I’m happy to see that yesterday’s blog post on the Rogen/Franco Parody of Kanye West’s “Bound Two” video has prompted some response. What I’d like to do in this blog entry is address the questions and concerns of some readers regarding the post.
First of all, in my blog entry I acknowledged that this video was a shot-for-shot parody. That’s obvious. What I wanted to do was to bring in the extra-added element of the fact that Rogen often plays schlemiels (I have written several blogs on this – see here for more); and, given this fact, I wondered how or if this parody could be fit within the context of his other schlemiel-roles. Is he still playing a schlemiel? And what kind of schlemiel?
Next, I never said James Franco was not Jewish in my blog entry. He is. But I didn’t discuss his Jewishness because I was focusing mainly on Seth Rogen who, as I noted in the blog entry, plays the greater schlemiel. Indeed, I do see both of them as schlemiels, but Rogen more so than Franco because Rogen embodies passivity (like many a schlemiel). To be sure, both are a schlemiel-team which is a lot like the husband/wife schlemiel couple that has a precedent in Yiddish Literature. Indeed, I suggested this parallel in mentioning Mendele Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the IIIrd. But perhaps I should be more explicit in saying that in that story, as in this video, both characters are schlemiels and both are Jewish (although, in this video, the Jewishness is obviously not central; I’ll return to this below). Likewise, in Benjamin the IIIrd, one character, named Senderl, is more “feminine” than the other. To be sure, he is called, in relation to the other schlemiel, Benjamin, a “housewife.” Senderl is a feminine man-child. We see this, clearly, at the first part of the Yiddish novel. Speaking of Senderl, as a replacement for his wife, the narrator notes:
He also had to peel the potatoes and make the noodles, clean and stuff the firsh, carry the firewood to the stove, just like any housewife – and the folks had in fact nicknamed him die Yiddine, “Senderl the Housewife.” And it was this Senderl the Housewife whom our Benjamin had chosen as confidant. Why Senderl, of all people, you ask? Because Benjamin, for some reason or other, had always felt drawn toward him….It’s quite possible, too, that Benjamin took into consideration Senderl’s lack of resistance; Senderl would be bound to agree to his plan and submit to all his wishes. (39)
This passage shows quite clearly that a schlemiel was and can be portrayed as a “woman” of sorts. It also shows that, in relation to the other schlemiel, the more feminine schlemiel has a “lack of resistance” and is “bound to agree.” This passivity is played on in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s book. But, as I noted in yesterday’s blog entry, it doesn’t predominate at the end. The schlemiel is not entirely passive because the schlemiel (here Senderl) or the narrator (on the schlemiel’s behalf) has witty words to save him from total passivity.
Given this situation, I argued that Rogen’s passivity seems to overshadow that of his Yiddish ancestor. Some people objected to this by saying that this is simply a parody and nothing more. In addition, they noted that it is not Jewish.
In response, I’d like to point out the following: 1) we are dealing with what Daniel Itzkovitz would call “new schlemiels” and these schlemiels are more or less “empty shells” of the old schlemiel; instead of challenging the “political and philosophical” status quo – which is what the traditional schlemiel, for Wisse and Itzkovitz, did – they are the status quo; 2) how can one exclude the context of Rogen’s entire career (which is entrenched in playing the schlemiel) as if it weren’t relevant (that’s like excluding the context of a writers work when reading one of his works, and that’s inconsistent); and 3) why can’t parody draw on the schlemiel? In fact don’t we see parodies at work throughout schlemiel fiction, film, and stand-up? Take Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971) for instance.
Now, regarding these points and rhetorical questions, I’d like to suggest that we are dealing with a “new schlemiel” which – whether Rogen intended this or not – differs from the old schlemiel in Benjamin IIIrd (and a whole tradition of effeminate schlemiels that followed). Although this schlemiel is an “empty shell” of sorts, it does show a shift, at least in this moment, toward nearly total passivity. On this note, I’d like to make a suggestion: I’ll grant that Rogen is not simply parodying the video, but if we were to take a closer look, we could see that he is giving a critique of sorts of Kardashian’s passivity in the video. Though she winks and gives sexy looks to Kanye, she is ultimately being ridden. Perhaps viewers will overlook that, but that will be to the chagrin of many feminists who, for decades, have been making the portrayal of women as passive subjects an issue.
If manliness is no longer an issue in our society – and being a man-child or an effeminate male is accepted – then this video is harmless. If it’s not an issue, than Rogen’s presenting a challenge.
From what I have seen and heard, people just want to read this as a parody of a video. And no one has pointed out this possible gender challenge that has some basis in a Yiddish tradition that Rogen and Franco, most likely, have no knowledge of. That said, I’m simply noting how their approach to comedy has deeper resonances in the Yiddish and Jewish-American tradition of the schlemiel which often trades with the effeminate male whose dreams (and this video is surreal) don’t mix with reality.
We see something similar in these videos: Kim and Kanye, on the one hand, and Franco and Rogen, on the other, are both on a journey through open spaces and their dreams (or rather, fantasies) don’t fit with reality. We see both traits, quite clearly, in Mendel Mocher Sforim’s The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin the Third but in a wholly other, Jewish context. In America, this kind of narrative, or so it seems, has been generalized and can be had by just about anyone.
The question for me, however, is the same with regards to this schlemiel and that question is: when it comes to the schlemiel, when does passivity become total abjection? When, in other words, does the schlemiel lose its “freedom” and “dignity?” Does Rogen mock that freedom or is he just doing parody? Are his sexy looks sufficient to give the character some agency?