Ethnic Stereotypes in Prime Time

OVER dinner the other night my mother asked us if we liked the ABC television series ``The Wonder Years.'' There was unanimous approval. How then, she continued, did we feel that main character Kevin Arnold's best friend, Paul, an awkward, gawky, brainy wimp with a large nose, weak chin, and glasses, had celebrated a bar mitzvah on one of last season's shows? How did we feel that the show's ``geek'' was Jewish?

The episode had definitely portrayed Paul, his family, and the bar mitzvah ritual in a positive light. Paul is Kevin's best friend, after all. Yet Paul's geekiness is hardly understated; Kevin is definitely ``cooler'' than his Jewish friend. And it is no surprise that Paul, the intelligent yet socially inept, kind yet unathletic, emaciated nerd is a Jew.

Television's depictions of minorities has certainly made great strides. ``The Goldbergs'' were offensive stereotypes, while the male leads on ``thirtysomething,'' who are Jewish, are depicted as human and vulnerable as anyone else. ``Amos and Andy'' were a result of bigotry; ``The Cosby Show'' is a result of the warm familial humor of Mr. Cosby.

Yet recently I've noticed anachronistic depictions of minorities, specifically Jews, rampant on prime-time television. This is not to condemn Jackie Mason's new sitcom, ``Chicken Soup.'' For while Mason fulfills the usual Jewish stereotypes, he does so with warmth and a kind humor. Mr. Mason and, for that matter, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks present themselves as caring, sensible, sensitive people. And other, quite different Jewish characters are often also depicted, offsetting the nebbishy stereotype.

But such tends not to be the case on prime time. Jews are often represented as either one-dimensional nebbishes or, more harmfully, as greedy, manipulative slime. On NBC's ``L.A. Law,'' Stuart Markowitz, though portrayed as affable by Michael Tucker, is a roly-poly little tax attorney. The fact that the Jew's place in the law firm Mackenzie Brackman is with the money may be but borderline offensive. But the fact that Markowitz is short and nerdy while the other males are so dashingly handsome is prejudice.

But Paul and Markowitz as examples of this narrow-mindedness are merely condescending; the type of prejudice that bars Jews from the ``right'' clubs. TV's depiction of Jews can be malicious.

An episode of the syndicated ``Tales from the Darkside'' had corrupt businessman Jake Kane returning from hell. Throughout the show, we discover the heinous crimes Kane committed to be banished from heaven. ABC's touching ``Life Goes On,'' chronicling the life of a family in which son ``Corky'' is afflicted with Down's syndrome, features nasty, spoiled, malicious, manipulative Rona Lieberman. On the season premiere, Rona cheats from Corky's paper and then lies about doing it, ruthlessly entices Corky into defending her, and constantly taunts him. She is out for herself, and is callous enough to exploit a retarded youth if it furthers her needs.

On the Sept. 24 episode of ``Life Goes On,'' we meet outcast Lester Fishman, much like Paul from ``The Wonder Years,'' except with no socially redeeming qualities whatsoever. Fishman is obnoxious, super-intelligent, friendless, neurotic, and puny. ``I'm looking out for numero uno,'' he proclaims to Corky - perhaps indicative of a future crooked Jewish Wall Streeter. GRANTED, there are nebbishy Jewish tax attorneys, spoiled Jewish girls, crooked Jewish businessmen. But there are also drunk Irish bartenders, inscrutable Chinese launderers, lazy blacks on welfare. Is it necessary to reestablish stereotypes? Is it responsible to reinforce ignorance?

Why ``Jake Kane?'' Why ``Rona Lieberman?'' Why ``Lester Fishman?'' These names are not coincidental. When a writer creates a script, every word, every aspect of the character and plot is carefully chosen. Why then, with so many ``mainstream'' names to choose from (Parker, Smith, Brown, Jones) is it necessary to select one which so obviously has an ethnic connotation?

It is no accident. Shakespeare's Shylock, Dickens's Fagan, and Hemingway's Robert Cohn: These names and their characters make a statement. Certainly now, in a more enlightened age, we can rise above this.

It's curious that these mistakes are made at this time, when so many of these shows are written and produced by people with, at the very least, Jewish surnames. Is this the result of the dreaded ``self-hating Jew?'' Or is this the result, as bigotry returns to vogue, of ``giving the customer what he wants?''

I went to a small Jewish high school. We had our share of waste-cases, punks, princesses, brains, geeks, dumb jocks and, yes, cool people. Just like anyone else. I would hope that the writers and producers, Jewish or not, of such quality television as ``The Wonder Years'' and ``Life Goes On'' can rise above these offensive stereotypes. It is beneath them as writers, and beneath what America should stand for today.

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