Arts & Culture

The Search For TV’s Magical Jews

For some reason, Jews have yet to be formally included in the Magic Minority archetype. Read More

By / February 13, 2012
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As far as minority representation on television is concerned, some seem to think that Jews have gotten off pretty lucky.  TVTropes.org a collection of recurring tropes and archetypes in TV, Film and books posits that Jews are plentiful in TV and film because the influence Jews wield in Hollywood.  A section on the site titled, “You Have To Have Jews” lists the examples of TV shows with predominant Jewish characters, it is however surprisingly short, and filled with almost entirely contemporary examples.   On Wikipedia’s List Of Fictional Jewish Characters, the same characteristic is present, examples of Jewish TV characters from before the 1990’s are few, and from before the 1970’s non-existent.   TVTropes has also compiled of tropes specific to Judaism including some predictable, and some less so.  Predictably Jews are stereotyped as: cheap, argumentative, bad-ass (only if they’re Israeli), nerdy, complaining, sexy (to non-Jews) and sexually obsessed (with non-Jewish women.)  More interestingly, the site points out the tendency for Jews on TV to be always be portrayed as Ashkenazi, never Sephardic as well as the tendency for Jewish characters to be paired with Irish characters.  Then there’s “The Ambiguous Jews” characters often played by Jewish actors with Jewish characteristics or tendencies but who are either never identified as Jewish or only cryptically so, such as David Duchovny as Fox Mulder on The X Files. In attempt to quell any sensitivity, the site goes onto reason that there was once few career options for the ambitious, educated non-Christians, and that Jews happened to be among the few willing to take the risk on both film and TV when they were new mediums.  As a result, the Jews practically built Hollywood, yet they are still so under and misrepresented.  Spike Lee popularized the term, “The Magical Negro” while lecturing to a group of students at Washington State University, but it had been ostensibly identified as a trope some time before that.  Most authors cite Sidney Portier’s role in The Defiant Ones as the first of this kind, but similar examples of African American characters span up to the present. Though the stereotypical and often demeaning trope is most pervasive with black fictional characters, in more recent years it’s seemingly spread to other minorities.  The Magical Minority has 3 basic characteristics.

  1. A Sacrificial Lamb: A magical minority is put into a fictional world to further the agenda of the white male protagonist.  Most often to help them see some kind of evident truth and overcome some kind of obstacle.  Not always, but often the Magical Minority will give their lives for the protagonist’s cause.
  2. Sagacious: Particularly when applied to an African American Character, a sort of folksy, “seen it all” kind of wisdom is needed in order for the Magical Minority to further the agenda of the protagonist.
  3. Magic: The extent of a magical minority’s magic differs from character to character, story to story and minority to minority, and some characters’ powers are more overt than others.

The examples of such characters are many but here’s a start.  Notable Magical African American Characters include, Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Scatman Crothers in The Shining, Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty and Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile. These characters all share folksy wisdom, martyrdom and numerous magical abilities.  But the Magical Character Trope has made its way across the rainbow, pervading minorities throughout movies and TV.  Magical Native American characters such as Jose Chavez in Young Guns are given wisdom and magic with categorically spiritual implications while Magical Gay characters’ wisdom and power is a mixture of one part wisdom and one part camp.  Magical Female characters have been represented in a number of markedly different ways but “A Magical Girlfreind” is a character brings a protagonist out of some kind of funk and helps them discover their real purpose in life.  Recently, a more specific version of the Magical Girlfriend has emerged in the form of, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” a term cooked up by The Onion AV Club’s Nathan Rabin.  Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s include Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethatown and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  According to Rabin, these characters exist, “solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Often Manic Pixie Dream Girls are characterized as Jews, either ambiguously or not, as is the case with Dharma Finkelstein in Dharma and Greg or Jenny Shecter in The L Word or even Barbara Streisand in What’s Up Doc.

Interestingly, Jews have yet to be formally included in the Magic Minority archetype, and that may be a mistake. Mandy Pantinkin compellingly plays the role of the role of Saul Berenson on Showtime’s Homeland. As the methodic and wise CIA boss over protagonist Carrie Mathison, it seems Patinkin has perhaps shed light on the current TV writers’ rendition of “A Magical Jew.”  Carrie Mathison, the haphazardly brilliant, bi-polar CIA agent played the oh-so-waspy Claire Daines (who once played a Jewish Manic Pixie Dream Girl in Igby Goes Down) depends on Saul to bring her down to earth during her incremental manic binges.  Carrie also looks to Saul to push her frowned upon hunches through CIA red tape, often to his detriment.   She even goes as far as to offer herself to him sexually skirt the rules.  However, in true Magic Minority fashion, Saul refuses her advances (seemingly he’s the only character capable of doing so, such is the magic of the Jew) and always sacrifices himself to her whims.  When Mathison goes off her medication and has to be watched after 24/7, Patinkin steps in despite his marriage crumbling on the periphery.   As Saul, Patinkin plays a magic Jew.  He may be educated which seems to go against the usual Magic Minority archetype, but in a sense, this is his magic.   Practical scholarly wisdom intended to bring down the more folksy, charming WASP protagonist is the magic or the Jew.

If the theory is that magical Jews are written just as other magical minority characters only with wisdom pertaining specifically to practicality and book smarts, then another notable Magical Jew in recent TV history would be The West Wing’s Toby Ziegler.  Though Ziegler notably went a city school rather than an Ivy like the rest of the Bartlet White House staff, Ziegler remains the quiet, even-keel wise man of Sorkin’s West Wing, always ready with a raspy-voiced aphorism to put Martin Sheen’s world into perspective.  Ziegler, the son of an ex-Jewish gangster who is supposedly based on Clinton advisor Patrick Cohen, is always willing to let his personal life fall apart (he divorces early in the show) in order to aid President Bartlett. Zeilger’s magical abilities include his acerbic wit, keen eye and the ability to “fix” social security after a sleepless night.  The identifying characteristic of the Magical Jew is that he’s an advisor of sorts to the protagonist, always able to pull practical wisdom out of his yarmulkah in order to save the day.

In the end, there have been Magical Jews all along; only a more uniform version has begun to take shape on TV in recent years.  The Magical Jew embodies all the stereotypical characteristics TV writers have been attributing to Jews for decades: they’re nerdy and argumentative, they’re sometimes irresistible, sometimes full of lust, and like all other minority characters, they’re self-sacrificing for the good of the protagonist, and until Jewish characters are given room to exist as full fledged three-dimensional characters, or even (gasp) as the protagonists themselves, we’ll just have to settle for borderline magical intellect as a sort of door prize instead.