Women Can Be Schlemiels? Reflecting on Contemporary Schlemiels of the “Opposite Sex”


An important and often neglected subject of schlemiel theory is the female schlemiel who, since she hasn’t been discussed as much as the male schlemiel, needs a discourse.  The already existing discourse on her has found its beginnings not in the work of Ruth Wisse or Sanford Pinsker (the two most important schlemiel theorists in schlemiel theory in the twentieth century) but in the work of David Biale: Eros and the Jews.   His reading suggests that Philp Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and most of Woody Allen’s early films – all the way up to Annie Hall (1976) – provide us with a definition of the female schlemiel.  As Biale suggests, she is defined by the schlemiel of the “opposite sex.”    But before he arrives at this definition, he defines Woody Allen’s “sexual schlemiel.”  He is impotent but Biale argues that this is not any mere impotence.  And, as he suggests, we read this in relation to the female schlemiel who is “mirror image” of the male schlemiel.

Woody Allen’s male schlemiels are “not, however, merely impotent; they are also highly erotic.  Jews have the libidinal energy to win over gentile women from their desiccated WASP culture, but they can never consummate their conquests – the hormones are willing, but the psyche is ambivalent”(206).   Although the “hypersexual” Jew was a stock anti-Semitic image, Biale argues that Woody Allen’s sexual schlemiel “neutralized” it.  Biale goes on to decipher the intention of this neutralization: “the Jew does not corrupt gentile America by his hypersexuality so much as he de-eroticizes it with his comic fumbling”(207).

This argument about the sexual schlemiel’s neutralization of the anti-Semitic stereotype lays the groundwork for Biale’s definition of the female schlemiel:

In some of Allen’s movies the Jew’s sexual ambivalence infects the gentile women and turns them into mirror image of himself: even gentile women become “Jewish.”  The hidden agenda is to identify America with Jewish culture by generalizing Jewish sexuality and creating a safe, unthreatening space for the schlemiel as American anti-hero. (207)

This reading of the female schlemiel suggests that whoever she is paired with the schlemiel becomes “Jewish” because she is the “mirror image” of the male schlemiel (who has already crafted a space in America for Jewishness).    Jewishness becomes synonymous with being an American.  Biale’s reading suggests that it is gendered.   It seems as if a woman is to become a sexual schlemiel she is just an imitation of the male schlemiel.  Is that true?

In another section of the book, Biale suggests another take on the female schlemiel.  He notes how Eric Jong, in her second novel, Any Woman’s Blues, creates a female sexual schlemiel character, named Lela Sand, who is a lot like Roth’s Alexander Portnoy.  But she is a little more sexually active than Portnoy, who spends most of his sexual time alone, masturbating.  Leila has sex with many WASP men, celebrates her conquests, but, as Biale notes, she is “confused and frustrated sexually.”  The only child she has is not with a gentile, however; it is with a Jewish man.  She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants:

Leila Sand has no more resolved her sexoholism by the end of the novel than does Portnoy at the end of his complaint or than do Allen’s characters after nearly two decades of films.  Jong’s answer to the male stereotypes is a female version of the same syndrome.  (225-226)

In Biale’s reading, there is no such thing as a healthy female sexual schlemiel.  After all, she is a “female version of the same syndrome.”  All have  “big libidos and little egos.”  Biale’s clinical take on the sexual schlemiel suggests that it is a sick character.   No matter how sexually hyper they are or how impotent, the female schlemiel can only “mirror” the male, sexual schlemiel.    Biale’s negative valuation of the female schlemiel should be reflected on in light of new films that feature a female schlemiel character.

On the one hand, there is Noah Baumbach, who has cast Gretta Gerwig as a female schlemiel.  In Greenberg (2010), we have a schlemiel couple played by Ben Stiller and Gretta Gerwig.  But, before they met each other, they were both schlemiels.  When they come together we see this become a “possible” schlemiel romance:

In Mistress America (2015) and in Frances Ha (2013) she plays out different variations of the female schlemiel:

It seems that Gretta Gerwig, through her acting and Baumbach, through his writing, has turned it into something iconic and ironic.  Instead of being something stereotypical, they seem to be giving us something more existential and visceral.  Gerwig’s awkwardness is  painful and comic; its complex. But make no mistake she is a female schlemiel.  But Gerwig isn’t Jewish.

How do we read Gerwig in comparison to another female schlemiel, but who is Jewish?  How do we read Gerwig against Amy Shumer?  Are they both drawing on a stereotype of the female schlemiel which has, as Biale would say, become American?   Is Shumer doing something more stereotypical? What is the difference? Are both of them doomed to be a “mirror image” of male schlemiel?  Are Gretta Gerwig and Amy Shumer haunted by the ghost of Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer (from Annie Hall)?

I’ll leave you with a trailer from a new film that will be released in the summer: Snatched (2017).  She plays the schlemiel daughter of a Jewish mother played by Godie Hawn.  They both go on a journey.   It has much in common with another film Barbara Streisand did with Seth Rogen, who also go on a journey together: The Guilt Trip (2012). They both seem to mirror each other.  Perhaps Amy Schumer is the other side of the female schlemiel coin?  On the other hand, she seems like a paradigmatic example of a female sexual schlemiel.  She is sexually frustrated in most her performances.

But would you agree with David Biale’s observation that a female schlemiel like Amy Schumer is a “female version of the same syndrome”? Or is the clinical frame the wrong one?  What frame fits for the female schlemiel? Is she more than a male schlemiel’s mirror? I’ll let Amy Schumer speak for herself.  You can decide whether her Jewish identity is defined by having a big libido and a little ego, if some other psychological ailment is at hand, or if there is a better way to see her.

While Schumer’s comic journey may follow a similar pattern and although she never fails to fumble, in the film she does save her mother from death and becomes an ironic kind of female schlemiel hero (one we find in many Judd Apatow films starring a male schlemiel, Seth Rogen; A.O. Scott sees Rogen as caught up in what he calls “perpetual adolescence”).

But the comical heroism is not her’s alone.  It is shared.  Two female schlemiels save each other from the jaws of disaster.  The mother/daughter bond between schlemiels surpasses the comical-erotic aspects of a female “sexual schlemiel.” Perhaps this kind of female schlemiel can displace what Biale might call a “sexual schlemiel syndrome.” We have not even begun to scratch the surface.   There is much research yet to be done on this topic which may smash the (male) mirror image that Biale suggests is always before the female schlemiel.

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