- On Reznik's New Jews?
In New Jews?: Race and American Jewish Identity in 21st-Century Film, sociologist David L. Reznik explores the persistence of four American Jewish stereotypes in postmillennial Hollywood cinema. Through study of more than fifty films released theatrically between 2000 and 2009 and 125 American Jewish characters, Reznik categorizes and identifies the twenty-first century’s “racialized” images of “meddling matriarchs,” “neurotic nebbishes,” “pampered princesses,” and “scheming scumbags.” His qualitative analysis delimits content through attention only to those films that contain at least one central character identified directly in the film as “American Jewish” or one that “pronouncedly” embodies traits of one of the stereotypes under consideration. In chapters devoted to each of the four figures, Reznik scrutinizes character physiognomy, communication styles, and behaviors alongside social roles (e.g., occupation, class status), emotional nature (e.g., warm/cold, anxious/calm), and what Reznik terms “thematic concerns” (e.g., characters’ political views, values). Most generally the study is a response to the concept of the “new Jew” in Hollywood cinema, a figure alleged to challenge traditional stereotypes through subversion, transcendence, or redefinition (viii). The author is particularly concerned with conceptions of [End Page 91] America as a “postracial” society, and a goal of his study is the revaluation of Jews as a racial minority.
Between introductory and concluding chapters on American Jewish racial identity politics, Reznik offers considerations of family dynamics, romance and sexuality, material consumption, and political economy through discussion of stereotypes. For example, his chapter on the mass media stereotype of the American Jewish mother considers the changing form and function of the American Jewish family through its “meddling matriarchs.” A paragraph in the introduction explains that this stereotype emerged from the “archetypal figure of the ‘Jewish mother,’” who owes her dominant appearance and personality to a diasporic history in often-hostile environments where the duty of keeping the family together was largely left to the mother (3–4). The “meddling matriarch” is differentiated from other “racialized” immigrant mothers through her overnurturance and manipulation through guilt, perfectly exemplified for Reznik in the giant projected mother-in-the-sky of Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment in New York Stories (1989).
Within the specific chapter devoted to this figure, Reznik concentrates on twenty-first-century images only. He outlines her traits: “loudmouthed, nitpicky, overbearing, overprotective, and domineering” (with respect to her husband) and “pushy” (with regard to her son’s romantic life) (40). He finds the presence of this enduring stereotype in nearly half of the films under consideration. Drawing conclusions from work with thirty-five representations, Reznik finds two versions of the “meddling matriarch”: “historically constructed” (traditional) and “evolved.” In the former category he places characters such as Michele Lee’s Vivian Feffer in Along Came Polly (2004). The “evolved” figure, who features traditional characteristics of the stereotype but reflects cultural changes in women’s roles, is exemplified by such characters as Anne Bancroft’s “neo-Bohemian divorcee” Ruth in Keeping the Faith (2000).
For Reznik, the stereotype even transgresses gender and generation in examples of “meddling matriarch” fathers, children, siblings, and friends. He argues that “socio-historical shifts” (including the dual-income couple norm, the phenomenon of the stay-at-home father, and husbands sharing in housework) have broadened the stereotype “rather than negating or undermining it” (49–50). The “meddling matriarch” father figure is seen in Dustin Hoffman’s Bernie Focker in Meet the Fockers (2004), among others, while overinvolved children and friends are illustrated through discussion of such characters as Paul Reiser’s Ben Kleinman [End Page 92] in The Thing about My Folks (2005), Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Elizabeth Egan in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), and Seth Rogen’s Officer Michaels in Superbad (2007). Through his close readings, Reznik draws the conclusion that, as regards racialization, “American Jewish families are portrayed as ‘too much’ relative to ‘black’ families who are portrayed as ‘too little,’ while ‘white’ families are ‘just the right amount’” (62).