The events of last week with Harvey Weinstein have prompted many powerful articles (good, in terms of prompting awareness of violent sexual actions that were an “open secret” in Hollywood, and really bad, in terms of prompting anti-Semitic remarks and insane conspiracy theories). After reading Mark Oppenheimer’s controversial Op-Ed piece for Tablet, entitled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein,” I was shocked to see that Oppenheimer – an editor at Tablet and the person beyond the (Un)orthodox Podcast – threw Philip Roth’s main schlemiel character, Alexander Portnoy into a toxic relationship with Harvey Weinstein.
Oppenheimer not only suggested a seamless relationship between Roth’s fictional caricature and a real pervert, he also suggested that these two are representative figures of baby-boomer Jewish-American urban life. Little did Oppenheimer know (and he later apologized for it), but this association gave fuel to the anti-Semitic fire which associates Jews with perversion.
(To be sure, the Nazis drew a lot of their anti-Semetic ire out of this horrible stereotype of the male Jew as a threat to “their” women. Hitler incorporated this fear into his Nuremberg Laws which forbid young German women from working under Jewish men. Sadly, Oppenheimer’s article was praised and retweeted by the alt-right ideologue Richard Spenser as a “powerful essay”.)
Tablet … or The Daily Stormer? Regardless, powerful easy. https://t.co/og0gZyssfw
— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) October 10, 2017
This association has leveled a devastating blow against what David Biale – in his book, Eros and the Jews – would call the “sexual schlemiel.” It also levels a devastating blow against the schlemiel’s anti-thesis, embodied in the comedy of Lenny Bruce. As Biale argues, the “sexual schlemiel” is a character with a “big libido and a small ego.” What is most interesting, however, is that although Biale mentions Roth at the outset (as the anti-thesis of the Sabra, who acts on his or her sexual desires and is powerful), he spends most of his time discussing Woody Allen.
Allen’s schlemiel chraacters, in comparison to Roth’s Portnoy, are tame. Portnoy is a sexually aggressive schlemiel. He has violent fantasies that – while comical – suggest that he is going to take “revenge” on the goyim. This idea overshadows the comedy of Portnoy’s powerlessness. He could never accomplish this. But the thought that comes out – in the wake of Roth’s other books and his own words – is that Roth leaves the schlemiel character for the characters who act on their fantasies (as in his novel Sabbath’s Theater).
In the wake of the link made by Oppenheimer, the sexual schlemiel has been challenged. Now fantasy about sex with “goyim” has been transformed into violence. Although there was historically a divide between Jews and non-Jews that was sexualized by Jewish American writers and comedians in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, any mention of sexual desire for “shiksas” (which is something Lenny Bruce also explicitly talked about), is now taboo because it is food for the anti-Semitic fire and, in the wake of Weinstein, is shown to be misogynist.
Even so, the fact of the matter is that what we often see with the schlemiel who doesn’t get to consummate his desire is that someone else does. He is often the “cuckold.” To be sure, the viewer or reader – whether of this or that Lil Dicky video, Seth Rogen film, or Woody Allen film – can’t imagine these characters becoming alpha-males and acting on their desires. Moreover, they aren’t anywhere as “perverted” or vindictive as Roth’s character. It would now – in the wake of this – be a mistake to put them into the same category. For this reason, it would be optimal to revise Biale’s category and differentiate between an aggressive and a passive sexual schlemiel. For instance, compare Roth’s Portnoy to Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern character (of the same era). Both are sexual schlemiels, but one is much more aggressive and perverted than the other.
Thinking about this issue, I came across a line from a recent Netflix special by the stand-up comedian Marc Maron (famous for his WTF podcast). In truth, Maron often casts himself as a schlemiel character. What is unique about his recent special is that he seems to have reframed the discussion of the “sexual schlemiel” by calling himself an “alpha pussy” (see 20 seconds in to this trailer).
“I’m not the most courageous guy. I’m an alpha pussy. There’s the classic alpha male, meat head, rage filled…Raahhhh. And then there is the alpha pussy who makes fun of that guy.” As Ruth Wisse once noted, the schlemiel character always wins an “ironic victory.” And s/he does so through the power of her words, through language. The “alpha pussy” displaces the sexual schlemiel by returning this power to language because – in Maron’s formulation of the character and in the context of his show – he is making fun of unintelligent Trump supporters and alpha males in general. This gives the schlemiel a resentful political role and de-emphasizes the sexual fantasy aspect of the character.
Maron’s failure to be an alpha male is turned into a kind of power. By calling himself an “alpha pussy” he gives the schlemiel a kind of linguistic or intellectual power (defined by wit). The irony is that Roth’s Portnoy is also a kind of “alpha pussy” who is constantly using language to take revenge on the alpha males and females. The difference, however, is that Maron’s stand-up character is not a misogynist while Roth’s Portnoy is. He tries – at the end of the novel – to defeat a Sabra woman and make her sleep with him and fails. But this kind of situation is not to be found in Maron’s comedy. If anything, what we find in this special called “Too Real” is an endless reflection on how he is aging, forgetting things, etc and is one step closer to death every day. His schlemiel comedy is that of self-deprecation.
While Roth’s schlemiel character is called self-depricating by the Sabra in his novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Maron’s schlemiel character is much more self-deprecating. Because he constantly reflects on his aging and on his distaste for alpha-males, Maron’s “alpha pussy” shows us that he is not obsessed with sex. He is far from perverted. He is too old for that. To be sure, we will likely be seeing less of the sexual schlemiel of the Portnoy variety. Maron’s “pussy schlemiel” or else the Cuckold schlemiel we find in Rogen, Lil Dicky, and Ben Stiller, in contrast, will live on. This – most likely – has to do with the rise of feminism in American society which sees any form of male sexual fantasy (big libidos and small egos) as a possible prompt to real violence.
Sexual failure, however, in the sexual schlemiel variety we see in Louis CK (which is coupled with middle age, heavy self-loathing, and powerlessness) presents a borderline case. Louis CK doesn’t hide his perversions. But in this scenario, it seems really too late and pathetic for any sexual fantasy he presents to come true or affect anyone in real life. Only time will tell. Between Marc Maron’s aging schlemiel and Louis CK’s, which schlemiel will survive? Will sexual schlemiels become a thing of the past or will they only become more pathetic and self-deprecating (as we see in Louis CK) or passive (as we see in Seth Rogen or Lil Dicky)? Or will female schlemiels – like Gretta Gerwig or Amy Shumer (because they are not male or misogynist and take sexual failure as a central motif) – become the new sexual schlemiels?