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Image Make-Over

Tired of Jewish Women Being Portrayed in the Media as Unattractive and High Maintenance, One Group Is Trying to Put an End to the Stereotypes

November 09, 1998|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Had there ever been a successful Jewish actress? Of course: Sarah Bernhardt . . . and now that [Marjorie] thought of it, rumor described half the great stars of Hollywood as Jewish. But her name wasn't good. It wasn't good at all. . . . Marjorie Morganstern. . . . Then came a confirming flash . . . a name that could blaze and thunder on Broadway . . . Marjorie Morningstar."

"Marjorie Morningstar" --Herman Wouk

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Marjorie Morningstar was immortalized as the media's first Jewish American princess by novelist Wouk in his 1955 book and in the 1958 film adaptation with Natalie Wood. Now, she is lending her name to a group whose mission is to fight just such stereotyping in the media.

The Morning Star Commission is a group of 30 professionals from the media and academia, women and men, who want it known that neither Marjorie nor the other stereotype--that of the smothering, nagging Jewish mother--defines Jewish women.

In choosing its name, said director Mara Fein, the commission wanted both "to remind people that central to the issue of stereotyping is the Jewish American princess as created by Herman Wouk, but by breaking apart the word we wanted to suggest that what we are doing is creating a new morning in the representation of Jewish women"--a morning star rising.

"We've come a long way since Marjorie Morganstern," said commission chair Joan Hyler as she introduced, "Jewish? You Don't Look Funny," the commission's recent fund-raiser at the Comedy Store headlining Jewish female comedians.

Among performers was Shelly Goldstein, a screenwriter and playwright who offered up a salute in song to Jewish women in the industry, a parody of Stephen Sondheim's hit from "Company": "Here's to the ladies who launch--TV, films and plays. . . ."

Comedian Emily Levine asked, "Who constructs the images of Jewish women? Who makes the rules? And why don't we hear very much about Monica Lewinsky being Jewish?"

A joke, granted, but her message was serious: Jewish women have just gotten a bad rap.

Movie Stars Were Not Identified as Jewish

Who's to blame? Commission members don't hesitate to lay some of the fault at the feet of Jewish men in the entertainment industry.

Over a recent breakfast in Santa Monica, eight commission members talked about that, about their group's raison d'etre and of the damaging effects of growing up in the 1950s when perky blond Doris Day was the object of men's desire--and there were no women on the silver screen who looked like them.

True, there were Jewish movie stars, but they didn't identify as such, nor did they portray Jewish characters.

"Who knew," asked Claudia Caplan, "that [Lauren] Bacall was Jewish?"

Screenwriter Stephanie Liss recalled how, as a teenager, she cut school to sneak into the second act of "Funny Girl" on Broadway. It was a revelation.

"I remember thinking Barbra Streisand was the most beautiful, stunning, magnetic woman I'd ever seen," Liss says. "Because of that, I was actually able to look in the mirror and think that someday. . . ."

Streisand did it her way, refusing to alter her nose or hide her Jewishness. But, commission members lament, she did not create sweeping change. There's Streisand and there's Bette Midler, and that's about it for role models.

And, noted Hyler, president of Hyler Management, Streisand chooses leading men such as Robert Redford or Nick Nolte rather than nice Jewish boys. But, she added, "she's an icon. Who does she have to choose from? Paul Newman is the only one who identifies as Jewish."

Then there is the other problem in films, stated by Interscope / PolyGram producer Paula Silver: "Always having the Jewish man lust for the non-Jewish woman--and getting her."

In her view, it is a matter of Jewish executives in the industry "reflecting their own lives"--including "their need to find that blond trophy wife who is their ticket to assimilation."

Added Caplan, creative director for Mendelsohn-Zien Advertising, "The culture tells them their wife should look like Claudia Schiffer as tangible proof they've made it."

One program that gets high marks from the commission is "Suddenly Susan," which depicts a strong relationship between Vicki, Brooke Shields' Jewish co-worker (Kathy Griffin), and Vicki's rabbi husband. It's important, stressed Hyler, that for once a Jewish woman "was the object of desire of a Jewish man." Los Angeles has a large Jewish population, but Jewish girls growing up in parts of the country with few Jews suffer from persistent stereotyping in the media.

" 'The Nanny' [Fran Drescher] is funny and fine and terrific," said Caplan, "and at the other extreme, there's the icon hero woman of the Holocaust--and there's nothing in between."

How Jewish Women Perceive Themselves

The Morning Star Commission, formed in 1997, was created and funded by Hadassah Southern California in response to a Hadassah-Brandeis University study of American Jewish women that revealed concerns about the negative stereotyping of Jewish women in movies, television, fiction and advertising.

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