Jewish Women Are Having a Moment on "Mad Men"

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 5 2010 12:37 PM

Jewish Women Are Having a Moment on "Mad Men"

"Look at that punim, " Dr. Faye Miller muttered indulgently as Don Draper despaired over the loss of Lucky Strike on Mad Men Sunday night. "That what?" asked Don, quizzically."I knew it!" I shrieked.

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There was that little hint the other week, when she screamed at her boyfriend to go shit in the ocean (as Slate ’s Mad Men TV club noted ). There’s the fact that she’s a psychologist, a field that in 1965 was about as Hebraic as the rabbinate. (My mother is one. I know what I’m talking about.) The "gangster" father threw off a lot of people on the Internet who apparently have never heard of Murder Inc.-and her portrayal by the former Mrs. Kelli Moltisanti probably didn’t help-but no dice. Dr. Faye Miller is what Grammy Hall would call "a real Jew."

Mad Men is often lauded for its unconventionality as a television show-its patient, novelistic storytelling, its obsessive attention to period detail, its willingness to abruptly shift its plot and tone the way that real life does.  But after (almost) four full seasons, what seems most revolutionary to me about the show is its wholehearted embrace of the concept that Jewish women- conspicuously Jewish women-can actually sometimes be sexually attractive to men.

On a technical level, this comes as no surprise-there is certainly no shortage of beautiful actresses who happen to be Jewish: Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Mélanie Laurent, Hollywood ur-Jewess Natalie Portman (whose name I can never hear without a preface of "why can’t you be more like …").  But they rarely, if ever, play explicitly Jewish characters-sainted Holocaust victims notwithstanding.  Hollywood’s repulsion isn’t directed toward actual Jewish women, but toward its image of the "Jewish Woman" who even in 2010 is still consistently portrayed as bossy, obnoxious, pushy, materialistic, shrewish, gauche, and impossible to please:  Mrs. Ari on Entourage , Susie Greene from Curb Your Enthusiasm , Jill Zarin from The Real Housewives of New York (a real person playing a fictional character playing a real person). Real Jewish women can laugh at these depictions, but they can sting, too, not least because they are so often manufactured and promulgated by Jewish men: our brothers and our cousins and our dads. I mean, is that what they really think of us?

That’s why the Mad Men characters are such a breath of fresh air, although the much-missed Rachel Menken, Don’s first-season fling, was so wise and exoticized and moral (you know, except for the sleeping with a married man thing) that she was practically Rebecca from Ivanhoe. Faye Miller is a bit more human, a bit more flawed, and perhaps not coincidentally, her Jewishness much more of an afterthought-a character piece that is sociologically accurate rather than a raison d’etre. But it does seem interesting-and perhaps informative-that these flattering depictions appear on a show set in the past, before the emasculating Jewess had quite fled the Borscht Belt to her new home in the culture at large. It’s great that at long last, Jewish women are having a pop cultural moment;  it’s just too bad it has to happen 45 years in the past.

Photograph of Cara Buono by Alberto E. Rodriguez for Getty Images.