Jews, Queers and Hollywood

The “codings” of queers and Jews on film—those subtle and not-so-subtle patterns and tropes
that signify them as such, explicitly and implicitly—were the subject of “Closets and Codings:
The Spectacle of Queers and Jews in Hollywood Film,” a panel held on March 20 (in conjunction
with the Jewish Museum’s exhibition “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting”). From
the unspoken “queerness” of Eddie Cantor and Danny Kaye to the tacit lesbian pleasures of Yentl, the
four panelists broadened the notion of “good vs. bad” representations (the approach of organizations
like GLAAD and books like The Celluloid Closet) and instead focused on where depictions of Jews and
homosexuals respectively meet and where they collide.
The first two speakers—Suzanna Walters, Director of Women’s Studies and Assistant Professor of
Sociology at Georgetown University, and Michael Bronski, writer, cultural critic, and Visiting Scholar of
Women’s Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College—examined these codings from the opposite
perspectives of containment and subversion. Walters argued that gay and Jewish images in Hollywood
are subject(ed) to the art of the visible—that because being gay or Jewish is not a difference marked on
the body (like race), the movies must visibly name gay and Jewish characters in order to thereby contain
them. Hence, images of feminized, neurotic men and masculinized, sexually autonomous women
become cues and tools of differentiation. These characters, almost always
depicted absent a community, typically lust after the unattainable (the
lesbian in love with the pretty gay Gentile), or lust not at all (the gay man
paired with a straight woman). Such dissimilation begets commodification.
For Bronski, the situation is hazier, and perhaps rosier. Citing a
catalog of major Jewish male movie actors including Eddie Cantor, Jack
Benny, the Marx Brothers, Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Woody Allen, Ben
Stiller, and Adam Sandler, Bronski noted that the differences marked on
these Jewish male bodies are markers of “gayness”, i.e. a certain goofy,
intellectual, unstable, weak, sexually ineffectual version of manhood. And
though indeed unthreatening, the characters played by these actors,
Bronski pointed out, are ultimately likable heroes who manage to one-up
the butcher men who threaten them. This conflation of Jewishness and
homosexuality might then serve to critique, rather than reinforce,
normative white male heterosexuality.
Walters’ more ambivalent take on Jewish and queer screen
representations as offering identificatory pleasures that usually serve to
contain those they identify was picked up by Bonnie Morris, author,
second-generation movie extra, and Women’s Studies faculty member at Georgetown and George
Washington universities. Morris described the profound impact of viewing the film Yentl had on her to
illustrate the subjectivity of viewership. Yes, the film played into stereotypes of the too-brainy Jewish
girl and the danger of being both intellectual and sexual, but there were, on a big screen, for the first
time, queer Jewish women on film! Who lusted and read! Even the film’s overt homophobia and the
general audience’s cheering of it, could not overcome Morris’s identificatory indulgence. We all react
to movies in our way, and
we are free to read
whatever codes we may
perceive in any way we
wish, she insisted. And it’s
not that codes are
necessarily hidden, said
Morris, but that they’re
available only to those in a
position to know—like
those who understood the
occasional Yiddish in early
Bugs Bunny cartoons
Walters, Bronski, and
Morris all responded to
Hollywood codes and
suggested ways to
approach them. The fourth
panelist, José Muñoz,
Associate Professor of
Performance Studies at the
Tisch School of the Arts at
NYU, preferred to do away
with codes, and Hollywood,
altogether. A self
proclaimed hater of Hollywood and its overdetermined production values, Muñoz dared minority
filmmakers of all stripes to do away with all deciphered codes and pre-programmed techniques and to
embrace the idea of utopia to imagine new life and new film. A champion of independent media, he
presented several minute “Tomboy Chick,” a short documentary film by Sandi Dubowski that explores,
via interview, the multiply-tinged identities of the filmmaker’s Jewish grandmother. Emphasizing
ethnicity and cross-generational ties, Muñoz urged people to seek out new ways to reclaim Jewishness
and queerness.
With the exception of Muñoz, the panelists all displayed a clear love for popular culture and the
movies, and sought to carve out spaces within the production and reception of movies where queer
and Jewish sensibilities might, and in some cases already, if clandestinely, do flourish. As Walters pointed
out, it’s a risk we need to take, even as codes of containment persist. “There would be no entertainment
without our people,” said Walters, and we need to reclaim some space within it. Or pack up and find
new space, as Muñoz contends. In any case, if there is a whiff of truth in Michael Ovitz’s
pronouncement of a “gay mafia” in Hollywood, then we’d better start staking out some new territory.

Robert Fuller is a graduate of Harvard College and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies at
the New School.