In the fifth grade I was assigned Golda Meir for my synagogue’s annual Jewish Heroes Play. As Encino’s official spokes-child for the fourth Israeli prime minister, I was determined to fulfill my duties of representing the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, which included crafting a clay bust, writing a short report, and ultimately playing her on stage. As both an aspiring researcher and feminist with some experience on the stage, I was confident that I could do her justice in these latter two areas. The bust, on the other hand, was a little more challenging. Several teachers and peers joked about how much clay I would need to do Golda’s nose justice. Was it really that big? Was this really her defining feature? Nobody offered me advice on how to write about her or play her; the only feedback I received was to “add more”—so I did. In fact, I added so much clay that for the next two decades, Golda fell nose first out of my parents’ garage cabinet. They couldn’t bear to throw her out (or keep her inside) and her head couldn’t quite bear the weight of her nose.
But why does Golda’s nose receive so much attention? Was it disproportionately large? Did it just age more than the rest of her body? Or was it not that big after all, and the media has continued to play up its size because of implicit bias? That, naturally, a Jewish woman is predisposed to a larger schnoz, and when someone Jewish holds as much power as Golda Meir did in her prime, it becomes imperative to link her facial features to those of Fagin, Shylock, or Svengali, the historically large-nosed antagonists with particularly vengeful and sinister traits. A prime facet of “Othering” has always been to vilify those individuals and groups who pose the biggest threat to pre-existing dynamics of power.
When someone Jewish holds as much power as Golda Meir did in her prime, it becomes imperative to link her facial features to those of Fagin, Shylock, or Svengali, the historically large-nosed antagonists with particularly vengeful and sinister traits.
“Jewface” is an American vaudeville tradition which stems from such a practice of Othering. On the vaudeville stage, Jews and non-Jews would wear prosthetic noses and beards, adopt fake Yiddish accents, and play roles similar to those grotesque literary characters, in order to poke fun at or reinforce pre-existing stereotypes of Jewish immigrants. Within this specific late 19th/early 20th-century performance practice, Jewface was always an intended form of mockery.
A January 14 article in Variety discussed the ongoing “Jewface” debate surrounding the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in Guy Nattiv’s forthcoming biopic, “Golda.” The concerns mentioned echo some of those outlined by Sarah Silverman on her podcast this past fall, where she commented that casting people like Rachel Brosnahan as Mrs. Maisel and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Jewface, which she defined simply as someone non-Jewish playing someone whose Jewishness is central to their character’s identity. I don’t disagree that casting gentiles in place of Jews could be problematic, but I do feel strongly that using the “Jewface” label as a catch-all for anything along the spectrum of unfair-to-antisemitic is problematic.
As soon as we label everything along this spectrum “Jewface” we are overlooking the nuances of literary figures and the horribly demeaning nature of the vaudeville tradition, which was never meant to be complimentary. Nattiv’s “Golda” is meant to be flattering, not disparaging, so we cannot give Mirren’s performance the same descriptor as these truly monstruous vaudeville performances. My guess is that Mirren will offer a sage wisdom and gravitas that will suit the former prime minister, not do her a disservice. The “Jewface” label gets thrown around with the same carelessness as terms like “blackface” or “yellowface” do in the media and it needs to stop; we are missing much bigger, more deep-seated issues by using such catch-all terms for racial and ethnic masquerade.
If the argument is that Mirren’s prosthetic nose in this film is grounds for the “Jewface” classification, then let’s address her nose, not her performance. If this really were typecasting, then Mirren would not be the right choice and I am not convinced that any actress in Mirren’s age range would have a nose comparable to that of Golda, Jewish or not. Which is to say, even if Nattiv had cast someone Jewish, she might have also required a prosthetic nose. So why is it so hard to find someone who both looks like Golda and can play her? Isn’t Israel full of talented Jewish actresses? I offer three reasons why Mirren may have been cast and each requires that we think a little less superficially than her nose.
First, Nattiv may have specifically sought someone who was not Jewish to play Golda, not because she was the best candidate but because she appealed to the biggest audience. We all know Hollywood is not about authenticity but about box office sales and politics. Perhaps someone as universally respected as Mirren was the smartest person to play Meir because non-Jews (maybe even some antisemitic and anti-Israel ones) would come to see her, when they wouldn’t otherwise see a film about the making of a Jewish state and socialist Zionism. What we really should be discussing are politics of representation, not Jewface.
Second, how many Jewish actresses have only been successful because they have engaged in assimilatory forms of body modification? This would be the Catch-22 of Jewish women seeking Hollywood careers. If they look the part, they are not wanted. So, they change their noses, become more goyische looking. Then they cannot be typecast because they don’t look Jewish enough. What we really should be discussing are Western beauty standards and who are left out of such paradigms, not jewface.
Finally, I return to my original point: was Golda’s nose really that big or have we all been manipulated into thinking that the stereotype reflects reality? Nobody really cared if my report was any good, or even if my performance in the Jewish Heroes play did Meir justice. All anybody asked about was something as superficial as her nose.
Brynn Shiovitz, PhD, teaches at Chapman University and is the editor of The Body, the Dance, and the Text: Essays on Performance and the Margins of History (McFarland 2019), and the author of Behind the Screen: Tap Dance, Race, and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age (Oxford 2022).