The trouble with nice Jewish boys and girls
I recently got wind of the 2011 Nice Jewish Guys calendar, described thusly:
Firemen and Chipendales have had their spotlight long enough! This Nice Jewish Guys Calendar turns the spotlight on the underrated characteristic that pecs and tight buns can't deliver...niceness. The Nice Jewish Guys Calendar features a different mensch for every month of the calendar year. Meet Brian, whose favorite movie is Annie Hall, and Michael who doesn't look Jewish, but is.
Cute, although I'm guessing this calendar is more about making Jewish moms kvell than it is about making anyone swoon. This is far from the first time someone has capitalized on this idea; there have been plenty of examples when the Jewish community - and even those outside the Jewish community - collectively kvelled over a group of "nice Jewish boys." Most recently, I'm thinking of the Maccabeats Hanukkah video that went viral last December. The tune (Taio Cruz's "Dynamite") is certainly catchy, but the video's popularity was also a result of its "nice Jewish boy" appeal. I'm not sure why, but the "nice Jewish boy" thing has always felt a little strange to me - particularly because its reverse, the "nice Jewish girl," doesn't really parallel the "nice Jewish boy's" space in Jewish culture.
If a "nice Jewish boy" is a mensch, roughly defined as a "good person," is the "nice Jewish girl" a "menschette?" Jewish women, or girls, are much more likely to be categorized as JAPS (Jewish American Princesses) or "sultry, sexy Jewesses" than "nice Jewish girls." In fact, the only time you really hear people say the phrase "nice Jewish girl" is in the context of marriage, as in: "Isn't it time you found a nice Jewish girl and settled down?" or "Nice Jewish boy seeking nice Jewish girl for longterm commitment." As a result, the "nice" in "nice Jewish girl" seems to connote an old-fashoined sense of domesticity and traditionalism rather than mensch-hood and integrity.
Even if "nice Jewish girl" did mean the same thing as "nice Jewish boy," would we ever see them on a calendar? I don't imagine it would have the same appeal. After all, girls are expected to be nice. Jewish women receive recognition for their accomplishments, leadership, and sex appeal, but "being good" is merely status quo.
When talking about nice Jewish girls and nice Jewish boys, I can't help but notice hints of the "attractive and successful woman gets schlubby, slacker dude" phenomenon in pop culture. From Marge and Homer Simpson to Katherine Heigl and Seth Rogen in Knocked Up, we consistently see this double standard where amazing women are paired with "average guys," and are apparently lucky to be so. So, while we expect Jewish women to be smart, successful talented and sexy, Jewish men just need to be "nice."
It's also important to note that the "nice Jewish boy" stereotype may not be so great for Jewish men either. Jewish men are saddled with their own unflattering stereotypes, namely weakness and intellectual nerdiness, not to mention the lack of a hot bod and/or atheletic prowess. The fetishization of mensch-hood is one way to counteract that, I suppose, but it ultimately reinforces these stereotypes rather than challenge them.
While it seems sweet to kvell over nice Jewish boys, it also feels weird to champion traditionally stigmatizing stereotypes about Jewish men that are at odds with general American sensibilities about masculinity. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Jewish boys should abandon Jewish values of mensch-hood, or even that Jewish boys should conform to normative hyper-masculinity in American culture. I just think that Jewish boys should have the freedom to define manhood on their own terms, without feeling limited by the "nice Jewish boy" stereotype. Same goes for Jewish women defining womanhood free of the "nice Jewish girl" stereotype.
I'm curious to know how other people feel about "nice Jewish boys" and "nice Jewish girls." I asked people on Twitter and Facebook to do a word association and I'll compile and share their responses. I would like to hear yours too! What do you think of when you hear "nice Jewish boy" or "nice Jewish girl?"