On three consecutive nights from Dec. 9 to 11, the CW network aired “Elseworlds,” a crossover event that involved three CW shows: “The Flash,” “Arrow” and “Supergirl,” all based on DC Comics. One of the highlights included the Flash and Arrow switching superpowers.
In addition, “Elseworlds” marked the first on-screen appearance of Batwoman, who, in the most recent comics, is portrayed as a lesbian of Jewish descent. When actress Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”) was cast as Batwoman, it provoked some Twitter outrage. Some called Rose, who came out when she was 12 and identifies as genderfluid, “not gay enough” for the role; others called the casting inappropriate because Rose isn’t Jewish. Reporting on the Twitter hate, the Advocate, which covers LGBT news, noted that “physically, [Rose] is the opposite of the image of a latke-lover!”
So what should a “latke-lover” — or if you prefer, a Jew — look like on your TV screen? Especially as the optics of our community change and there’s more than just one way to “look Jewish”?
At a recent conference where I was presenting, an audience member felt very strongly that only Jewish actors should play Jewish characters. Actors are actors, I said. The cast of “Law & Order” isn’t stacked with ex-cops and lawyers. “Grey’s Anatomy” actors don’t have medical training. Likewise, an actor doesn’t have to be Jewish to play a Jewish character.
But, the audience member continued, isn’t replacing Jews with non-Jews a form of whitewashing?
Whitewashing refers to the practice of casting white actors as characters of color, often resulting in offensive blackface and yellowface performances (for example, Mickey Rooney playing a buck-toothed Japanese photographer in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”). In contrast, “color-blind” or “non-traditional” casting puts actors of color in roles previously held by white actors (for example, Hermione in the Harry Potter books and movies is white; onstage, she is played by a black actress).
Some Jews railed against the casting of non-Jewish Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the new drama “On the Basis of Sex.” RBG is both Judaically and judicially iconic (although her latke-loving status is unknown), and while I might have cast Natalie Portman, Alison Brie or Lisa Edelstein, for me, casting Jones doesn’t measure high on the shanda-meter.
And while casting non-Jews as Jews (see at least four featured characters in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) probably doesn’t fall under “whitewashing” or “non-traditional casting,” it does open up a challenging conversation about the assumptions we make about what we expect to see in a Jewish character, especially when it comes to racial identity.
Today, most Jewish narratives that hit the big or small screen are white and “Ashkenormative.” But at the same time, our Jewish community is more diverse than ever, with people of mixed racial backgrounds and non-Ashkenazi stock, so contemporary Jewish roles, theoretically, could be cast non-traditionally.
But what about dated narratives like “Mrs. Maisel”? In the late 1950s, most self-identifying Jews were likely also white-passing. It’s unlikely that you’d see the Kantrowitzes — a fake, 1950s affluent black Jewish couple from the Upper West Side I just invented and who will be played by Idris Elba and Kerry Washington — in the Catskills with the Maisels and the Weissmans. But who knows? If “Hamilton” could be cast with actors of color as the decidedly white Founding Fathers, is it totally impossible to imagine that Jews of color might someday seize Maisel’s story and “Elseworld” it, remaking it in their own image?
As for Batwoman, I’m interested to see if her Jewish identity develops over the course of her own series. When she’s more than just a cameo in an alternate reality, we’ll have a chance to learn about all the things that make her who she is in her own reality. Perhaps we’ll see her light some ShabBatwoman candles.
As comic books, TV shows, films and even tweets tell more stories in new and different media spaces, we should engage our own “Elseworlds” lens: widening our understanding of how stories are told, and expanding the narrative landscape to make room for the diverse voices that exist, both in the world at large and in the Jewish community.