College was a busy time for me, as it is for pretty much every student. In my coveted free time, I enjoyed diving deep into pop culture; television shows, movies and Broadway musicals are some of my favorite topics. Naturally, as a Jewish young adult, when I watch something, I always look out for the lone Jewish character.
This token Jew typically possesses similar characteristics. They’re nerdy and overly smart. They’re annoying. They talk too much. They’re the outsider of the group.
One of my favorite shows of all time is Parks and Recreation. This show is absolutely genius in too many different ways to count, but something that has always bothered me about the show is its Jewish representation. The only Jewish characters in the entire run of the show are the Saperstein family. The Sapersteins are just like any other stereotypical Jew. The father is a rich doctor who scams people out of their money while his children are loud and obnoxious in every scene they’re in. Dr. Saperstein’s son, Jean-Ralphio, is a slacker, which might have strayed away from the nerdy Jewish stereotype if not for his incredibly annoying behavior. Moreover, his daughter, Mona-Lisa, is stereotypically obsessed with money, always asking the other characters for cash with her catchphrase, “Money please!”
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Insensitivity and Mistreatment
In addition to these stereotypes, many television shows treat their token Jewish characters with immense insensitively. For example, this past November, the CW Television Network aired a crossover between four of their DC Comics-based shows. A longtime Jewish character was killed in this crossover, which might have been sketchy regardless, but the show-runners opted to kill him in one of the most insensitive ways: death by Nazis. I personally can’t imagine a worse way to kill off a Jewish character in modern-day storytelling than by having Nazis shoot him in a parallel universe where Nazis won World War II. As one of the few Jewish DCTV characters, I had hoped for better.
How do we address these issues?
Without bringing attention to the mistreatment of Jewish characters, it makes it difficult for writers to change how they write these characters. By learning about stereotypes, we grow to appreciate quality storytelling. We always have to ask ourselves certain questions: Are these stereotypes damaging? How should show-runners and writers improve their storytelling when it comes to Jewish characters? Can we like certain pieces of media while simultaneously recognizing their mistreatment of Jewish characters?
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I love Parks and Rec, and I love the DCTV shows; however, just because I love a piece of media doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
In some of the blogs to follow, I hope to tackle my frustrations with Jewish representation in media and how I think they can be fixed.