Episode 34: Emily Nussbaum Likes To Watch (Transcript)
Nahanni Rous: Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous. Can We Talk? explores gender, history and Jewish culture. On today’s show Emily Nussbaum talks about portrayals of Jewish women on television. Emily is the television critic for The New Yorker. She’s also the author of I Like To Watch, Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution, a compilation of her essays about television in the era of “peak TV.” This is the second in our three-part series of author interviews this fall. Emily Nussbaum won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for her criticism. She says these days she’s been thinking a lot about her own connection to television.
Emily Nussbaum: This has been a period when I found myself looking back on my whole life and trying to figure out where my tastes and values were formed, and also wrestling as a critic, with this question of like, what do I do with this art?
Nahanni: Emily has written about shows like The Sopranos, Sex and The City, Breaking Bad, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which she famously did not like. She told JWA Executive Director Judith Rosenbaum that there are much better shows to watch that feature the Jewish experience. And here’s Judith, to introduce her interview with Emily Nussbaum.
[Theme music fades]
Nahanni: Hi Judith!
Judith Rosenbaum: Hi Nahanni!
Nahanni: Judith, we’ll get to your interview with Emily in a minute. Can you give us a preview of some of the shows you and Emily talked about?
Judith: briefly list a few and specify their Jewish characters… Oh, so many! We talked about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent, Broad City…
Nahanni: What’s the landscape like now for female Jewish characters on TV, and how has it changed?
Judith: There is so much interesting, complex Jewishness on tv right now, which is exciting. Gone are the days of characters who are only ambiguously Jewish or coded Jewish, like Rachel Green on Friends, or Elaine Bennis on Seinfeld. There’s really a lot more diversity, more specificity, and with that, maybe less stereotyping.
Nahanni: Alright, let’s listen to your interview with Emily Nussbaum!
Judith: Emily Nussbaum welcome to Can We Talk?, we are so thrilled to have you on our show!
Emily Nussbaum: Thanks for having me.
Judith: You have just published a new book called I Like to Watch, and I have to tell you I totally binged it, if you can say that about about a book. It was one of those, you know, I kept saying one more essay one more essay, and then found myself up in the middle of the night still reading. So let’s start at the beginning. You mentioned that you started out as a PhD candidate in literature, and I know that you were working on a dissertation about the actress/prostitute/Jewess in Victorian novels, I think. Did I get that right?
Emily: Yes, the overlapping categories of actress, Jewess and prostitute.
Judith: Definitely, I’m in the, you know, small group of people who would love to read that dissertation. But it occurs to me that in some ways that’s not that different from writing about some of the things you write about like performance of gender and identity on TV. It’s sort of a it’s a different medium, but it’s a similar kind of theme. But you say that in grad school you were kind of surrounded by, you know, men in glasses and sweater vests who saw books as superior to TV and sacred in a different way. So did it feel transgressive to write about TV with the same kind of seriousness and level of interest and care that you used to bring to your academic study of Victorian novels?
Emily: Well, I think that was part of the pleasure of it. I mean, I think it’s complicated. It wasn’t only guys that looked down on TV, but as I talk about in the book. There definitely was this set of guys that I thought of as the sweater vests, that had this baked-in analysis of the entire medium as being degenerate and commercial, which it is, and therefore not worthy of a serious discussion as art. So I don’t know whether I found it transgressive but I think it brought out a kind of bratty excited quality in me to make the argument, which is a great way to get into any kind of intellectual area. You know, honestly, it’s not such a bad thing to have a little bit of a chip on
your shoulder. It definitely carries people through. I mean essentially I wasn’t interested in writing criticism, I was interested in writing about TV, and it ended up being a good move because the last 20 years have marked an incredibly vibrant period for the medium.
Judith: So I’d love to talk about a few of the different shows that you write about. And I thought maybe we’d start with Sex and the City, which is a show that we have talked about actually on our podcast before. In our episode on Jewish hair, we talked about the coffee shop scene where Carrie compares her unruly self and hair to Barbra Streisand’s Katie in the movie The Way We Were.
[clip from Sex and the City] Oh, K-K-K-Katie, right...
Judith: And in an essay in your book you talk about Carrie Bradshaw as a kind of female anti-hero. Can you talk to me a little bit about how you arrived at that conclusion?
Emily: Well, the anti-hero part of it is something that is really central to some of the arguments I make in the book, in a bunch of different ways. I mean, I talk about the whole set of powerful male antihero dramas and how much they shape TV, especially at the beginning of the century. And I’m not against those shows. I like a lot of those shows. But I have been frustrated by the way they’ve dominated TV discussion and essentially been perpetually presented as the top of the top 10 list. And one of the ways that Sex and the City was treated was as a guilty pleasure, as something that was junkie. And one of the things that I feel like people didn’t do with the show is talk about the craft of that show. And you can talk about that in all sorts of different ways. I mean it’s a very stylized show, it’s a funny half-hour show. But it has all of these, to me, beautifully designed elements to it that get across interesting theories. The characters change over time. But Carrie was always one of the most upsetting elements of the show. And I think that is because a lot of women are used to things that have rom-com DNA in them being designed for them to identify with and to feel lifted up by. And so people would criticize Carrie when she acted poorly or selfishly or when she made people anxious as though that wasn’t deliberate in the show, like somehow the character had to be a good role model to women. And to me, the value of that show was specifically because Carrie was designed as an upsetting mirror for women watching it. Like her neediness, her weirdness about sex, about friendships, and all that kind of stuff was part of the reason that show is a break-through show for me. To me an antihero, and you know people can define this in different ways, is basically someone who does bad things at times but the audience feels both connected to the person and mirrored by them in an unsettling way, like there are sort of a cathartic reflection of the viewer. And I think that’s very true with Carrie. People would watch it, and instead of being able to say, oh me too, you go girl, they would actually feel like unsettled and made queasy, kind of, by her behavior, which was sort of bad behavior in specific feminine ways like, you know, neediness and clinginess and talking too much about her boyfriend and then cheating on her boyfriend and all these kinds of things. I mean, I basically think the character was often misread as though she was supposed to be a blueprint for women. And that’s the beginning I think of a long period on TV of characters that similarly created anxious reactions In their audience, especially female viewers who had been trained to, like, judge the main character if she didn’t behave in a way that was like a good blueprint for other women watching the show. Which is to me, you know, it’s a misunderstanding of art and comedy and all this stuff. But luckily Carrie’s not alone in this. I mean, there were shows from dramas like Homeland to you know, the Mindy Kaling show and I mean I could name a million shows that have characters that have this kind of twisty complex relationship with the audience because of their misbehavior, and I feel like Sex and the City is one of the shows that helped to open the door for that.
Judith: But we have to talk about the end of the show, right? Where Carrie reunites with Mr. Big who, I love the way you described him as “woven out of red flags.” And you talk about how you felt that that showed a failure of imagination on the part of the writers, and I loved the way you frame this in the language of the show, if I can quote from your essay, you wrote, “and I can’t help but wonder what would the show look like without that finale? What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her 30s, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged finally, surrounded by her friends? Who would Carrie be then? It’s an interesting question, one that shouldn’t erase the shows powerful legacy. We’ll just have to wait for another show to answer it.” So do you think that there’s been another show that has answered that? Are women finally allowed to have the same kinds of complicated endings that are not only marriage plots?
Emily: Yeah. I actually think there have been shows that did that in various different ways. I think there’s been a real shift in wha’s allowable. I mean, I’m actually thinking about what shows ended in a very different way. I mean Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is a very different kind of show, but an excellent show, ended.
Judith: I love that show.
Emily: Yes, fantastic. If we’re going to talk about Jewish TV stuff I’ve written down a list. That’s prime on it. It’s not just about Carrie ending up with Big. It’s about her boss’s misery as a single woman. It’s about Big’s ex-wife and her kind of fumes of unhappy divorce. Like, the show just didn’t have the capacity quite to imagine a woman in her 40s, 50s and 60s who was satisfied with her choices and who was not with a man. What I’m actually thinking of is not about shows that have happier and happy endings or end up with women who don’t end up with their boyfriend or something, but shows that actually show the full range of older women, which is essentially what that final part was about. I mean, it was about Carrie entering her 40s, New York turning into winter, and her feeling the chill of ending up alone. The argument the people who made that show, including Sarah Jessica Parker, made for that ending was straightforwardly like that’s what Carrie wants. She is a person who is kind of obsessed with romance and would want to be with somebody. But the problem with the ending is that there is no way Big would change that way. Like it’s just I mean, I do think it sends a bad message. But you know, like they had an episode which was the natural ending for their relationship when he has a heart attack and she goes to him as a candy striper and she realizes like there are these moments that his heart opens and then they disappear and she just can’t wait around. Like, that was the real ending of the show.
[clip from Sex and the City] It was a shift imperceptible to anyone but me…
Judith: This theme about sort of aging and representation on TV makes me think of course of Joan Rivers.
Judith: Who, frankly, I first encountered in her days on the red carpet and was sort of like who is this creature and then of course learned so much more about her history and came to appreciate her in a different way, and we’ve obviously memorialized her in some way with the name of our show, Can We Talk?, which was her catchphrase. And she’s also featured in a documentary that JWA made called Making Trouble about Jewish women comedians. And I learned so much from that about her history and her trajectory and and the complications of her work, which you write about so beautifully in your book. So for people who don’t know Joan Rivers in her fullness, can you talk a little bit about what you find complicated about her?
Emily: Well, I like you, first came upon her on TV, essentially insulting Kate Winslet’s arms at the Oscars when she won the Oscar for Titanic. Like, I’d also I’d seen her before because you know, she was on late night talk shows and she was fascinating because she was so vibrant and often genuinely funny, but she was terrifying to me because she really did seem like the body cop for the world. And I didn’t know that much about her history, I just knew that she was the most famous female stand-up comedian. And in the 80s and 90s, I was very interested in pretty much any woman doing stand-up comedy and she was the number one person who was out there. And you know, I had all sorts of complicated feelings toward her, ranging from fear to fascination to seeing her as a role model to being slightly disgusted by her. And also she was a very public Jewish woman as well. Like, you know, that was what a lot of her routine was about. When she died and she always said this about herself and she was like “When I die, everybody will think I was a saint.” Like, you know, which was true. And there were a lot of memorialization of her that celebrated things that are genuinely true about her including her being a like spearheading, you know, basically before there were famous female comedians, making her career kind of against the tide being an incredibly hard worker, all the way back to when things were very difficult for her. But a lot of those left out to me the kind of misogyny in her comedy that was key to why
people found her funny and why she was powerful and so when I wrote this essay, a lot of it was about working through those conflicted feelings that I had. And it was wonderful going back and reading her early books and watching a lot of her routines on TV, and her whole thing was about self-loathing
[Joan Rivers clip] Bodies drop, that’s another thing… If I were not wearing a bra...
Emily: And this is big history for female comedy in general is a woman on stage going this which we literally do just gag at her own body. But of course she was a very cute young blond in a black cocktail dress with pearls, which was the whole powerful shtick of it. Like even if a girl, Even like this like some nice uptown girl can’t get laid, can’t get married, can’t get a date… like, the world is this hideous war between men and women. And there was some truth to that that she was plugging into and that people wanted to laugh at and that was very taboo. But I feel like her act changed a lot over time and I do feel like people are pretty willing to erase the large part of her career that was about calling Liz Taylor fat, which is when I came upon her and you know, I think that you can't string these things apart and decide to separate the part that’s about rebelliousness and hard work and ignore the part that’s about the appeal of female self-hate. So that’s part of what I tried to write about in this piece.
Judith: Yeah, I mean there’s so much ambivalence in her. I mean, and I think even the... you can see such a through line from her early work as you’re talking about the way that she tried to sort of embody that... turn the JAP in on herself and the way that she used plastic surgery, right?
Emily: Yes. I mean her message was don’t listen to people who talk about inner beauty, about men and women caring for one another. This is how the world works: like men have power and if you want to get into the circle of power, you better get yourself to look hot, other women are your competition and you know, this is my ugly real politic. But she intended it as a generous bit of advice.
[Joan Rivers clip] Look good, look good, look good.
Judith: So maybe it makes sense to transition into talking about Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Emily Nussbaum: Okay.
Judith: Which obviously is a show that borrows quite a bit from Joan Rivers’ life story, although places it in a different time period and there are lots of things that are different as well. And you famously dislike the show, and you write about how that sort of surprised you that you know, you talk about how this, how the show was I think you say “it had a premise that was so far up my alley it was practically chopping onions in my kitchen. A Jewish girl does stand-up comedy in the late 1950s in New York when Joan Rivers first rose to fame.” So tell us a little bit about why the show doesn’t work for you. And and also what it’s like when a show that you want to like lets you down.
Emily: Well, I will say that in the first season of Mrs. Maisel, I was put off by the show, but I didn’t write about it because people were just embracing it that show had amazing timing. That show came out post Trump and people really were seeking a beautiful candied escape and the show is aspirational and positive and presents her as this kind of thrilling hero-on-the-rise who doesn’t suffer any self-doubt whatsoever and not a lot in her way and is received and applauded. It’s also gorgeous. I mean, I have a variety of problems with it. But one of them is that I am not saying it is literally Joan Rivers, but she has so many similarities and it’s in the same period that it’s impossible to miss the parallels, including the fact that she makes her brand off dressing in a
little black dress with pearls and being like a nice, rich Jewish uptown girl in these dirty downtown clubs and doing a thing about you know her life. And actually Joan Rivers also had an early starter marriage. So there were a bunch of different things. It’s not exactly the same story. But the main thing is that Mrs. Maisel does these routines, which I will say with one exception in the second season, I generally find weirdly unfunny. And I get very frustrated by shows that have super amped up success stories that are based on somebody’s talent, where the talent is not demonstrated on the screen. So that’s one frustration. The other thing is...
Judith: Right, or the process of learning how to do something.
Emily: Or the process of learning, like she immediately is this wunderkind that everybody adores, everybody thinks she’s beautiful, perfect. The other thing is that you know, as I said Joan Rivers, she made her bones on self-loathing because female self-loathing in that period was a natural response to an extremely screwed up economy of single female life and being married and women's looks and women’s bodies... all that stuff. The whole point of Mrs. Maisel is that she is a massive narcissist, although on the show it’s not presented as narcissism, it’s presented as ultra confidence earned by her super talents and she’s immediately beloved by everybody. When she does this kind of super dirty, truth-telling, “I’m gorgeous, anybody would want me, I’m amazing in bed. How could my husband leave me?”
[Clip from Mrs. Maisel] Imagine coming home to these every night.
Emily: It’s actually kind of the inverse of what Joan Rivers was doing because Joan Rivers whole thing was going I’m disgusting. Now in reality, that’s what appealed to people because it actually had this sort of powerful quality. Mrs. Maisel is doing the opposite but people also just cheer and rave for her. She does her tight 10 in the shortest time of any stand-up comic ever. I don’t know. There are many reasons why the show irritated me. That was one. I will say there’s this other thing that I think is a little complicated, that has to do with the Jewishness of the show, which people seemed very excited by and weirdly in a lot of reviews or responses, to treat as this huge breakthrough like, “oh there’s this Jewish show showing a Jewish woman” and I’m like there were a ton of Jewish shows. Like, there are a lot of Jewish creators on TV, there are a lot of other shows that have Jewishness in them. And I found the Jewishness on the show, with some exceptions because there are parts of it that are interesting, to be really shticky, vaudevillian and in certain cases bordering on offensive. Like
especially Joel’s parents, who come from a relatively similar background to my family, where it’s like there’s a class distinction that’s not really well described in the show, but you know to anybody who’s from this background is familiar like sort of the German, educated, wealthy uptown Jews and the idea of like Polish Russian garmentos downtown. Joel’s parents are like anti-semitic stereotypes. They’re these course, gross, sort of shy story, you know, piggish sex-joke making uneducated boors.
[Clip from Mrs. Maisel] So the priest turns to the nun and says excuse me...
Emily: But anyway, I was very gratified when Andy Samberg made this weird joke at the Emmys where he’s like, I’m not saying he got this from my piece, but he made a joke like: Mrs. Maisel, the show that makes you say “Is that anti-Semitic?” So anyway, it’s arguable. I think people can come from all sorts of different positions on this. We could talk about a million shows because it really is like a broad range of of TV shows by
Jewish creators with different perspectives on Jewishness, many of them by and about women.
Judith: Yeah, so what are some of your favorites, because that’s what I would I would love to hear that and sort of what are the alternatives that are a little bit more satisfying.
Emily: Well the big ones for me and a lot of these have recently ended so I’m in mourning. But you know Broad City was a fantastic show a very decisive...
Judith: I was surprised you didn’t have an essay on that in the book. I kept looking at got to the end of the book and I was like, wait a second. Did I miss the piece on Broad City?
Emily: It was originally in the book but I literally just couldn’t include every essay but I sort of wish that I could have included it because it is one of the most important shows to me and in that I also talked about. I don’t know whether I talk so much about the Jewishness of the show, but I talked about the particular style of positive humor on the show and and man, there are few shows that I felt like had such sort of Jewish specificity. I also love Transparent very much and very different kind of show but Transparent, created by Jill Soloway. I remember watching the first episode and I was, like, “Oh my God, like it’s like they’re making Holocaust jokes.” It’s this specific kind of LA family from a specific background, has a particular dark sense of humor. The way in which their sexuality, the dysfunction within their family, some of the relationship of it to the Holocaust background with the family that ends up getting pulled out later. I felt was very powerful and idiosyncratic and you know, that’s another show that I would name. And then Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which is this musical, and literally had the the JAP rap battle.
[Clip from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend]
Judith: That was one of my favorite scenes.
Emily Nussbaum: …Remember How We Suffered.
[Clip from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend]
Emily Nussbaum: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Transparent, and Broad City are extremely aesthetically different shows. Like they’e just from different universes. This is the joy, that you get a lot of shows like this, that they don’t have to be the woman show or the Jewish show. They are the the child of the specific mind of the person who made them.
Judith: I think it’s interesting also what you’re saying about the specificity because I think that sometimes people get tripped up on that. Like I remember when I first saw Transparent, which I also loved, and I saw the first episode I think actually when it was just a pilot that Amazon was testing and I had watched it by myself, and I went upstairs to my husband and I was like, “I just watched the Jewiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Emily: Yeah, totally yes.
Judith: And then he watched and he said but they’re so dysfunctional, it’s like sort of cringey and I said I know but they’re so real it’s so real! It’s like it’s you know and I think some people feel discomfort with that like sort of worried that it will be…
Emily: bad for the Jews.
Judith: …right or something. But I think that there is a difference between something that just is a very specific context and something that feels more like a stereotype the way that some of the some other depictions that you’ve mentioned do. So one of the original pieces that you wrote for the book is this self reflective piece on what to do with the art of bad men, like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and Louie CK. And I really appreciated the honesty of the piece. Can you say a little bit about how you came to write it?
Emily: Well, it has a very straightforward explanation. My book leave was in the fall of 2017. So I literally had like a week and a half of organizing what I was planning to write as the new essays for the book when the Harvey Weinstein pieces dropped. So I was like, I think many people, spun out emotionally and psychologically as, you know expose after expose dropped, and the #MeToo movement began. And it was overwhelming and I basically felt like I had to write about it. And it’s definitely a much more personal essay than I usually write, you know, and it’s an essay that’s written in the midst of social turmoil and a revolution. But what it’s specifically about is something that I had to face as a television critic, which is the question of you know, What do I do with my closeness to the art of men who’ve done bad things, and I trace it back at the beginning of it to Woody Allen who’s an absolutely formative artist for me. And obviously there’s not space in a podcast to get into every detail of Woody Allen. But you know, I basically tried to make the piece simultaneously walking through my personal history in terms of this, because I think like a lot of women, this has been a period when I found myself looking back on my whole life and trying to figure out where my tastes and values were formed, and also wrestling as a critic, which is not something everybody deals with, with this question of like, what do I do with this art? Like, you know, how do I critique it? Like can I you know, can I still love the things that I love? Can I still criticize the things I criticized? Like, how do I do it?
Judith: I mean, I really appreciated the personal reflection in it and I think that it sort of made visible the process that so many people were going through on their own and even if even if you don’t, you know, come out with some kind of sense of closure, that just felt very real and that this is an ongoing... and there is no closure right, this we’re just at the beginning of this process. One of my favorite lines in the essay is... you wrote, “I didn’t want to erase the art made by these men. I wanted to scribble all over it in rage and confusion and pleasure to make it mine instead of theirs.” And in some ways I sort of saw this as like almost like a mission statement for your work as a critic, sort of putting forth this model of the critic as the creator, not just as a commentator on what others have created. Is that… do you see criticism as your art form?
Emily: Yeah, I do. I mean when I’m writing criticism I do see it that way. I often joke in the sort of self-deprecating way that criticism is a parasitical kind of task, which is I think also true. I mean I love and admire the work of artists. It’s a different kind of risk. But yes, that passage is also about my frustration and my slightly destructive desire to, you know poke through and mess with stuff that’s making me angry, or the person who created it is
making me angry.
Judith: And you have this place where you say what if the model of male genius and most often white straight male genius was not the forest that the rest of us needed to get around to go through to become who we were I think about this all the time and I think you know the work that we do at the Jewish Women’s Archive is basically this trying to center women stories and expand the range of role models that we see and it feels to me like that’s one of the big underlying themes of your book is challenging that sort of assumed white male genius and pointing out where it’s a facade.
Emily: It’s just yeah, it’s explain its expanding and exploding the cannon and taking seriously all sorts of things that are seen as trivial and off the radar on the other hand. I will I do have to say, you know part of what that essay is about is the fact that I do believe that and part of that essay is about morning the possibility of a different world in which more of those voices were let in and for instance like Joan Rivers was not the only female stand-up let on to The Tonight Show and lots of other things that said I still love works of art that give me that I find confusing and shocking and sometimes offensive. I think that there is great art that has a shattering and weird effect on the creator and I’m not saying you can separate the artist from the art, but I’m just saying... There is a level in which I feel like my role as a critic is actually to represent honestly those
kinds of mixed responses to things and not to just do the simpler thing which is to eraser denounce them but to actually wrestle with them.
Judith: Well, thank you so much Emily. It’s been really such a pleasure to speak to you for Can We Talk?
Emily: Thank you so much for having me.
Nahanni: And thank you, Judith, for that very interesting interview with Emily Nussbaum. One last question for you: Has your conversation with Emily Nussbaum, or reading her criticism, changed the way you watch TV?
Judith: Reading Emily has helped me understand tv shows in a larger cultural context. She writes about how TV has become more respected as a medium, but she’s helped make that possible by bringing a serious critical approach to it. She’s also helped me see how the work we do every day at JWA: centering women’s stories and expanding the range of portrayals of women’s lives is happening on tv right now, too.
Nahanni: Judith Rosenbaum is the Executive Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Emily Nussbaum is the New Yorker’s television critic, and author of I Like To Watch, Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution. I Like to Watch is on this year’s Jewish Women’s Archive book club list. If you’d like to take part, visit jwa.org/bookclub.
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. This episode was produced by Anne Hoffman.
Nahanni: Thanks also to Becky Long. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts…. Please take a moment to review us on iTunes, and share your favorite episodes with your friends so that others can find us. If you’d like to help us produce more episodes of Can We Talk?, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution. Until next time, I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.
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