Jewish Women and Reality TV
Talented Jewish women like Gilda Radner, Roseanne Barr, Gertrude Berg, and many others, have made a significant contribution to American culture through television. But where do Jewish women fit into our nation’s current obsession with reality TV? As I began to think about it, I was hard-pressed to come up with well-known examples of Jewish women on reality shows. After reading Jennifer Pozner’s thoughts on the new NBC reality show “More to Love,” I am convinced that the less Jewish women on reality TV, the better.
Pozner, who is currently working on a book entitled Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth Behind Guilty Pleasure TV, writes: ”When a constituency often marginalized in media is the subject of a reality show, that usually translates to gross objectification, reinforcement of egregious and outmoded gender, race, class and sexuality stereotypes, and as Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes at Feministing, “fetish spectacle.”
The majority of Jews who have participated in reality TV appear to be men. Adam Mesh, marketed as the “nice Jewish boy” of reality TV bachelors, first appeared as a contestant on “Average Joe” and then got his own spinoff, “Average Joe: Adam Returns.” There was also Jason Mesnick from “The Bachelor,” who is best known for leaving his fiancé for a different woman he had rejected earlier in the show. “Beauty and the Geek,” which teamed up ditzy, beautiful women with “geeky,” intelligent, and socially-awkward men, also featured some Jewish contestants (take a guess which category they occupied). “Beauty and the Geek” particularly reinforces the stereotype of Jewish men as weak, intellectual, “nebbishes.”
Representations of Jewish women are harder to come by. The most prominent example is, unfortunately, Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of New York.” This show follows the lives of six extremely wealthy women living in New York City. I am not sure how many of the women are Jewish, but Jill Zarin and Bethenny Frankel are definitely members of the Tribe. While almost all of the “housewives” do in fact work, they perpetuate the negative “Jewish American Princess” stereotype. Even the non-Jewish women on the show, in that light, “appear” Jewish.
I should also mention Bravo's "Millionaire Matchmaker," a reality show starring Patti Stranger, who discusses the tradition of Jewish matchmaking with Tamar Fox on Mixed Multitudes. Both "Millionaire Matchmaker" and "The Real Housewives of New York" feature extremely wealthy Jewish men and women, broadcasting a pretty clear image of what the reality TV industry, or at least Bravo, seems to think "Jewish" is.
Jennifer Pozner said it best when she wrote, “where reality TV is concerned, visibility is rarely a blessing.” The lack of women included in the NMAJH ‘Only in America’ poll reminds us of the work left to be done, but I think it is safe to say that reality TV is NOT an area where Jewish women need more representation.
In response to a US Magazine post about the “The Real Housewives of New York,” one anonymous commenter wrote: “Another season of watching a bunch of rude obnoxious Jewish ladies talk about each other? No thanks.” This statement is somewhat offensive in its own right, but nevertheless, I can relate. If having Jewish women on reality TV means suffering through more of the same tired, old stereotypes, I too say “no thanks.”
If you haven't seen "The Real Housewives," take a look at this interview in which Bethenny Frankel and Jill Zarin talk about how much they love "the drama." Don't miss the part where Bethenny calls Jill a "yenta."