Not really white--again: performing Jewish difference in Hollywood films since the 1980s
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This is a pre-copy-editing, author produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Screen following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version
Not really white - again: performing Jewish difference in Hollywood films since the 1980s Screen 2001 42: 142-166
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In the 1980s there was a transformation in the way Jews, and Jewishness, were expressed in American films as a function of the increasing popular acceptance of a form of multiculturalism that celebrates ethno-racial difference and of the identity politics that is its corollary. In this article I will begin by thinking through how films of the 1950s and 1960s discursively reproduced Jews as assimilated into white America. I will then take three films that, in diverse ways, articulate aspects of the transformation. I will examine Yentl and Zelig from 1983, and Desperately Seeking Susan from 1985. All these films, as we shall see, express the shift I am describing ambiguously. All three films were, in different ways, marginal to the mainstream Hollywood project and all three are by Jewish directors, two by women. Yentl, produced and directed by Barbra Streisand, who also starred in it, was the realisation of a long-term personal dream made possible only after she agreed to make the film as a musical. Zelig, a Woody Allen film, was made in black and white as a pseudo-documentary and Desperately Seeking Susan, the first film for director Susan Seidelman, started out as a low-budget, independent production.These, and later films, begin to address the problem of representing Jews, and Jewishness, in the context of a socio-political move in the United States away from the forms of identification located in the ideology of cultural pluralism and towards those of multiculturalism. As we shall see, there has been a tendency to understand this development using the distinction made by Werner Sollors between thinking in terms of descent and consent. I will argue that, as a general rule, the American nation tends to think in terms of consent while racial and ethnic groups have tended to think of themselves in terms of descent. This is as true for American multiculturalism as for cultural pluralism. However, as Jews began to distinguish themselves from white America, they have tended to do this in the consensual terms that were central to their being accepted as white. Key to this has been the trope of the double and the idea of performativity. This emphasis on 'consent', in the broadest sense, on, I would say, Jewishness as a cultural effect, operates in tandem with the religious, Judaic, use of the halachic definition of a Jew, based on matrilineal descent, which is that for a person to be a Jew their mother has to be a Jew. Consent signals the preoccupation of that paradox, the secular Jew.
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