Golda Meir and the perils of “Jewface”
In fifth grade, I was assigned Golda Meir for my synagogue’s annual Jewish Heroes game. As Encino’s official spokesperson for Israel’s fourth prime minister, I was determined to fulfill my duties representing the ‘Iron Lady’ of Israeli politics, which included making a clay bust. , writing a short report and finally performing it on stage. As an aspiring researcher and feminist with some stage experience, I felt confident that I could do her justice in those last two areas. The bust, on the other hand, was a little more difficult. Several teachers and peers joked about how much clay I would need to do Golda’s nose justice. Was it really this fat? Was that really his defining characteristic? No one gave me advice on how to write about her or play her; the only comment I received was to “add more”, which I did. In fact, I added so much clay that for the next two decades, Golda first stumbled into my parents’ garage cabinet. They couldn’t bear to throw her out (or keep her inside) and her head couldn’t quite bear the weight of her nose.
But why does Golda’s nose get so much attention? Was it disproportionate? Has he simply aged more than the rest of his body? Or was he not that tall after all, and the media continued to play on his height due to implicit biases? That, naturally, a Jewish woman is predisposed to greater schnoz, and when someone Jewish wields as much power as Golda Meir did in her heyday, it becomes imperative to tie her facial features to Fagin’s. , Shylock or Svengali, the historically big-nosed antagonists with particularly vengeful and sinister features. One of the main facets of “otherness” has always been to vilify individuals and groups who pose the greatest threat to pre-existing power dynamics.
When a Jewish person wields as much power as Golda Meir in her heyday, it becomes imperative to tie her facial features to those of Fagin, Shylock, or Svengali, the historically big-nosed antagonists with particularly vengeful and sinister features.
“Jewface” is an American vaudeville tradition that stems from such a practice of otherness. On the vaudeville stage, Jews and non-Jews alike wore prosthetic noses and beards, adopted fake Yiddish accents, and performed roles similar to these grotesque literary characters, in order to poke fun at or reinforce pre-existing stereotypes of Jewish immigrants. . Within this specific late 19th and early 20th century performative practice, Jewface has always been a destined form of mockery.
A Jan. 14 article in Variety discussed the ongoing “Jewface” debate surrounding the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in Guy Nattiv’s upcoming biopic, “Golda.” The concerns mentioned echo some of those described by Sarah Silverman on her podcast last fall, where she commented that the casting of people like Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Jewface, whom she simply defined as a non-Jewish person. playing someone whose Jewishness is central to their character’s identity. I don’t disagree that throwing Gentiles in place of Jews could be problematic, but I’m convinced that using the label “Jewface” as a catch-all for anything from unfairness to anti-Semitism is problematic.
As soon as we label everything along this spectrum “Jewface”, we forget the nuances of literary figures and the horribly degrading nature of the vaudeville tradition, which was never meant to be complementary. Nattiva’sGolda” is meant to be flattering and not derogatory, so we can’t give Mirren’s performance the same description as those truly monstrous vaudeville performances. I suspect Mirren will offer a wise wisdom and gravity that will suit the former Prime Minister, without doing him a disservice. The label ‘Jewface’ is thrown about with the same carelessness as terms like ‘blackface’ or ‘yellowface’ in the media and it must stop; we miss much bigger and deeper issues by using such catch-all terms to refer to racial and ethnic charade.
If the argument is that Mirren’s prosthetic nose in this film warrants the “Jewface” classification, then let’s talk about his nose, not his performance. If it really was typing, then Mirren wouldn’t be the right choice and I’m not convinced that an actress in Mirren’s age range would have a nose comparable to Golda’s, Jewish or not. That is to say, even if Nativ had casting someone Jewish, she might have needed a prosthetic nose too. So why is it so hard to find someone who both looks like Golda and can play her? Isn’t Israel full of talented Jewish actresses? I offer three reasons why Mirren might have been chosen, and each requires us to think a little less superficially than her nose.
First, Nativ may have specifically been looking for someone who wasn’t Jewish to play Golda, not because she was the better candidate but because she attracted the greatest number. We all know Hollywood isn’t about authenticity, it’s about box office sales and politics. Perhaps someone as universally respected as Mirren was the the most intelligent nobody to play Meir because non-Jews (maybe even some anti-Semites and anti-Israelis) would come to see his, when they wouldn’t otherwise see a film about the creation of a Jewish state and socialist Zionism. What we really should be discussing is representational politics, not Jewface.
Second, how many Jewish actresses only succeeded because they engaged in assimilative forms of body modification? It would be the catch-22 of Jewish women seeking careers in Hollywood. If they look the part, they are not wanted. So they change their noses, become more goyische looking at. Then they can’t be pigeonholed because they don’t look Jewish enough. What we really should be discussing are Western beauty standards and who are excluded from these paradigms, not the Jewish face.
Finally, I come back to where I started: was Golda’s nose really that big or were we all manipulated into thinking the stereotype reflects reality? No one really cared if my report was good, or even if my performance in the Jewish Heroes play did Meir justice. All that was asked of him was something as superficial as his nose.
Brynn ShiovitzPhD, teaches at Chapman University and is the editor of The Body, the Dance, and the Text: Essays on Performance and the Margins of History (McFarland 2019), and author of Behind the Screen: Tap Dance, Race , and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age (Oxford 2022).