The other day, a completely innocuous thing happened while I was at work: my coworker complemented my hairstyle. She and I have just about the same hair in color and texture, but that day we had opposite styles – hers was in full fabulous curl, and mine was braided down against the sides of my head. When she said she liked my hair, my first thought was to say “oh God no, I just did this out of practicality”. I had braided it while it was still wet the night before, since it’s growing longer and it keeps getting really tangled while I’m sleeping. But I stopped myself and just told her I liked hers too (which I really did). It is, after all, an accepted greeting among curly-haired women that we assess each other’s hair and then trade styling tips. In my usual manner of overthinking things, this interaction led me down a line of thought that wove together a few different things that have been on my mind lately, and so I thought it was time for a follow up to the last time I wrote about curly hair.Read More
I’ve written before about how complicated it is to be Ashkenazi in the US, both othered to the extreme by virtue of being non-Christian and having features that are definitely NOT considered the American ideal (curly dark hair and big noses being the obvious ones), while also very much passing as white. Growing up in New York, it was easy to ignore or at least shrug off a lot of the American standards that felt othering, because, frankly, most New Yorkers don’t really think of themselves as “typically American” anyway. But despite New York’s tremendous cultural influence and the massive bubble New Yorkers are often able to build around themselves, as Americans we still consume plenty of culture and media that is based in the social and cultural standards of the rest of the country. In fact, having lived in Minnesota and California, I’ve come to realize how much of what I think of as typical American culture is really an invention of California in the 1950s and ’60s, probably due to the fact that the film industry is based here. So, as a kid who was always aware of feeling not quite white and not quite American, I was always drawn to movie and TV characters who were signaled as strange, different, or exotic. And, I realized very recently, the mental gymnastics I performed to help myself identify with them was that I decided that they were all Jewish.
This thought really crystalized as I was watching this most excellent recent video from the YouTube channel BeKindRewind. At one point, the video discusses how two different adaptations of the Addams Family approach Christmas (which, as a colleague reminded me when I attended a Catholic university, is an American holiday). While the 1960s sitcom had the Addamses play out a pretty standard Christmas plot of convincing the children that Santa is real, the original comic and the ’90s movies on which I was raised showed the family pouring a boiling cauldron on carolers. BeKindRewind’s interpretation of this, which I think is probably correct, is that the Addams family is showing its distaste for the saccarine schlock of caroling and its insincere wishes. But as a kid, I thought this gleeful disdain was based in the fact that the family was Jewish. I mean, they hang out in their family graveyard. They wear all black. They perform a family dance called “the mamushka”. Tell me I’m not crazy to interpret them this way. (There’s an argument to be made that the kind of creepiness the Addams Family taps into is the same one behind the original Dracula novel, which some people have also argued is meant to represent a Jew, although it could also be just straight-up Orientalism.)
For me, the Addamses, especially Wednesday, in their refutation of classic Americana, were everything that felt right to me. They were funny and joyful without performing. They celebrated being dark and angsty. They had close and genuine relationships within their very insular family. It also didn’t hurt that my mom looked like Morticia, with her signature long dark hair. And my dad clearly loved these movies for their humor and transgressions, which is why we had VHS tapes of both of them in our regular rotation.
But it wasn’t just the obviously weird outsider Addams Family that I read this way. I always identified with the strong-willed female characters who were visually established as not properly white. And it’s not that much of a jump to see them as Jewish. Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine in Aladdin, Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Why is Belle singled out in the town as weird? Because she reads and, so the visuals of the movie imply, she’s the only pretty girl with brown hair. If you were raised in an Ashkenazi household, chances are you had the value of education beaten into you, while also being told you were attractive enough despite your “darker” features.
Jasmine, well, she’s… let’s just say Oriental and put the subtext out there, shall we? But she’s also a self-possessed young woman trapped by a structurally sexist society. And my experience of Judaism has very much been that. The Jewish tradition I was raised in is explicitly patriarchal. It also helped that around the time I first watched Aladdin was also when I was learning about my familial connection to Israel. The movie and my experience of the country played off each other in my mind: the market scene where Jasmine first goes out of the palace in disguise, the Jerusalem shouk, and NYC summer street fairs all swirled together into an open air market dreamscape.
Esmeralda is a gypsy (I’m not saying Romani or Roma here because she’s written in the book and the movie as the gypsy stereotype, not the actual Roma ethnic group). That one is a pretty obvious connection. There’s an international club of minority ethno-religious groups that have been systematically abused and shunned by Europeans (and some countries in western Asia), and that includes Jews, the Roma, the Kurds, the Druze… It’s the same association that made me love the Kurdish militia when I first started to learn about them back in high school.
These associations are pretty well-grounded, even if they’re not 100% accurate.
Are you ready for what I realize is probably my strangest interpretation?
To this day, you can’t tell me that I’m wrong. The Skywalkers are Jewish.
This one is harder to explain. It’s not so much that Luke and Leia tap into actual stereotypes or associations with Ashkenazi Jewishiness, but that I identified with these characters so strongly that I had to make them Jewish in my mind so that sympathy was acceptable. I’m very literal. Someone has to actually be me for me to identify with them. I didn’t just love Princess Leia, I was going to grow up to BE Princess Leia. I mean, sure, I could find explanations that make this fit a little better – the destruction of Alderaan (which as a word kind of looks like Canaan) and Leia’s resulting homelessness, Luke’s feeling that he didn’t belong; those ring true for me as part of my identity as the grandchild of refugees, as well as my own ambivalent relationship with the state of Israel. But I don’t think that’s why I saw them as Jewish. Maybe part of it was just that Leia has brown hair, and I really appreciated seeing that (seriously, hair is a big thing).
There’s a part of this strange habit of mine that I think is more important than just a thing I do. I am able to do make these associations because all of these characters are still essentially white. Maybe not Jasmine, unless you’re the US government. But the same degree of whiteness that allows me and other Ashkenazi Jews to pass most days in America unmolested (despite the very real and present threat of antisemitism) is also what makes all of these characters acceptable as protagonists or supporting characters in major works of American media. If you’ve never seen someone who looks like you represented in film, it’s hard to understand why that representation is so important. But the reality is that it is difficult to really identify with and care about characters that you don’t feel that fundamental connection of identity to. The degree to which that identity is literal is pretty variable. But I think race and ethnicity have a lot to do with it. If you are white – by which I really mean of primarily northern European descent and Christian – you have a bit more freedom to see yourself in a range of characters based on their upbringing or their personality traits. But if that identity doesn’t read onto your own in a meaningful way, that difference can be a barrier to feeling a connection to what you see on screen. In my case, I would describe it as a fundamental mistrust. Similar to what I wrote previously about the baked in sense that people who aren’t Jewish won’t stick their necks out for you, I find that I am not fully convinced that a character understands the issues they are purported to be grappling with (otherness, patriarchy, discrimination based on their (relatively) darker features) unless I have reason to believe that they have really been othered in a meaningful way. And so I invent this Jewish identity for them to convince myself that what they have to say about their struggle is actually a valid comparison to my own struggles. It’s a thoroughly self-centered way to consume media. And so recognizing that I do this has also made me aware of what it must mean to people who experience much more direct and systemic discrimination not to have those connections to a character. My white privilege as an Ashkenazi Jew is in being able to invent connections to people who were not intended to be me, but are similar to me in ways I find compelling. But those connections are simply harder or not available if you can’t suspend your disbelief to interpret the Addamses or the Skywalkers as a marginalized group that is distinctly non-white.
I’m finding some optimism in the greater racial diversity of media at the moment, but this habit of mine is cluing me in to just how superficial that representation is. So, after reading all this, I want you to ask yourself “how much does this character’s racial image actually impact their experience in the narrative?” If the answer is not very much, then representation isn’t really doing enough, is it?
Right before I took my oral qualifying exams, I called my adviser in a panic. I had failed my German and Latin exams almost ten times each, and time was running out to pass them before I would have to push back my oral exam date. My adviser talked me down. “Take a walk” he said “when was the last time you went to the park?”Read More
I started writing this one almost two years ago, but put it in the digital drawer because I thought it was kind of obvious. But as more people in my life have come up against the same problems with paralyzing anxiety or decision fatigue, I’m realizing this is actually worth saying.Read More
The words “revise and resubmit” carry with them a particular emotional response in academia: a unique combination of hopeful self-satisfaction, anxiety, and existential dread. Its a trite truism that we all need to learn to accept criticism. Academia turns accepting criticism into an art, that also happens to be part of our daily workload. Revise and resubmit is one of three possible responses when submitting an article for publication in a journal. Rather than outright accept or reject, revise and resubmit means that the core concept is good, but the readers had comments. “The readers had comments” could be written on the tombstone of every academic. Your peers, colleagues in your field, found some things worth changing. It could be that you failed to site a relevant study, or you used a word in a way that didn’t sit well with someone. The overall gestalt is “I liked it, but not as much as you wanted me to.” And the feeling that comes with that is being damned with faint praise.
Revising is perhaps the most essential part of my writing process. Something about how my brain works means that I need many drafts to get the point of my argument across without distracting my reader with something else. I wrote recently that it’s been my tone or my word choice that stops people from understanding me. It can also be the order in which I introduce evidence (apparently I think in concentric circles instead of lines), and as a result I have had editing processes that involved flipping the order of the entire paper.
But revising is still exhausting. Internalizing criticism is exhausting. Doing the same work repeatedly is exhausting.
Today, I had an epiphany about a piece of writing that I have been working on for a decade. In 2010, I wrote a paragraph-long aside in a junior seminar, which became a standalone MA seminar paper in 2013, which became a journal article in 2015. And since 2015 I have tried and failed to get this paper published. The criticisms of it have been varied, but all true. At the same time, I presented this work at a conference in 2016, and it’s up on my Academia.edu page, where the praise for it has been loud and consistent – this is a valid piece of scholarship that would be a useful addition to the field. So, every once in a while, I come back to this paper and revise it yet again, and submit it yet again. I have never been granted a revise and resubmit, just rejection after rejection, but the overall impact of the conflicting responses to it has been revise and resubmit. “I like it, but not as much as you wanted me to.”
My epiphany was a totally different framing to this piece. Instead of launching into the historiographical fray, trying to make my contribution in a debate that is already very full, I should be viewing things from above. What am I actually adding that is new – is what I asked myself. I’m suggesting a different methodological approach to the question. Whereas that methodological approach was a secondary point before (making the whole piece very complicated), I’m making it the main argument now. I can still use a lot of the work I’ve already done, but reframing the piece is actually an easier approach than trying to fix the problems that existed before. The reason this was novel for me was that I suddenly connected what I had been trying to do in this article with what I’ve been working on for my dissertation. I hadn’t thought about it that way before because I wrote this article long before I articulated the methodological argument of my dissertation.
Maybe this version of the article won’t get it accepted to a journal either. But it’s an interesting process to go back and fix what I was trying to say. There’s certainly a limit to revising, and there’s no point in revising something that is totally in the past. But here I have another chance to make this article work while it’s still relevant, and the process of doing that is potentially helpful for other things I’m working on too. That level of self-criticism, that internalization of the feedback I’ve gotten, also feels important, like maybe one day I can not only anticipate the criticism, but head it off entirely.
My mom has a bit of a problem with experts. If you asked her, my mom would tell you that the problem with experts is that they don’t have to justify their opinions on the basis that they have implicitly earned that trust, and, in the reverse, other people who are not experts have not. She argues that people who are not experts should be trusted to form and express opinions on a subject, and moreover that experts should be challenged to support their opinions better. I can’t say that I fully disagree. And yet when it comes to the concept of an expert and, by extension, expertise, I’m torn. On the one hand, experts should not have a monopoly on informed opinions. On the other, expertise is not just knowing the facts, but about understanding the context, methods, and unarticulated information surrounding those facts that contribute to interpreting them. This push and pull between formal expertise and informal knowledge is something I’m constantly struggling with as a junior academic.Read More
After I reacquainted myself with my sewing machine, learned a bit more fundamental sewing skills, and finally understood how to work from a pattern, I spent about a year filling in my wardrobe with everything I’d been missing. I’m still in process with some things, including some everyday shirts, but once the process of making my own clothes got kind of mundane, I started making clothes for other people. And after making the same dress for the third time, I learned what I already knew about myself – I don’t like repetitive activities. So, armed with pretty good sewing skills at this point, a new project started to tug at me. A medieval outfit.Read More
Back in 2019, while I was constantly on research trips, I started watching a lot of youtube. And while I was doing that, I also decided to pick up crocheting. Since I hate reading kitting patterns, I had no earthly idea how to approach a crochet pattern, and so I also started watching crochet pattern videos on youtube. This combination led me to the world of historical costuming videos, or costube. Since I started watching, costube has become a much bigger phenomenon, to the point that last summer the costube community was able to host an entire conference online where individual virtual sessions were attended by thousands of people at a time. Inundating myself with videos of hand sewing and pattern cutting got me to slowly come back to my old sewing hobby. I spent a lot of time as a teenager involved in various sewing ventures, mostly related to the renfaire and my school’s drama department. My friend N and I spent many weekends in high school hand-sewing costumes while watching Disney movies (we were really wild). But I was mostly self-taught and I had a really hard time making wearable clothing, so my hobby fell by the wayside. But since N still sews and started making herself some very cool wearable pieces right around the time I began watching all these youtube videos, I dipped my toes back into sewing at first, and then plunged in.Read More
In 2019, I spent a cumulative three months at home. And I wrote about it here on this blog. It’s a big part of the reason I started writing here. That year was incredibly trying. I was constantly isolated and moving around. I wasn’t able to form new relationships and I was constantly in new places. I was often living in a single room by myself without a real kitchen and I had a very small budget for food. When I wasn’t working, I was binging CosTube and BreadTube, learning to crochet, and playing video games. I could only interact with most of the people I knew, including my infant children, through phone calls and videos. That year, it turned out, was a rehearsal.Read More
It’s amazing how big a part of my identity as a New Yorker bread is.Read More