In my previous post I laid out some of my general thoughts about the nebbish; where he comes from, how he behaves, and why he has had such longevity. The nebbish is a deceptively complex figure, and the persistence of the type in comedy indicates deep resonances, especially within the Jewish community, with the nebbish. In this post I will add some thoughts about gender to the mix. Thinking about the possibility of a female nebbish raises the eternal question: “just because you can, should you?” Is opening up the type to women a stride for equality, or is the more socially progressive move to refuse to portray women as self-sacrificing victims and to give them more agency?
How, then, does this relate to the question of the female nebbish? Although gender equality is certainly something we should continue to strive for, if the nebbish is a negative image do we want to be able to apply it to women? Given the historic treatment of women, can a perpetual victim, an abused, overlooked figure who follows meekly behind a more dominant person tidying up their messes actually be anything but horrifying when reimagined as a woman? We can laugh at Uncle David on the Goldbergs when he flutters around the apartment in a frilly apron, cooking and cleaning for the family, but when Fanny Brice sang in “My Man”
Oh, my man I love him so/ He’ll never know
All my life is just despair/ But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms/ The world is bright, all right
What’s the diff’rence if I say/ I’ll go away, When I know
I’ll come back on my knees some day?
For whatever my man is/ I am his forever more!/ Oh, my man I love him
It was a pitiable, but not also risible performance of codependency and loss of self-worth in the face of the dominant other.
Combine those problems, then, with the Ugly Duckling issue. Traditionally Jewish women have had three stock types of their own, at least in American Jewish culture. Older Jewish women become the Jewish Mother, domineering, controlling, doting on her son in particular, and reducing her husband into a nebbish at best, a total non-entity at worst. Younger women had two options, both equally awful. The first is the more well-known Jewish American Princess. She is vapid and spoiled, frigid and self-centered. The second option is the Ugly Duckling. She has been the female equivalent to the nebbish for some time already. In her book Intolerance: The Parameters of Oppression Lise Noel points out that throughout literature and film Jewish men have typically “not idealized Jewish women,” depicting them through the story of “’The Jewish Ugly Duckling’ or ‘The Jewish American Princess.’” The Ugly Duckling is sometimes the JAPs younger sister (think Dirty Dancing), sometimes her best friend (think Kissing Jessica Stein), sometimes just her project (think Clueless). So if she is for women what the nebbish has been for men, is she also being reinvented?
Letty Cottin Pogrebin thinks so. She sees the Ugly Duckling, which she terms the “Jewish Big Mouth,” as a feminist icon. She claims that, “the character of the clever, outspoken Jewish girl has become a film convention that empowers all women. Most important, films portraying the Ugly Duckling who rises above her appearance have assured girls with big noses and frizzy hair that they too can invent their own kind of terrific and leave Miss America in the dust.” The Ugly Duckling can get her man, but then what? If she truly has aspects of the nebbish in her personality are we back to Fanny Brice pining after her lying, cheating, unemployed, gadabout man? Just because she gets the prince, does she live happily ever after?
This is where I find the gender divide is still at its widest. The modern male nebbish exists in a state of dramatic irony, where the audience knows things the other characters do not, and we view him therefore with both pity and respect at various points. The female nebbish or the reclaimed Ugly Duckling’s success still seems fleeting, as if her gains are tinged with the specter of future failure. There is, perhaps, dramatic irony at play here as well, but instead of seeing the power behind the nebbish, the Superman underneath the Clark Kent exterior we see the future unraveling that she fails to realize in her moment of happiness. She evokes pathos instead of a strange pride. To illustrate this I am going to turn to a non-Jewish Ugly Duckling: Peggy Olson from Mad Men.
Peggy spent the entire run of Man Men in the shadow of the men of Sterling Cooper. Though she is bright, talented, determined, and vocal about her displeasure at the double standard she sees in the treatment of men and women in advertising, she is never able to rise the way she would like. It is not for nothing, I would say, that this show is a period piece. We as the audience already know how history worked out, and we know that this woman is never going to become the boss, because that wasn’t the lot of women in the industry in the early 60s. So we can applaud Peggy’s successes, while also cringing because we know somehow, some way, it is going to unravel. Even when she goes with Don Draper to start their own firm, eventually becoming his right hand woman, it isn’t ever her name on the company. And when she bounces from firm to firm, always trying to find the place where she can really be herself and let her talent shine, the audience senses that she will never truly find that place. And, of course, she doesn’t. She ends up back with Don again, never able to fully escape his gravity. Her greatest career achievement even gets overshadowed when the announcement of her winning a CLIO award is preempted to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. To which the audience responds, “well of course.” That is Peggy’s lot in life, poor thing. We don’t root for her because we know it isn’t going to work out in the end. We like her, we wish it were otherwise, but we know it’s not. Funny, isn’t it, that she shares her last name with another, more traditional nebbish, Jimmy Olson. Jimmy Olson, in fact, is often what makes the Clark Kent Effect work. Precisely because we can see that Clark and Jimmy are so different, we can have pride in Clark that we can’t in Jimmy. Jimmy is the unreclaimed nebbish as Peggy is the Ugly Duckling after the ball, in the cold light of day.
So then where does that leave us with the nebbish? With work to be done, I would say, although much has been done already. Let’s return, for a moment, to Rachel Shukert’s nebbish typology. She writes of “the Hipster Nebbish (crumpled tweed jackets and phobic hand-wringing of early Woody Allen); the Slacker Nebbish (one of Judd Apatow’s sheepish heroes, with bong in one hand and an Xbox controller in the other); the Toxic Nebbish (see George Costanza, the most irately Jewish son of Tuscany ever committed to film). There’s the Nebbish Who Never Gets Laid, the Nebbish Who Screws Up Getting Laid, the Nebbish Who Is Inexplicably Laid by Gorgeous and Understanding Shiksa, also known as Wish Fulfillment Nebbish.” Because the nebbish is so unrelentingly male, and because, in Shukert’s eyes, he persists because of the ongoing and perpetual victim mentality of contemporary Jews, there is not much good to be found in his continued existence.
But as I have argued, perhaps there is something of value in his defiance of traditional anti-Semitic negativity, and his ability to evoke not only pity but also pride. If we continue to be presented with complex nebbishes, with Clark Kents that we as an audience also know are Superman, then maybe the nebbish can be a subversive and unlikely cultural hero. Maybe he is less victim, and more biding his time, or choosing his moment to shine. But as long as we continue to struggle with how to give women the same multi-faceted backstory then the nebbish can never really be a symbol for all Jews. Jewish women on screen and on the page need to be able to provoke pity and pride in equal measure as well. The Ugly Duckling may be able to become a feminist icon, a figure of empowerment to unattractive women everywhere, but that isn’t enough. Because too often we still get stories in which the Ugly Duckling’s second act results in abandonment, abuse, or tragedy. She still ends up as a victim far too often, and that is keeping her from being able to reap the benefits of being reclaimed as cultural hero.
I have argued that one of the hallmarks of the modern nebbish is that he is complex, and that is why I think increasingly he is someone with whom people can and do identify. The Hipster, The Slacker, the George Costanza, the McLovin, they all seem like people we could spend an afternoon with, and maybe even people we wouldn’t mind being, at least for a while. That, to me, is the strongest argument against seeing the nebbish as a perennial victim. No one wants to be a victim, but to a lot of us being Superman seems sort of exhausting too. Given those options, maybe being Clark Kent isn’t so bad after all.
Jenny Caplan is currently a Visiting Instructor of Religious Studies at Western Illinois University. She is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, and should be defending her dissertation “All Joking Aside: the role of religion in American Jewish Satire” any moment now. She works primarily on American religion and popular culture, especially as relates to post-War American Judaism.