Jewish performativity on Sex and the City.

Author:Silverman, Rachel E.
Position:Critical essay
 
FREE EXCERPT

In the final season of the critically acclaimed series Sex and the City (SATC), an event occurred that had never been seen before on television. A woman converted to Judaism in order to marry the man she loved, a Jewish man unwilling to concede an interfaith marriage. In the six seasons SATC was on the air, almost every topic relevant to the lives of adult women was covered. From giving birth and oral sex, to independence and impotence, to fashion and female empowerment, Charlotte York (Kristen Davis), Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) forever changed the television landscape with their frank discussions of love, sex, work, and friendship. SATC challenged conventions about the roles women play on television, honestly showed the ways women talk about sex, and promoted the independence of thirty-something women. The awards it has accrued, the academic discussions it has generated, the two feature-length films it spawned, and the assortment of stations that continue to carry the series in syndication clearly mark SATC as a popular culture phenomenon. (1)

Like the show itself, the season six storyline of Charlotte York's conversion to Judaism is groundbreaking. Throughout the first half of the season, Charlotte embraces, embodies, and enacts Jewishness within and through her process of becoming a Jew. From her initial meetings with the rabbi to her final descent into the mikvah bath, (2) Charlotte demonstrates the necessary performativity of Jewish identity. Only during the moments when Charlotte performs an act of Jewishness, cites Jewishness, or does something Jewish does Jewishness materialize within the text and as part of her character.

Each act, statement, and performance of Jewish identity iterates and reiterates Jewish identity as necessarily performative. For example, soon after Charlotte's conversion to Judaism, she eagerly hangs a mezuzah on the doorframe of her apartment. Loudly hammering away at the door, Charlotte is interrupted by her neighbour, an older lady with white hair, red lips, and a Chanel suit, who opens her door and crossly asks, "What on earth is all that banging?" Charlotte eagerly turns her head and exclaims, "Oh! Good morning Mrs. Collier. I'm a Jew now. How are you?" In this moment of marking herself Jewish with a material sign of Jewishness and verbally declaring herself Jewish to Mrs. Collier, Charlotte inscribes Jewishness on her identity and her home and reiterates and reinscribes her Jewishness to the audience. The annoyed Mrs. Collier quickly shuts her door, and Charlotte continues hammering. Later in the episode, after she and Harry have broken up, Charlotte is reinscribed as Jewish by the mezuzah as she walks past it into her home. Despondently looking up at the religious symbol, Charlotte appears saddened as Carrie's voiceover reiterates Charlotte's Jewishness within a framework of intelligibility by summing up her predicament, "Just what New York needs, another single Jewish girl" (Episode 6.4). It is only in these moments of inscribing, iterating, reinscribing, and reiterating Jewishness that Charlotte's Jewish identity materializes and is made recognizable. As such, the existence of a Jewish identity necessitates performativity.

The construction of Charlotte's character during the final season of SATC is an example of the necessary performativity of Jewish identity on television. Jewish identity on television and in real life is often unseen and invisible and relies on the doing, marking, and speaking of Jewishness in order for the identity to materialize (Butler 1993). The invisibility and necessary performativity of Jewishness are a similarity Jewish identity most closely shares with LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered) identity. While race, gender, class, and ability are all arguably performative identities, I suggest Jewish identity is most similar to LGBT identity because neither identity is necessarily seen and because, historically and culturally, Jews and LGBT people share common bodily and socially constructed identities. (3)

As Charlotte consciously works to create and maintain her Jewishness, her identity construction is similar to how "out" LGBT people actively construct their identities. Just as LGBT identities are performative identities often rendered invisible by assumptions of heterosexuality, Jewishness is a performative identity restricted by the normative assumption of Christianity in Western culture. Just as LGBT identity necessitates an initial coming out and "depends on continuous acts of declaration" (Urbach 1996, 69; see also Adams 2010), so too does Charlotte's Jewish identity requires a coming out and rely on continuous articulations. And just as the performative nature of LGBT identity works to break down the "restricting frames of masculinist domination and compulsory heterosexuality" (Butler 1993, 180) because "suppressed and marginalized perspectives can fundamentally challenge dominant worldviews by exposing the contradictions and erasures lying within them" (Plaskow 2010, xix), I hope an understanding of the performative nature of Jewish identity on television will work to break down the hegemonic normalcy of Christian identity both on television and in real life.

In order to support the argument for the necessary performativity of Jewish identity on television and its potential to rupture an assumed Christian body, I first argue for Christianity as normative in Western culture. Next, I suggest Charlotte can be read as Jewish prior to her conversion (she epitomizes the stereotypical Jewish American princess [JAP]), and her conversion is actually a coming out of her Jewish identity. Once out, Charlotte must continually reiterate her Jewish identity in order for it to be recognizable. And, finally, because the necessary performativity of Charlotte's Jewishness renders the existence of her Jewish identity a performative accomplishment, I suggest her Jewish identity works to call out the ideology of normative Christianity in North American television culture--just as LGBT identity does to heteronormativity.

Unrecognizable Jewishness: Christianormativity

Since the 1950s, most Jews living in the North America have been considered white (Brodkin 1998; Shohat 1991). However, the nature of Jewish whiteness opens up a robust discussion for television scholars to talk about the ways Jewish identity is constructed on-screen. Byers and Krieger (2007, 288, 287) describe Jewish people on television as "not-quite-as-white" and "not white enough"; Kray (1993, 350) claims that "American Jews are perhaps best categorized as 'almost white'"; and Itzkovitz (2001, 41) argues that regardless of the degree to which Jews are or are not white, what matters is that Jewish people on television are seen as white within the Western regulatory racial system, as there is no way to "locate the exact nature of racial difference." Importantly, Kray (1993, 352) notes that "avoiding 'surplus visibility' is a long-standing Jewish survival strategy," commenting on the historical need for assimilation resulting from Jews' diasporic and hate-filled past. As such, Jews benefit from and rely on the privileges of "passing" (Phalen 1993) as white, although they also lose claims to selfhood and identity because within the North American regulatory system white people are assumed to be Christian (Byers and Krieger 2007).

The assumption of Christianity regularly occurs in popular culture, which relies heavily on normative identity constructions. The normalization of identities on North American television renders all those who are unmarked (white, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied) as having non-identities. Whiteness in particular is constructed as a non-race, leaving black, Hispanic, and Asian people to be raced (Hall 1990; Shohat 1991). Analyses of mediated whiteness suggest whiteness as the "default identity" (Dubrofsky and Hardy 2008, 384); as "not anything really, not an identity ... because it is everything--white is no colour because it is all colours" (Dyer 1997, 45); and as an identity that manifests as invisible through its universality (Nakayama and Krizek 1995). Jewishness, however, "unlike race, which cannot so easily be left out of a television text ... both is and is not there" (Byers and Krieger 2007, 62). The ambivalence of Jewishness within whiteness invites the complementary tension of assimilation, privilege, and invisibility.

The interlocking construction of Jewishness and whiteness in North America deserves critical attention because it redefines how "normative" and Other identities are constructed. hooks (2000) argues that the unspoken assumption of male, middle-class, and white identity as privileged and normalized within North America leaves all other people marginalized. Davis (2010) adds physical ability to the list of normative assumptions, leaving differently abled people as Other. And Butler (1993) most famously added heteronormativity to the list of naturalized assumptions. Byers and Krieger (2007, 52) claim that "secular Christian" is "the default position in America and certainly in American television," and Jewish feminist scholar Judith Plaskow (2005, 96) describes Jewish Otherness as follows:

To be a Jew in the United States is to live in an overwhelmingly and often unselfconsciously Christian country. It is to have one's school vacations scheduled around Christian holidays, to learn Christmas carols and participate in Easter egg hunts, all the while being assured that these customs and holidays are not really Christian but American, "that they belong to everybody." Whether one is engaged secularly, religiously, or not at all, Christianity (4) is the assumed, privileged, unmarked, invisible centre of identity, just as heterosexuality, whiteness, and able-bodiedness are the assumed, privileged, unmarked, invisible centers of identity. I suggest that...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP