"Ghost World": Flawed Portrayals of Flawed Jewish Women
Recently, I watched Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, Ghost World, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ 1995 comic about two rebellious teenage girls. I thought, What’s not to love?, and dove into the franchise. Yet after watching, I felt a bit confused—to say the least. When consuming media, I tend to struggle with how to react to difficult or contradictory characters: if they’re bad people, I shouldn't like them, should I? Simultaneously, we’ve been taught to root for these anti-hero characters, like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Rick from Rick and Morty. These men’s complexities, even their “bad sides,” are what make their shows renowned and worthy of a spot in the canon of commendable, nuanced art. So, why do I have such mixed feelings about the protagonists of Ghost World?
To give a bit of context, the franchise’s main characters, Enid Coleslaw (formerly Cohn) and Rebecca Doppelmeyer, are as exclusive as it gets. They’re the kind of people who deem themselves to be above everyone else, and so choose to spend their time “going out of their way to make everyone uncomfortable, just to make fun of them.” Over the course of the movie and the comic, the characters say some truly horrible things about a lot of people. That is to say, these protagonists are pretty undeniably unlikeable.
In particular, Enid and Rebecca are hypercritical of other women. To me, however, it seems like Enid weaponizes other women’s identities against them because her own identity is often under attack. This is evident through interactions with the character of John Ellis, an acquaintance of the girls, who comes up frequently in the comic. In every conversation between him and Enid, he uses her Jewish identity as an insult. Enid seems to feel powerless when John Ellis says things like, “I always knew you were a Jew,” or when he calls her a “little liberal Jewish girl.” These demeaning usages of the word “Jew” feel alarmingly reminiscent of my own experiences with casual antisemitism. Watching Enid and John interact reminds me of when I’ve sat in a cafeteria and heard the word thrown around as an insult, or passed a synagogue while on my school bus and overheard a classmate say “Shabbat Shalom” in a derogatory way.
While I don’t condone Enid’s cruel actions towards other women—weaponizing others’ femininity because she feels attacked because of her own Jewish womanhood—I understand her anger. In the instances of “casual” antisemitism I’ve encountered (evidently, no form of oppression is casual, as in it should be taken seriously, but rather some forms of prejudice are so normalized that we perceive them this way), I said nothing, despite the rage I felt inside. Enid, though, has the ability to express that rage—and I admire her for that. In one part of the comic, Enid responds to John Ellis’s antisemitism by saying, “We Jews are sick of you non-Jews fucking up the world.” Enid’s comment doesn't try to exempt Jews from the accountability that comes with any harm individuals have enacted, but rather is the proof of her anger. When I think back on this scene, I’m proud to identify with Enid. Her ability to rebut this predator is admirable and, for a second, I forget all the bones I have to pick with her. In the end, all of Enid’s relationships have to do with power. Since she has been so without it in her relationships with men such as John Ellis, she takes it out on all the women around her, including her supposed best friend, Rebecca.
There is power in her anger and in the rage of Jewish women in general—for it can be harnessed into the creation of social movements, serve as catharsis for centuries of generational trauma as well as the harm of patriarchy, and can become a wave of connection and affinity for like-minded women, who are just fed-up.
And I can't help but wonder: If Tony Soprano can get away with calling his mother “a demented old bat” and cheating on his wife, why is it that I’m criticizing one of the only female anti-heroes out there instead of criticizing him and the other men of the genre? Just because the criticism Enid spews is coming from a woman, doesn’t make it better. Should she, this fictional girl, be setting a smarter example, or should we as female viewers and readers expect less, seeing as Enid was, quite literally, written by a man.
Enid makes her comment in response to an accusation by John Ellis: “You Jews are such an angry bunch.” Wonder where he got that idea? Maybe partially from media just like this comic, in which Jewish women are portrayed as bullying and hyper-critical of one another. And why is it that Jewish women in particular are always shown putting other women down? (Rose Weissman’s judgment of her daughter in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Shoshana’s shaming of her peers in Girls, among others.) At the end of the day, Clowes and Zwigoff are two men who profited off of their fictionalized portrayal of Jewish women cat-fighting. Conflict is inevitable, in life and in story-based art, but this conflict doesn’t serve as a nuanced take or a means of plot progression; rather, it serves as an intentional caricature of Jewish women. Ghost World is satirical, but is that fact enough to excuse the writing of these characters?
Maybe Ghost World wasn’t everything I wanted it to be in terms of dark-humored female friendships, but despite some of my issues with the film and comic, I would so much rather think critically about these women’s faults in an analytical, open-minded way than subscribe to common, shallow vision of womanhood and female relationships.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Waldorf, Lucy. ""Ghost World": Flawed Portrayals of Flawed Jewish Women." 10 June 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 28, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/ghost-world-flawed-portrayals-flawed-jewish-women>.