In Avery Ackelbein’s story, seeing (or rather, not seeing) accurate Jewish representation in television and movies strongly affected her self-image and interest in her heritage. A lack of Jewish figures in the media dulled her interest in exploring her culture and made her feel separated from her identity.
Part of what makes representation so important is that it helps to promote tolerance and understanding of other cultures. In Ackelbein’s journey towards finding belonging in the Jewish community, she discovered a cyclical pattern between representation, tolerance, and the acceptance of her own identities.
“While overall there is more representation in television nowadays, I would say there has been little to no progression in Jewish representation,” Ackelbein said. “I spend a lot of time watching TV on Netflix and Hulu with my roommates and I can’t recall one time where there has been a reference to Judaism, except in actual ‘Jewish’ films where they really only reference the Holocaust.”
Ackelbein mentions the pervasiveness of films like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” and “Schindler’s List” and their dark, serious subject matter focusing on the Holocaust. She asks instead, where are the lighter, happier films that feature Jewish characters and that do not center on tragedy?
“Because of the association of the Jewish faith and the Holocaust, people who do not know much about Judaism only see [the faith and culture] in a frankly horrific light,” she said. “Obviously, the Holocaust needs to continue to be talked about and used to educate future generations to avoid repeating history, but I would also love to see more general representation of Jewish people, their religion, and culture.”
This is one of the biggest missing pieces in the representation of Jewish people in entertainment. So much of the Jewish content available for consumption is related to the Holocaust and World War II. While these events were truly horrible and affected countless lives forever, Ackelbein brings forward an important point: Judaism and Jewish people are more than a tragic history. It is a part of their story, but it does not define them as people and individuals.
Where are the blockbuster movies that feature a Jewish main character, she asks? Where is the latest binge-able series starring a family celebrating Passover?
Shows like New Girl, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are perfect examples of shows with Jewish characters that cultivate massive fanbases. They have dynamic, round main characters that tend to avoid stereotypes and are true representations of what Judaism can look like today. However, this is a short list. There is room for more representation and more hidden diversity on both the big and small screens alike.
People with hidden diversity aren’t the only ones that are negatively affected by a lack of representation in entertainment. Representation can lead to better tolerance and cultural understanding in society as a whole. For cross-cultural and culturally fluid folks, a society with better tolerance and understanding brings new opportunities for belonging. When people have a frame of reference to understand what it means to have hidden diversity – even if it comes from a fictional character – the sense of alienation so often felt by CCKs and TCKs starts to dissipate. When people understand where you’re coming from, it’s easier to feel a sense of belonging.
Creating characters that accurately portray hidden diversity is a big first step in beginning to educate the general public on what it means to be cross-cultural and to be culturally fluid. Building acceptance begins with starting a conversation and producing more content that depicts hidden diversity can be the spark needed to spread cultural understanding like wildfire.
In part one of this series, we looked at the impacts that representation in entertainment can have on young people’s self-image and identity.
In part three of this series, we will conclude by examining what accurate representation of Judaism in entertainment could look like.