We Need More Jewish Queer Women On The Teevee

2019 brought us the hotly anticipated musical finale of Transparent, undoubtedly one of the most resolutely Jewish television programs of all time. The over-intellectual, neurotic, navel-gazing and sexually freewheeling Pfefferman family initially made history for being the first TV show centering a trans woman character but, quietly over the course of its run, also made history for its portrayal of an almost entirely queer nuclear family: the now-dead matriarch Maura Pfefferman (trans and queer), the very-much-alive matriarch Shelly (mostly straight, but kinda queer), youngest child Ari (non-binary and queer), Sarah (bisexual) and Josh (the family’s last remaining heterosexual). Sarah, Ari and Maura dated and slept with men, women and non-binary people at various points throughout the show’s run. The two-hour series-ender was a distinctly Jewish kaleidoscope of bitter grief, stubborn joy and existential sexual dread. Arguably it did a better job portraying Jewish culture than it ever did at showcasing a diverse or representative portrait of the trans community. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum once described the show as “aggressively specific: Jewy, screwy, L.A., upper middle class, not so much queer-friendly as queer-saturated.” When it debuted, Tablet Mag called it “the most Jewish show to come along in years,” and not just for the tangible details, like the East Side J and Cantor’s Deli, but because “Jewishness with its rituals, its spiritual wrestling and doubt, its biblical stories and metaphors, is interwoven, appearing effortlessly within the narrative.”

But Transparent is also one of three shows with queer Jewish characters that ended in 2019.

Amy Landecker (Sarah), Gaby Hoffman (Ari) and Jay Duplass (Josh) in the “Transparent Musical Finale” (2019)

There may be some truth to the stereotype that the Jews and the Gays are disproportionately likely to be “running Hollywood.” There’s even scores of lesbian and bisexual Jewish women currently writing, producing and directing television including Ilene Chaiken, Ali Adler, Carol Leifer, Carrie Brownstein, Sara Gilbert, Diane Flacks, Abbi Jacobson, Jan Oxenberg, Lisa Cholodenko, Liz Feldman, Nina Jacobson and Rebecca Sugar. Yet the stories that make it from studio to TV screen rarely reflect this abundance, even though Jewish and queer representation on television, independently of one another, has increased.

Some of TV’s most lauded shows of the ’90s and early ’00s had Jewish lead characters, like Friends, Seinfeld, Will & Grace, The Nanny (a rare bird for starring a Jewish actress who was also writer and co-producer) and The O.C. The 2010s comprised what at least one writer referred to as an era of “peak Jewish TV.” “If you kept up with critically-acclaimed TV comedies this past decade,” wrote Michael Fraiman earlier this year in The Canadian Jewish News, “you’d have noticed a hefty number of Jewish actors and showrunners behind some of the decade’s biggest hits.” He cites Golden Globe wins by shows created by and starring Jewish characters like Girls, Transparent, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Mozart in the Jungle, and The Kominsky Method; as well as critical favorites like Schitt’s Creek, Broad City, Moshe Kasher’s Problematic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Inside Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman’s I Love You, Man Seeking Woman, Nathan For You, Workin’ Moms, The Goldbergs, Wet Hot American Summer, Better Things and Orange is the New Black. 

Abbi (Abbi Jacobson) and Ilana (Ilana Glazer) go shopping in Broad City “Florida” (2017)

But, Fraiman points out, “after the initial gold rush, the era is slowing down,” as most of these programs wrapped up recently or are about to. If this is true for Jewish television generally, it’s doubly true for queer Jewish women and non-binary characters specifically.

This year the number of explicitly Jewish regular or recurring queer women or non-binary characters on television is taking a huge hit, and we weren’t exactly thriving to begin with. Of the 1,024 LGBTQ regular and recurring women and non-binary characters we have in our database, only 22 are Jewish, only oof those characters were Jews of color, and nearly half of them were on shows ending in 2019: The Pfeffermans and their associates on Transparent, Abbi and Ilana on Broad City and Nicky Nichols from Orange is the New Black. Although Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s queer characters weren’t Jewish, the show still offered an opportunity to enjoy Jewishness and queerness in the same televised package, and it too wrapped up in 2019. All four of those shows were critically acclaimed, pushed the boundaries of form and style, and resonated deeply with populations who’d previously felt underrepresented — as addressed in pieces like What Broad City Meant to Millennial Jewish Women, Broad City’s Celebration of Romantic Friendship and Bisexual Culture Has Changed  TV Forever (full disclosure: I wrote that one), Orange is the New Black Wraps Up With a Very Jewish Final Season, Transparent Changed Me (and TV) Forever and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend Gave Us the Nuanced Jewish Heroine We Needed.

What remains? Susie Myerson on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, maybe, depending on your read of her sexual orientation. The Beverly Hills 90210 reboot BH90210 saw the in-world Gabrielle Carteris and her character of Andrea Zuckerman exploring her bisexuality, but the show didn’t earn a Season Two pick-up. The very Jewy animated comedy Big Mouth returned for its third season in October — lead character Jessi’s Mom, Shannon, had an affair with her cantor in Season One, but she hasn’t explored her feelings for women since. Sweetbitter‘s lesbian character Ari is played by Jewish actress Eden Epstein, although I’m not sure if her religion is ever mentioned on the show. The L Word: Generation Q reboot confirmed the death of its Jewish lead, Jenny Schecter.

Thus what absolutely remains is the pansexual Lauren Heller, played by Molly Bernard, on TV Land’s Younger (the actress credits her character with helping her come out, too) and Nomi, a bisexual college student on the Freeform series Grown-Ish. There’s also, most notably, Batwoman, played by the very not Jewish model/actress Ruby Rose, although references to her Judaism have been sparse thus far. We’ve also still got some Jewish shows that boast queer characters, although none of the queer women and/or trans characters are Jewish: Schitt’s Creek (which ends this year), Russian Doll and G.L.O.W.

According to our 2018 “Lesbian Stereotypes Survey,” which garnered 12.3k responses, queer women and trans folks — at least the ones peripherally aware of this website — are WAY more likely to identify as Jewish than heterosexual Americans are. This was true with Pew’s analysis of LGBT populations as well, and their survey also found Jewish respondents to be more accepting of homosexuality than adherents of other popular religions in the U.S. There are so many prominent queer Jews at the forefront of activist and artistic movements. Yet we are uniquely hard to find on television, although stories about the intersection of faith and homo- or bisexuality have been some of the most popular queer stories ever told.

For many queer Jewish millennials, Transparent and Broad City were the first time we saw anything that looked anything like us on television. It can be one of those things you don’t realize you need until you get it, and then you’re left craving so much more, especially at a time when Anti-Semitism is very much on the rise. Stereotypes about Jewish people permeate even the most socially conscious queer communities — most nefariously, the assumption that all Jews are Zionists — and stereotypes do their best work in absence of alternate narratives.

I started writing this post in the fall. In anticipation of the Transparent finale, I wanted to do a list of all our top 25 favorite queer Jewish characters. But there weren’t 25 characters to include. So this is what I wrote instead.

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2781 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this. Question does Portlandia count here since the main actor Carrie is a queer Jew? I know the show had her in a few relationships with women, but I forget if she played a Jewish character or not. Also, as someone who watched the L Word around the time season 1 first aired, I will mostly defend Jenny, less so her actions in the last season, but still like her. Or maybe it’s Mia Kirshner who I like & projecting some of that onto Jenny. Would it be wrong to say I want Jenny or maybe it’s Mia, to top me?

  2. Great article, it’s really kinda sad how little rep we get on TV. Just a note: Amanita from Sense8 is Jewish.

    Also I’m assuming this is specific to US TV/English speaking TV only, since obviously there’s some queer characters on Israeli TV and even one on Argentinian TV (Jazmin from Las Estrellas)

  3. A brief political gripe: if it’s disingenuous — and dangerous — to conflate “Jew” with “Zionist,” it’s perhaps equally so to conflate “Zionist” with “supporter of Israel in its current incarnation.”

    Zionism’s claim, qua ideology, is minimal, and likely sympathetic to anyone who believes in the viability of the ethnostate: that the Jewish people deserve a Jewish nation. There’s nothing in this conviction itself that condones the horrors of the contemporary Israeli state, from the structural and lamentably routine (e.g., occupation and martial oversight of the WB) to the exceptional (e.g., unprovoked civilian casualties at the hands of IDF soldiers.)

    Every progressive organization out there that is committed to an equitable two-state solution is, then, Zionist at its core. 20th century thinkers who conceived of a liberal Jewish state in continental Europe, as Holocaust reparation, were — though admittedly fringe — Zionists. Frankfurt School pioneers, oft-heroized for their midcentury expansion of materialist “vulgar Marxism” to the domain of culture, were Zionists in significant proportion.

    Of course, I can understand why someone might be broadly anti-nationalist and, as such, strictly anti-Zionist. But if you concede the value and efficacy of the nation-state for globally-persecuted minorities — by supporting, for example, a free Kurdistan, a free Tibet, or even a free Palestine — an exception of Zionism in particular stands on shaky ground.

  4. Haha Batwoman had a bat mitzvah hahaha puns.
    Rebecca Bunch of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend almost kisses her Hebrew school nemesis Audra Levine and her ex boyfriend’s girlfriend. Also she says she’s a 1.8 on the Kinsey Scale. So she sort of counts as a queer Jew but her bisexuality is mostly played for laughs.
    Schitt’s Creek has an excellent pan (male) Jewish character.

  5. Thank you for this! It’s great to see all these women listed together.
    I think it’s important to also consider all the Jewish women who exist alongside/within queer spaces because so often Jews and queers are situated together. You mention Will & Grace but don’t mention that Will’s representation of a gay man was the first of its kind and it worked only because Grace was Jewish.
    I’d also add Rachel Berry from Glee – she was Jewish and had two dads.

  6. Hey, I enjoyed reading this, but I had a question about your timeline… Did I miss an episode of Better Things? Because I don’t remember the character Frankie ever coming out as trans? Let me know so I can make sure to watch

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