, ambitious, academic overachiever, extremely talented in the performing arts and the target of the popular girls' bullying. She looks like the pretty girl from your Hebrew school class with long dark hair and, well, a bit of a schnoz.
Everytime a female Jewish character shows up in pop culture, I cannot help but enter into the "good for the Jews, bad for the Jews" line of analysis. At first, I was not so sure about Rachel Berry. Rachel is outspoken to the point of bossiness and just a little full of herself. She is, in effect, "that girl," the one who reminds the teacher he forgot to assign homework.
But Rachel's character flaws are countered by her courageous actions. In the pilot, Rachel Berry speaks out against the Glee Club's former creepy advisor for innapropriately caressing male students during rehearsal, resulting in his termination. In the first episode, she attends a Celibacy Club meeting in order to get closer to the boy she likes. (Feministing wrote about this scene here.) Fed up with a pointless activity, Rachel makes this speech:
Rachel: Did you know that most studies have demonstrated that celibacy doesn't work in high schools? Our hormones are driving us too crazy to abstain. The second we start telling ourselves that there's no room for compromise we act out. The only way to deal with teen sexuality is to be prepared. That's what contraception is for.
Cheerleader: Don't you dare mention the "C" word.
Rachel: You want to know a dirty little secret that none of them want you to know? Girls want sex just as much as guys do.
Male student: Is that accurate?
These actions are courageous, but it is in the second episode that Rachel Berry truly shows her chutzpah. In this episode, the Glee Club hires a ball-busting, big-shot choreographer. The choreographer shows up and kicks out the ugly, overweight, and disabled kids, giving the remaining students a list of things they need to work on. In Rachel's case, it's a nose job. (If you weren't convinced that Rachel was Jewish, this would seem to confirm it.)
When Rachel has to decide whether to stay or quit, she thinks for a moment and says, "Barbara Streisand." She then delivers an inspirational speech about how Barbara Streisand became a show-biz star without changing herself to fit traditional ideas of beauty. Her speech inspires the other misfits to think of role models who overcame their disabilities or perceived shortcomings. In the end, Rachel inspires the group to fire the choreographer and run Glee themselves.
I have decided that Rachel Berry, despite her bossiness, is a female Jewish character to be proud of. She follows in the tradition of so many Jewish women we know and love, with the courage to speak her mind, and the ability to lead and inspire change -- not to mention her talent in the performing arts. I cannot wait to see what she does next!
The following video is an interview with Lea Michele about Glee and the character of Rachel Berry. If you would like to see more of the show, check out the full trailer.