Why didn’t you ever tell me I was a pretty girl, Mama?*

February 1, 2010

*Please note: This question is not directed at my own mama. I’ve never doubted that she thought I was pretty. Thanks mom!

During a beery conversation with my friend Daniel the other night arose the topic of The Mirror Has Two Faces, as it will. “This movie exists solely because Barbra Streisand was never told that she was pretty,” says Daniel firmly. (We weren’t just talking about The Mirror Has Two Faces for no reason. We had just been talking about The Rink, a musical whose plot also hinges on a mother not telling her daughter she was pretty enough. It was thematically relevant!) Poor Barbra. I reflected that Jewish girls have it kind of rough growing up, role model-wise. Pop culture doesn’t tell us we’re pretty very often and we’ve got a lot of brash, nasal stereotypes to overcome.

I went through a phase in junior high where I refused to use my last name, opting instead for my mother’s last name, which is actually one of my middle names. I sulked through the candle blessing at Hannukah and scowled through Passover. I stared into the mirror for hours trying to convince myself that I looked more like my mom than my dad (I don’t. The Broverman genes run strong.) Being a Jewish woman didn’t seem cool or appealing. Jewish women are pushy and loud, pop culture told us. Jewish men don’t want us – from Woody Allen to Phillip Roth, they’re obsessed with landing a shiksa who doesn’t remind them of their mothers. Even adorable Jennifer Grey succumbed and got a nose job! And it’s not like my family is decked out in black hats and wigs – we’re a pretty ambivalent bunch who haven’t set foot in a synagogue in over a decade. We celebrate the big holidays, but mainly because of the food. So what’s a shy, assimilated Jewish girl to do? Surely there’s a place somewhere between brash diva (a la Midler and Merman) and prim WASPy princess? But who represents it?

I had to think pretty hard, but I came up with a few. Here’s a little celebration of some lovely Jewish ladies. It’s like that episode of The Simpsons where they round up all the women in the Simpsons’ clan so that Lisa can see that she’s not doomed to grow up stupid. Only for me. And with women who make me feel good about being a Jewish woman. And they’re all such pretty girls.

Wendy Wasserstein
I discovered Wendy Wasserstein in high school, and man, did her plays ever make me wish I was a high-achieving Seven Sisters co-ed in the ’60s trying to sort out my feelings about feminism. Wasserstein’s plays might read as a little dated now, but the dialogue still sparkles with humour and emotion, and although some of the references could be updated, the questions she explored in them remain relevant. Her most famous work is The Heidi Chronicles, which tackles big world questions about the choices women make and the options they have in life, and big personal questions about relationships with men and other women. Wasserstein had a gift for exploring important ideas with a light, funny touch. Her characters are people you’d like to grab a coffee with. I used a monologue from Uncommon Women and Others for years that was from the 70s, but still resonated with me in the early naughts when I was in university and figuring myself out. Jewish content is as incidental and casual in Wasserstein’s work as it is in my own life. Her writing is urbane and witty, but warm, and by all accounts she was a wonderful woman who supported all kinds of initiatives to make theatre accessible to young people.

Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn
Hulu sucks. They’ve got a clip of my all-time favourite Gilda Radner sketch, The Judy Miller Show, where Radner plays a little girl putting on a tv show for her stuffed animals, and I can’t watch it because I’m in Canada. Instead, here are Radner and Madeline Kahn being adorable and hilarious as usual:

Jessica Stein
By Jessica Stein, I actually mean Jennifer Westfeldt, but only before she went all Hollywood, because I am a little concerned about how her forehead no longer moves and while I imagine there are significant pressures associated with being Don Draper’s main squeeze, I have to say I’m very disappointed. But back in 2001, Westfeldt starred in Kissing Jessica Stein, a witty and adorable romantic comedy that was adapted from a stage show called Lipshtick that she co-wrote with Heather Juergensen. Jessica Stein is a bit of a neurotic mess, but she’s a really smart, funny, and charming neurotic mess, and Tovah Feldshuh plays her mother and if you can make it through the scene where Jessica’s mom tells her that she knows Jessica and Helen are a couple without crying, you are either missing a soul or tear ducts. (Bonus: a pre-famous and even cuter Jon Hamm has a cameo in the film.) I’ve never felt that Westfeldt’s career has blossomed as it should, but Kissing Jessica Stein remains one of my favourite films, and I hope that IMDB doesn’t lie when it says Westfeldt continues to write. More charming romantic comedies that you write and fewer appearances on Grey’s Anatomy or whatever. Hollywood needs your words.

Rachel Menken (Mad Men)
The second lady in a row who proves that a nice Jewish girl can score with a hot goy like Jon Hamm. Rachel is savvy and glamourous, and one of the few sympathetic characters on Mad Men.

Erica Strange
Erica didn’t exist when I was growing up because she’s the title character on the CBC show Being Erica, which only premiered last year. And what a revelation that show was for me. Usually, Canadian tv feels totally irrelevant to me, but Being Erica is set in Toronto (and really set in Toronto, not in some mystery city that is obviously Toronto but no one ever mentions any place names), and it’s about a woman about my age who feels like she is sort of crappy at life, which is how I sometimes feel. And she’s played so well by lovely Erin Karpluk. Erica grew up in Toronto in a Jewish family, but her Jewish heritage is never made a big deal of. It just is. They draw on it when it helps the story, but it’s not a “Jewish” show. She’s just normal and smart and cool. She is exactly the kind of character I’ve been waiting for.

2 Responses to “Why didn’t you ever tell me I was a pretty girl, Mama?*”

  1. […] up as a Jewish girl in North America with only brassy Jewish women in pop culture to look up to, I compiled a list of the Jewish women (both real and fictional) who made me feel good about being a Jewish woman, or […]

  2. bree Says:

    Ethel Merman was not Jewish.

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