The Nanny

Fran Drescher's show caused controversy for its portrayal of Jews.

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Reprinted with permission from The Norman Lear Center  at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

The Nanny, a show about a thirtysomething Queens-born former salesgirl who finds a position as nanny to three children of a British theatrical producer, debuted in 1993. Written and produced by Fran Drescher, who plays the title character, and her ex-husband Peter Marc Jacobson, the show became an unexpected hit and was often at the top of the Nielsen charts. While Jewishness is not essential to the plot, which requires only that the uneducated, lower-class Fran winds up teaching her social betters, aspects of the character's Jewish background are featured in most episodes.

Negative Stereotypes?

From the nasal whine, to Yiddish words (a Nanny Web page includes a Yiddish glossary), to the nanny's Jewish female desires-like getting married, preferably to a nice Jewish doctor-and certainly, shopping ("My first words" says the nanny, "were can I take it back if I wore it?"), mannerisms that are identified as Jewish along with Jewish princess stereotypes fill the air. The contrast--the key to the show's slim plot device--is between the nanny's authenticity, however coarse and ostentatious, which is a product of her ethnic, supposedly lower-class origins, and the sterility of the British upper class and their hangers-on.
the nanny
The Nanny has received a great deal of critical comment-much of it negative. Typical are those from the Jewish press, which see Drescher's character as a "princessy, irritating, Jewish woman," a "whiny, manipulative, clothes-horse hunting rich (non-Jewish) men" a "flashy, materialistic, and champion whiner." With The Nanny, comments one source, "the woman of valor has become the woman of velour" one who "loves shopping, gabbing, whining, polishing her nails at every moment, spouting 'Oy!' after every sentence, searching for a rich husband, and putting plastic seat covers on the furniture.

How an exaggerated Jewishness provides the central image and dramatic device of the show is exemplified in an episode aired in April 1996, on which the nanny is dating the young cantor of her mother's synagogue. When the star of Mr. Sheffield's forthcoming Broadway musical falls ill, he taps the cantor to play the lead. "God has sent us a nice Jewish boy" Mr. Sheffield intones. But Fran's mother Sylvia (played by Renee Taylor) is deeply agitated that no one in her temple will talk to her since they blame her for the loss of their cantor. Sylvia threatens her daughter that she will get even: "our God is not a merciful God" she warns. With that, locusts appear and there is lightning and thunder. Overlooking the disturbances, Fran's eye falls on an advertising circular on the hallway table. "Oh my God, I missed the Loehman's yearly clearance" she wails. "God, why are you doing this to me?"

In the final scene of the episode, Fran and her mother, dressed in pastel miniskirted suits, enter their temple and take seats in the last row. "We've been exiled to Siberia" Fran moans as her mother takes out a ham-and -cheese sandwich. "At temple?" Fran asks incredulously. "Nobody can see us here" Sylvia replies. "I can [even] throw a luau." Fran's discomfort increases when she sees her friend Debby, proudly sporting an engagement ring, seated a few rows ahead. Envious, she asks what she ever did to God to deserve such neglect. Remembering that she scammed $500 from an airline, Fran goes up to the rabbi to contribute the airline's check to the temple. Immediately her luck changes. Debby is overheard in a dispute with her fiance and returns the ring, while another congregant tells Sylvia that she can be first for the front row seats she no longer needs for the High Holidays. Thankful, Fran and her mother bow their heads: "Find her a doctor;' the mother prays."Find me a doctor" Fran says simultaneously.

Stereotypes of the Jewish Religion

Here, not only Jewishness, but Judaism as a religion is portrayed stereotypically and disrespectfully. The Jewish God is vengeful, the synagogue is a place for lavish and competitive display, and prayer itself is merely a means for special pleading regarding dating and marriage.

The violation of religious norms apparent in eating a sandwich during a service (the running joke has Mrs. Fine an out-of-control eater at all times) is exaggerated by having the sandwich consist of a food that observant Jews strictly avoid; even nonobservant Jews, which presumably, the Fines are, might well balk at taking pork into the sanctuary.

Some media-watchers defend the caricature, singling out the positive aspects of the portrayal and the humorous elements in the exaggerated prototype." Robin Cembalest argues in The Forward "that The Nanny is "not merely rehashing stereotypes, but questioning them."

In her view, the character's big hair, miniskirts, and pronounced accent indicate a hidden "conceptual twist" behind the show that subverts "conventional assumptions." Cembalest focuses mainly on the character's sexual appeal, seeing Drescher as the only reigning Jewish actress on television "with the chutzpah to celebrate her ethnic otherness." The result, says Cembalest, is to re-enforce Jewish "self-esteem" rather than animate the usual "self-hatred" of Jewish performers.

Others single out the nanny's honesty, warmth , and cleverness. Not infrequently resorting to manipulation, like her model Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy, Fran Drescher as the nanny usually outsmarts her dramatic antagonists, whoever they may be, because of her innate shrewdness, a genuine concern for others, and the folk wisdom apparently imparted from her heritage. The Pearls find the nanny "warm, resourceful giving, problem-solving, and peace making."

They gave Drescher a Jewish Televimage Award with the citation noting that "despite periodically presenting unflattering depictions her character reveals a woman of strength, compassion and unashamed Jewish identity who always saves the day with her cleverness, good heart and humor and insights into Jewish nature."

Drescher defended herself vigorously after a complaint from a viewer in a letter to the L.A. Times, arguing along similar lines that her character "displays such a great capacity for love and wisdom, and has such wholesome values and good instincts as a Jew, a woman, and above all, a human being" that she found it "infuriating" to regard "with negativity" a character "who is clearly carving inroads for other Jews." In Drescher's view, her character upset the "the fearful post-World War II mentality that a good Jew is an assimilated one." "My character does not try to assimilate late to a WASP ethnic in appearance or speech," she insists. "I speak Yiddish and celebrate the Jewish holidays" on the show.

Of course, many observers do not see The Nanny either as farce or as "fairy tale" as one executive at the Jews in Prime-Time Television Conference described the show. Another participant in the conference reported that based on his own experience, the program was in fact a "documentary…a living, real thing and no stereotype." Whether or not viewers sees the show as a template of the real world or an ironic, satiric comment on it surely influences whether the Drescher character is judged as positive or negative.

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Joyce Antler

Joyce Antler is the Samuel Lane Professor of American Jewish History and Culture at Brandeis University.