The Case of the Sexy Jew­ess: Dance, Gen­der and Jew­ish Joke-work in US Pop Culture

Han­nah Schwadron

December 18, 2018

Amidst the grow­ing forums of kinky Jews, ortho­dox drag queens, and Jew­ish geisha girls, we find today’s sexy Jew­ess in a host of reflex­ive plays with sexed-up self-dis­play. A social phan­tasm with real legs, she moves bold­ly between neo-bur­lesque striptease, com­e­dy tele­vi­sion, bal­let movies, and pro­gres­sive porn to con­struct the 21st Cen­tu­ry Jew­ish Amer­i­can woman through charis­ma and com­ic craft, in-your-face antics, and offen­sive charm. Her image redress­es long­stand­ing stereo­types of the hag, the Jew­ish moth­er, and Jew­ish Amer­i­can princess that have demeaned the Jew­ish woman as over­ly demand­ing, inap­pro­pri­ate, and unat­trac­tive across the 20th cen­tu­ry, even as Jews assim­i­lat­ed into the Amer­i­can main­stream. But why does sexy” work to update tropes of the Jew­ish woman? And how does sex link to humor in order for this update to work?

Entan­gling ques­tions of sex­i­ness to race, gen­der, and class, The Case of the Sexy Jew­ess frames an embod­ied joke-work genre that is most often, but not always meant to be fun­ny. In a con­tem­po­rary peri­od after the thrusts of assim­i­la­tion and wom­en’s lib­er­a­tion move­ments, per­for­mances ush­er in new ver­sions of old scripts with rang­ing con­se­quences. At the core is the recu­per­a­tive per­for­mance of iden­ti­ty through imper­son­ation, and the ques­tion of its rad­i­cal or con­ser­v­a­tive poten­tial. Appro­pri­at­ing, re-appro­pri­at­ing, and mis-appro­pri­at­ing iden­ti­ty mate­r­i­al with­in and beyond their midst, Sexy Jew­ess artists play up the failed log­ic of rep­re­sen­ta­tion by mock­ing iden­ti­ty cat­e­gories alto­geth­er. They act as com­ic chameleons, mor­ph­ing between mar­gin and cen­ter in count­less num­ber of charged car­i­ca­tures. Embody­ing eth­nic and gen­der posi­tions as always already on the edge while ever more in the mid­dle, con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish female per­form­ers extend a com­ic tra­di­tion in new con­texts, mobi­liz­ing pro­gres­sive dis­cours­es from posi­tions of new­found race and gen­der privilege.

    Discussion Questions

    The Case of the Sexy Jew­ess is an entire­ly fresh, excit­ing new look a the inter­sec­tions of sex­u­al­i­ty, com­e­dy, and Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. Much has been writ­ten about the desex­u­al­ized tropes of Jew­ish wom­an­hood — the over­bear­ing moth­er, the frigid wife, the hag — but Han­nah Schwadron deft­ly shows how Jew­ish women per­form­ers use com­e­dy as a way to per­form an inte­grat­ed, affirm­ing sex­u­al­i­ty while play­ing, very inten­tion­al­ly, with ideas around assim­i­la­tion and Jew­ish­ness. Going from Fan­ny Brice and Bar­bra Streisand to Sarah Sil­ver­man, Broad City, and bur­lesque, she offers an excit­ing new way to think about female Jew­ish enter­tain­ers and Judaism in the wider pop­u­lar cul­ture — a crit­i­cal piece of con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish life in America.