SShortly after the release of the brilliant It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies justified his decision to only pick gay actors in gay roles by saying:. You wouldn’t want to pick someone able-bodied and put them in a wheelchair… authenticity takes us to happy places.
It would be wrong to suggest that no one has questioned this statement, but it has become part of an ongoing conversation about casting and minorities. Davies luckily wasn’t heavily abused on social media for saying so – which happened to Maureen Lipman last week, after suggesting, when asked about casting Helen Mirren in a biopic by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that Perhaps Jewish roles should be played by Jewish actors.
I’ll claim some credit – or, for those (and it seems there are a lot) who hate this suggestion, a responsibility – for this, because I’m aware that Lipman (like Sarah Silverman, who said something very similar thing about the castings of Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg) read my book Jews Don’t Count. It is a controversy expressing my opinion that, during a period of extreme intensification of the progressive conversation about representation and inclusion and microaggression and what is and is not offensive to minorities, a minority – the Jews – have been systematically neglected.
In the book, some time is devoted to the question of casting. In terms of that conversation, casting is more directly about employment, a correction against previous traditions that have meant less work for minority actors. But it is also – and I would say, even more so in its essence – a question of respect. There is something disrespectful, according to this argument, about playing an able-bodied actor in a disabled role, or a cis actor in a trans role, and so on. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin put it well when she said, “The deaf is not a costume. ”
The deep truth of any marginalized identity is only accessible to those who experience that identity. Calling on a non-minority actor to mimic that sense of identity, with the progressive eye, like identity theft, and identity theft can have an element of mockery – or at least seem reductive, reducing the complexity of this experience by channeling it through an actor who has not lived it.
You might not agree with that – you might be one of those people who say actors should be allowed to act – but in the offices of casting directors the progressive argument has been won. Even in animation, voice actors must now match the ethnicity or sexuality or gender preference or valid status of their avatars. The risks of indignation if this restriction is not respected are too great. Netflix animation BoJack Horseman is an icy masterpiece, but series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg has apologized profusely because a Vietnamese-American character, Diane Nguyen, is voiced by the non Vietnamese Alison Brie.
In Bojack Horseman, there is another character called Lenny Turteltaub. He’s a turtle, but very Jewish, a stereotype of a very Jewish Hollywood producer, and he’s played by JK Simmons, who isn’t Jewish. There was no outcry about it, and Waksberg saw no need to worry about it. This is true across the board: Jews are the minority you can choose with actors outside of that minority, and hardly, until very recently, you hear a whisper of concern. What you may hear, again, if you raise the issue, is an extremely vehement reaction.
This vehemence points to a number of confusions – many see Jews as whites, while it would be truer to say that when it comes to racism, Jews are Schrödinger’s whites: white or non-white depending on the observer policy. Many instinctively see Jewishness as a religion rather than an ethnicity, and therefore anti-Semitism as religious intolerance rather than racism, although, as I have repeatedly pointed out, my great-uncle being an atheist did not get no free Warsaw Ghetto passes. But mainly, it is about the fact that Jews are supposed, in an anti-Semitic way, to be successful, privileged and powerful, and therefore not need the protections that identity politics offers to other minorities. In the case of the cast, it falls as follows: “Well, Jews are all over showbiz, so Jewish actors don’t need that boost. “
So it is strange that so many Jewish parts are not with Jewish actors, even when the characters and the plots are very, very Jewish. Why, if there are so many Jews in showbiz, is Gary Oldman portrayed as Herman Mankiewicz, or Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel? Why the directors of the recent BBC drama Ridley Road, about anti-Semitism in London after the war, had to struggle, after I pointed out the lack of Jews in the cast, saying the actress playing the main character had just found out that she had a Jewish grandfather? Why are the four main characters of the only recognizable Jewish sitcom on British television, Friday Night Dinner, played by non-Jews except for Tom Rosenthal who has publicly disavowed this legacy? If there are that many Jewish actors, they must all be crap, because they really don’t get Jewish jobs.
And more importantly, like I said, that question isn’t really who gets the job. It is about the idea that the minority experience should be expressed by those who really know it, rather than caricatured by those who do not know it. It would be an interesting conclusion, given 2,000 years of persecution, that the portrayal of Jewish identity does not deserve this complexity.
Despite the use of the term Jewface in this argument, when I watch non-Jews play Jews, it is not just a question of face. The phrase I use, to cover the whole gamut of twitching and shrugging and stooping and whining and kvetching as I saw in a recent Little Shop of Horrors production for the character of Mr. Mushnik by a non-jewish actor – is the Being of Nebbish. Having a non-Jew make Nebbish Being – if you follow the same logic that would apply if it was a black, gay, trans, disabled character, or any other minority character, playing on the stereotypical aspects of that minority – is disrespectful, or at least not true, to the Jews.
It’s all complex. I note that many Jews themselves feel uncomfortable with the demand that Jews play Jews, both for reasons of acting but also, more deeply, because many Jews are in general uncomfortable asking for parity with other minorities in all the micro-aggressions and calls out of identity-politics-land. My position on this lack of parity is this: Whether you want parity or not, it’s worth stressing. It is worth saying it. I – along with Maureen Lipman and Sarah Silverman – pointed out that, yes, actors should be allowed to act. But that’s not the world we or the casting directors live in now, and the question must then be asked: why should things be any different for Jews?
In all the aggressive tweets on Lipman I saw a lot of pictures posted triumphantly from when she once played a vicar on a TV show. Social media sure loves an Aha! meme, and those who hated Lipman for saying her thing with Golda Meir posted it lavishly, like it proves she was wrong. But minority casting is not a two-way street. Dev Patel can obviously play all the brown roles that are offered to him, and he can now play David Copperfield as well. Michael Fassbender, however, won’t be ready for Gandhi anytime soon. The new casting is an industry-wide attempt to correct a previous structural wrong, and minorities are now granted the right to perform themselves, and Also allowed to play roles from the dominant culture.
If Jews are part of this, the same cantonment should apply to them as far as the Jewish parts are concerned, but neither should it prevent them from being seen as non-Jewish figures in the mainstream Christian culture as well. Which means Lipman can say this about Meir and Mirren – and play all the vicars and priests she wants. But that is of course to imagine that the Jews are perceived as a true minority. It is about imagining that the Jews are in need of repair as much as any other minority.
The dial moves a little. Tamsin Greig recently said that she “probably shouldn’t have” played a Jewish mother at the Friday night dinner. It’s not the kind of comprehensive apology that some performers, including myself, have offered the historic transgression of playing minorities when they’re not one of them.
And here’s the thing. I don’t need or want Greig to apologize (she’s unique anyway, being a practicing Christian with Jewish ancestry). I think, in fact, that Greig was brilliant in Friday Night Dinner, that she came as close as possible, without caricature, to the reality of writer Robert Popper’s suburban Jewish mother. I believe two things at the same time – that in an ideal world, non-Jews should be allowed to play Jews, but the fact that this allowance already exists and has so far received very little recoil is, in the context of modern casting, a gap that needs to be deconstructed, as it says a lot about how which people see as Jews.
It is, as I said, complex. Ultimately, I don’t know the answer. But I think I – along with Maureen Lipman and every other Jew – shouldn’t be fooled for asking the question.