Glee and the myth of the 'nice Jewish girl'
The show that is characterizing the American high school experience is no longer Beverly Hills 90210. It is not One Tree Hill, The OC, Dawson’s Creek, or any other television series that is comprised of a homogeneous group of blonde, white, and religiously hush-hush teenagers whose differences are minimized for the sake of a cohesive social hierarchy.
No – what is representing my generation’s high school experience is Glee, the show that gives the misfits a voice and a small Ohio suburb a plethora of cultures. And yes, even Judaism is included in this model society that tries to assimilate even those who do not fit neatly into the niches provided.
There are two Jews in William McKinley High School’s glee club: Puck and Rachel, who Leah Berkenwald discussed in this earlier blog post. We know Rachel is Jewish from the first episode. She has two dads, had a Bat Mitzvah, perpetually compares herself to Barbara Streisand, and looks like the total Ashkenazi-American stereotype (pale, brunette, preppy). As for Puck, we do not know of his Jewishness until he and his family are sitting down to a TV Rosh Hashana dinner, watching Schindler’s List. During this Holocaust horror, Puck has a revelation – he must fall in love with (or, in a high school lexicon, hook up with) a Jewish girl. And this is Ohio so he only has one feasible option: Rachel.
Let’s keep in mind that before this fateful Rosh Hashana and the incredibly weird inspiration for faith-based hook ups that is Schindler’s List, Puck and Rachel had no interest in each other. Actually, Puck is the biological father of Protestant debutante Quin’s unborn child and Rachel is trying to seduce Quin’s Christian boyfriend. The sole reason why Puck begins to pursue Rachel is because Rachel is the “nice Jewish girl” his mother would approve of, that his hyper-assimilated faith-based life would condone. Forget about her personality, fabulous talent, and diva-esque glee club leadership skills. She’s a “woman of the tribe” and that’s apparently all that should matter.
Associated Content has some “Reasons to Support Rachel and Puck as a Couple on Glee." One gives voice to my critique:
“Who didn't love Puck when he serenaded her with Sweet Caroline? As Puck explained, ‘we're just a couple of good-looking Jews. It's natural!’ This is not to suggest that they should date solely on the basis of their common faith. Still, it doesn't hurt that Puck's Jewish mother would be so pleased to see her son with a 'nice Jewish girl.'”
But here’s the thing – is it natural to hook up with someone on the sole basis of their faith? Is it not demeaning to Rachel for Puck to fake attraction for her simply because she is Jewish? And it’s not just Rachel and Puck I’m talking about here – it’s the stereotype of the “nice Jewish girl,” perpetuated through popular shirts and doting grandparents. And trust me – if you watch ten minutes of Glee, you will see that Rachel may be Jewish, but she is not so “nice.”
Shira Engel is a New York City high school student and Jewish feminist who blogs at from the rib.