The Nanny

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

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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.