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Jon Spira

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My Big Fat Jewish Mother*

Posted: 15/03/2012 23:00

Let me tell you something, I love money. I LOVE IT. Not spending it, you understand, but making it, keeping it, having it. I also love to lend it. Love to lend money. Not as any kind of philanthropic gesture. Oh no. It's business. Business, you see. Lending money gives me power.

Power over other people. And I love power. Me and my friends, we're trying to take over the world, you know? Yep. Starting with the media. We've got the media, that's gone great. Pretty soon we'll have total world domination. But that's not all I'm interested in. Sometimes I like to poison wells - that's a family tradition, you know? But mainly I just love money. The only thing more prominent about me than my love for money is my nose. Enormous nose, I have. Oy vey, Oy vey, I'm kvetching here, give me a bagel and some schmatz herring Oy Vey, Oy Gevalt.

In other words, I'm Jewish.

Were I forced to conform to a stereotype, I would hope to be pigeon-holed into the Woody Allen/Larry David/Seinfeld one of the neurotic outsider forced to conform to the demands of a WASPy society but struggling due to an insatiable questioning intellect. To be honest, I'd find that offensive too.

Stereotypes, you see, are offensive. Be they the big-penised/watermelon eating type, the pompous/smelly/snail-eating type, the suicide bombers, the pizza-eating testicle-cuppers, the cork-hatted simpletons, the Guinness-swilling simpletons, the coldly-efficient blonde-haired enemy or any amount of beleaguered beggars amusingly revelling in poverty.

Stereotypes might well be rooted in fact and culture but they are used almost exclusively as a means of degradation. At best this results in light-hearted mockery, at worst, it fuels suspicion and hatred. Of course, I don't need to tell you that, do I? I'm preaching to the converted. The Huffington Post UK readers are enlightened, progressive individuals.

But we live in difficult times. The concept of Political Correctness on TV is not only over, it's derided. Lost in a fug of irony and post-modernism, the notion of respect for other cultures and beliefs has been all but forgotten in light entertainment and all but the most earnest of factual programming. There is this unwritten, unspoken understanding that we're all on the same page, we're all open-minded and right-on so let's enjoy some gentle racist humour with an implied cheeky wink.

I'm aware how parochial I sound when I express the opinion that I find some of the stand-up of Frankie Boyle and Ricky Gervais offensive. I'm used to the eye-rolling that accompanies my opinion that Little Britain, and particularly their follow-up Come Fly With Me, are some of the most vile depictions of minority groups that have appeared on TV not just now but even in our ethically-unsophisticated past.

I probably bore people with my worries that the brilliant comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, despite majestically skewering the prejudiced also gives licence to a less sophisticated audience to laugh at foreign men and gay stereotypes.

I care about this stuff because I went to a pretty rough state school. I saw the effect of this kind of thing in the playground. Idiots aren't creative, they need their cruelty to be powered by other people's imagination. I remember black kids being called Chalkies - thanks to Jim Davidson's comedy. Poor kids were called Stig of the Dump. Indians were called 'Bud Buds' which, no doubt, came from some show.

As a Jew, I was mercifully spared such indignity as the only Jewish stereotype on TV at the time was Maureen Lipman in the BT adverts and that was luckily far too subtle a stereotype for most kids to even notice. No, I got off clean. I just got called 'Fucking Jewboy' or 'Filthy Jew' and escaped any pop-culture reference beyond some oblique nod to The World at War which consisted of groups of lads placing one finger under their noses, their other arm out in salute and a display of goosestepping. Best years of your life.

I like to think, unread as I am, that my mind and future were saved by the TV. Not the rubbish ITV light entertainment or the warm fuzzy 'aren't-Nazis-jolly?' stereotyping of the BBC's 'Allo 'Allo, but by Channel 4 which I inexplicably adored from a young age. The quadruple-whammy of hard-hitting documentary, highbrow comedy, mind-warping Peter Greenaway films and foreign skinflicks which glowed in the darkness of my bedroom through my formative years captivated all of my senses and, most importantly, made me think a lot.

Channel 4 is now an almost total embarrassment. Their most interesting cultural experiment - series one of Big Brother - seemed to yield completely unexpected results. Rather than a sophisticated anthropological study of human nature, it unleashed the beast of common celebrity culture which has changed the face of the media ever since. None more so than Channel 4. They couldn't have dumbed down more comprehensively even by deciding to slam the head of every executive repeatedly against a hard surface with a racist caricature drawn upon it.

There's the odd gem, of course - The Inbetweeners, One Born Every Minute, but the intelligence and progressive mandate it once espoused has been painted day-glo pink and used to snort coke off. I never really watch it anymore.

The occasional intelligent documentary is in there but swamped by faux-earnest freakshows in which we're invited to empathise with the eccentric, disfigured, grotesque and shagcentric. And by empathise, I of course, mean to laugh at. Not since Blue Peter invited us to pity the plight of Joey Deacon has a broadcaster actually been naïve to the reaction of showcasing anyone 'different' on TV.

Channel 4 revels in the muck of the human sideshow and has become increasingly adept at disguising it not just as documentary but also as justifiable entertainment. Straddling these two forums is the hit show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding which both invites us to observe a culture and mock it until our hatred of them is superseded only by our joyful derision. So gleeful are we about the laughs the gypsy community can provide us with that we literally place them beyond contempt.

I saw Channel 4's new ad for documentaries the other day, it proclaimed itself either the home of modern documentary or the future of documentary. Something hyperbolic and worrying. Just when I thought I couldn't be more depressed by the situation, I found this article on the Guardian's website.

It might sound innocent enough but if you read between the lines, they're not looking for the Jewish Mum of The Year. They're looking for the Jewish female stereotype of the year. They're looking for a cheek-pinching, fish-frying, son-smothering stereotype. They're looking to display the easiest, most mockable parts of my heritage for the edification of people who find the world an easier place to exist in when they can write-off whole cultures as risible.

They might as well be looking for Nigerian Traffic Warden of the Year, French Waiter of the Year or Irish Labourer of the Year but they would never be that forthright. Just like with Gypsy Weddings, Channel 4 seems to think if they expose their viewers to a stereotype they weren't previously familiar with, it can be passed off as enlightenment rather than mockery.

It seems just as Channel 4 provided us with ammunition we were previously unaware of to sling at the gypsy community, they're now extending the favour to my own people.

First they came for the gypsies, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a gypsy.

Then they came for the people who only eat weird things, and I didn't speak out because I don't only eat weird things.

Then they came for the people who have strange facial disfigurements, and I didn't speak out because I don't have one of those.

Then they came for the fat people who couldn't get out of bed, and I didn't speak out because I could still get out of bed.

Then they came for me.

And there was no one left to speak for me because they were all having too much fun watching these shitty TV programmes without stopping to think how they pander to our lowest base prejudices and that despite how easy they may be to watch, all we're really doing is feeling better about ourselves through the denigration of others.

*No offence is intended to my own, wonderful and entirely reasonably proportioned mum who, in her own way, flicks two fingers up to lazy stereotyping by making the worst gefilte fish in the world.

 

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