Jewish women have generally done well in America. From Emma Goldman to Erica Jong, Susan Sontag to Pink, they have broadened our cultural horizons. Sure, they are often portrayed in the media as JAPs (Jewish-American Princesses), like Cher in Clueless and Fran on The Nanny — or else, god help us, as the overbearing mother or background sister to a creep like Portnoy. But who isn’t stereotyped on the big screen? At such a tiny percentage of the population, it’s impressive Jewish women make an impact at all.
2014 has been different, though. 2014 was the year that Jewish women got their hands on the wheel – not the mainstream-media wheel, exactly, but still, the wheel of a perfectly functional, increasingly visible car — and drove off in a new direction, with all the exhilaration (but, thankfully, none of the impending doom) of Thelma and Louise, as Harvey Keitel’s police investigator / audience surrogate Hal cheered them on. (Geena Davis: possibly Jewish!)
Sarah Koenig changed the way we think about podcasts with her smash hit Serial, best described as True Detective meets This American Life. High school senior Hae Min Lee was murdered in 1999, after which her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was imprisoned for life based on the testimony of a seemingly unreliable narrator. In reopening the closed case, Koenig has alienated some audience members, entranced lots of others, sparked so many conversations that grocery stores should set up Serial aisles for people to congregate and discuss theories, and created the most urgent “Must-Listen Audio” since Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.
In independent film, Jenny Slate starred in and co-created Obvious Child, for which she just received an Independent Spirit nomination. The so-called “abortion comedy,” despite its micro-budget, became one of the year’s most buzzed-about, candid, and even surprisingly romantic movies. That’s nothing less than amazing for a film that started as a short and went to Sundance held together with paperclips and a prayer.
In television, Jill Soloway also did the impossible, launching Amazon into the stratosphere with Transparent, a boundary-pushing dramedy about a middle-class Jewish family in LA whose erstwhile patriarch comes out as trans. Outlets from Slate to TIME magazine hailed it as 2014’s best new show; Pando called it the best show ever made by a tech company, which is maybe damning it with faint praise.
The indefatigable Gaby Hoffman is terrific in Obvious Child, Transparent, and the 2014 season of Lena Dunham’s Girls, so she wins the Honorary Jewess Triple Crown. Dunham herself did quite well this year, emerging as a literary rock star with her memoir Not That Kind of Girl, which charmed both Michiko Kakutani and Roxane Gay. Her time in the spotlight was sometimes a mixed blessing, but even then, she sparked important conversations: in her case, about what seven-year-old girls – and frankly all of us – are capable of.
Following in Dunham’s footsteps, Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer went from viral videos to basic cable fame with Broad City, an off-kilter, girl-power stoner comedy that “garnered Comedy Central’s best ratings for a first-season series in two years among ages 18-34, as well as among men 18-34.” They are Tina and Amy for the next generation of women, particularly the ones who don’t mind stuffing pot up their front holes.
The only woman on the National Book Awards nonfiction shortlist this year was New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, whose graphic memoir about coping with her parents’ decline, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is equal parts hilarious and horrifying. She didn’t win, but she still did something that’s nearly impossible: she got us to laugh while engaging with the taboo topics of death and money.
Two other engrossing graphic novels-from-life by Jewish women also crossed over into the mainstream this year. New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck’s A Bintel Brief brings to life Yiddish letters to advice columns from a century ago; award-winning author Anya Ulinich’s caustic but heartfelt Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel sends up dating while divorced and, for good measure, Phillip Roth.
There are more, too: Idina Menzel belted out the children’s song that became a hit in late 2013 but ascended to classic status in 2014, “Let It Go”; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg launched a thousand memes; and perhaps you noticed that the woman in that controversial Hollaback viral video was named Shoshana?
What unites these successes is that they came mostly from the margins and concerned themselves with the experiences of people there: the incarcerated, the broke, the trans. They tackled subjects like race and abortion, the awkwardness of middle age and the indignity of approaching death. They made hot topics approachable by first making them funny — and they accomplished the task without worrying too much whether their frankness was going to make their butts look big.