Reflecting on Rachel Berry
“Mr. Schue, when I met you I was just an annoying Jewish girl with two gay dads and a very big dream. Today, I still have two dads, and I’m still Jewish, and I’m probably just as annoying.”
This is how Glee’s Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) begins her speech honoring glee club director Will Schuester (Matthew Morrison) in season 3, episode 21. The New Directions have just won the National Show Choir Championship, and many members of the club are about to graduate from high school. This speech leads into a rousing performance of We Are The Champions and tears—manly tears—glimmer in Will’s eyes. This is the moment the show intended for viewers to remember: a triumphant underdog team performing one of history’s most anthemic songs. But that’s not what stood out to me in this scene when the episode aired in 2012 and, seven years later, it’s not what moves me now.
Glee debuted in 2009, and the world hasn’t been the same since. No, really. It’s easy to look back on Glee as an after-school special drunk on its own campiness, whose legacy is marked by scandals and several real-world tragedies like the death of star Cory Monteith. But the Glee cast performed at the White House for President Obama. Glee had 207 songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100, three of which had longevity in the Top 10. And several shows since have tried (and mostly failed) to capture what made Glee a hit: that strange yet wonderful combination of camp, real-world drama, surreal-world drama, and just plain mess. I was thirteen when Glee hit the air, and I was obsessed.
Glee turns ten this year, and despite the recent online resurgence of jokes pondering if the series was just a crazy figment of our collective imagination, I still have some serious thoughts about the show. Glee’s main character was Rachel Berry, introduced in the pilot as an overachiever who is unable to attain the one thing she secretly wants: popularity. She’s a mixed bag of contradictions: She says she doesn’t care what others think of her (she absolutely does), she’ll do anything to be a star (except when it’s more beneficial to be a good friend), and she’s Jewish. Sometimes.
The show never seemed to decide exactly how to display or use her Jewishness. This same critique could be extended to resident cartoonish bad boy Noah “Puck” Puckerman (Mark Salling), but Rachel was the bigger victim of the writers’ general confusion surrounding her religious background. When Rachel and Puck’s storylines intersect, the reason for these characters coming together is almost always contrived: “We’re both hot Jews,” Puck says to Rachel at one point, trying to make a move. And for me, it never worked. It never made sense. I’ve been the only Jew in the room, hoping to find someone I’m supposed to have that innate connection with, so it should have been relatable to me. Maybe it would have been if Judaism and Jewishness weren’t played for laughs so often during the show’s six-year run.
In season 1, Jewishness is brought up the following times: when Rachel is introduced, when Puck’s mom cries over Schindler’s List (leading to his failed seduction of Rachel), and when Quinn complains that Puck’s mom won’t let her eat bacon. In season 2, episode 10, the show’s characters throw a tinsel-filled Christmas extravaganza. About a third of the way through the episode, Rachel gives love interest Finn a Christmas gift with the disclaimer “Being a Jew, I generally don’t give Christmas gifts, but…” However, this isn’t until after we’ve seen Rachel enthusiastically decorating a Christmas tree and singing carols with her friends, something I have never once done, having no connection to these Christmas traditions.
I have struggled to relate to characters that seem to be Jewish in name only, like Cher Horowitz of Clueless fame. Rachel Berry takes the cake, however, for characters who let impressionable, awkward thirteen-year-old Ilana down. It would have been so interesting and meaningful to hear her say “Actually, I’m not going to decorate a Christmas tree, that’s just not something I do,” or if we saw her exchange aspects of her own culture with classmates unfamiliar with Hanukkah traditions. Maybe it would’ve led to less stammering when I had to explain to friends in high school why I just didn’t feel comfortable partaking in activities that brought them so much excitement.
Moreover, Rachel’s Jewishness is most often brought up in similar contexts to the opening quote. “Jewish” seems to be either a synonymous or complementary adjective to “annoying” in Glee. It’s not an aspect of her character that enriches her, gives her a cultural background to draw upon, or adds any complexity to her motivations. Rather, it’s usually used to make a comparison between her and her idol, Barbra Streisand. The writers just occasionally pop in to remind us, in both her best and worst moments, that “Look! Our main character is Jewish. (Bet you forgot!)” It should be noted that 2/3 of Glee’s creators and main writers are not Jewish. This is not to say that I’m opposed to “Jewish jokes” on TV in all circumstances. I wholeheartedly believe they can be done well with the right intentions.
I consider Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the best Jewish representation on TV in the last few years. Bunch’s Jewishness makes up a huge part of her identity, but is never too sacred to be played for laughs. TV has come very far since Glee. We demand more from our shows now, especially in the representation they claim to showcase. While Glee set new standards from 2009-2015 for LGBTQ representation on television, we have much further to go when it comes to diversity on screen. It’s only a good thing to look to the road ahead and see how much better we could be.
How to cite this page
Diamant, Ilana. "Reflecting on Rachel Berry." 12 September 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 17, 2019) <https://jwa.org/blog/reflecting-rachel-berry>.