An article this week on The American Prospect‘s website hails the “Rise of the Female Nerds,” citing, among other examples, Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon on 30 Rock and Glee‘s Rachel Berry, played by Broadway vet Lea Michele. “Female nerds have traditionally had few options when seeking characters onscreen to relate to,” writes Amanda Marcotte. “But over the past few years, there’s been a quiet feminist revolution on television. The female nerd has arrived, and she’s not interested in a makeover.” As the article itself later acknowledges, that’s because she doesn’t need one.
If female nerds have had a tough time of it, what a double-whammy female Jewish nerds are faced with. Let’s face it, some of pop culture’s most affable male nerds have been Jews. And they’re real nerds. Think of Neal Schweiber from Freaks and Geeks and Paul Pfeiffer from The Wonder Years. On the other hand, Marcotte herself grants that “portrayals of female nerds are undercut by the smoking-hot-actress problem”; in the case of the Jewish nerdess, even the characters are considered attractive—as Jeremy Dauber pointed out in his essay on Glee for Tablet Magazine, Rachel is a “self-proclaimed hot Jew.” Where Marcotte asserts that “Rachel’s costuming has her stuck in elementary school, with knee socks and childish dresses,” we would argue that her wardrobe has her stuck in a decidedly more prurient place. And when it comes to identification with female characters, especially given the general body-image issues facing young women, hotness negates nerdiness. (Case in point: The absurd valorization of Natalie Portman, particularly in her role in the film Garden State, as the poster child of unabashed female Jewish nerdiness.) In fact, the only true example we can think of of a female Jewish nerd onscreen is the tragic Dawn Weiner in the bleak indie-cult classic Welcome to the Dollhouse. And something tells me she wouldn’t exactly feel empowered by the rise of the sexy, talented, torn-between-two-lovers Rachel Berry.
Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.