Channel Four and a cartoonish stereotype

October 23, 2012

To visit my dad's office, I need to drive through the centre of Manchester and past HM Prison Manchester, formerly and notoriously known as Strangeways - a name that sends a shiver down the spine of every law abiding Mancunian (we do exist, and Shameless is fictional).

The prison has held everyone from Harold Shipman to David Dickinson. Prior to its opening though, the Strangeways area, according to my friend's dad, Simon, was the thriving hub of the Manchester Jewish community. The new Jewish immigrants would have differed from their non-Jewish neighbours in tongue, dress, food, and so on - they had strange ways. Hence the name (so says Simon anyway).

Regardless of the truth of this, the story at least sounds like it could be real - the idea of Jewish communities being broadly defined by what marks them out from the majority. It is not too large a leap from there to a stereotype.

It is with this in mind that I have tuned in on Tuesday nights for the past two weeks, hoping that the first episode of Jewish Mum of the Year was the result of a horrible miscommunication at Channel Four. It wasn't.

For a channel that seems to market itself as left-wing, it seems out of place that the channel has developed a taste for overproduced minority gawping. First there was My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and now, Jewish Mum of the Year, which recently elbowed its way onto our screens in a cacophony of kvelling and kvetching. The last time I felt such hot embarrassment down the back of my neck, I was about eight years old, having just had my shorts pulled down in the playground.

It has elbowed its way onto our screens in a cacophony of kvelling and kvetching

In a piece for the Independent, the Jewish News editor claimed to be fed up with shows about Jews which peddled "lazy clich├ęs" while simultaneously highlighting the need for "Oy My God" prime-time moments that one wouldn't normally find in unwatched documentaries.

He complained of Jews being seen as one homogenous mass - as men with beards and women in wigs. Half Topol, half Rain-Man, Dovid Katz may be a world renowned scholar, but it would be naive to suggest that he would have been chosen for his role if he did not look and sounds as he does. There may be modern yummy mummys alongside relatively backward, sheiteled ones, but all this programme does is split the "contestants" into two vague blocks - judgmental tradition and sneering modernity.

It's testament to the programme's quality that the most recognisable faces come from the Stacey Solomons and Vanessa Feltz end of the celebrity alphabet. It's difficult to decide which is more infuriating - the untrue insistence that cartoonish stereotype is being done away with, or the show's blatant participation in all of the above.

To understand Channel Four's take on the direction of the programme, look no further than the press release. Aside from the opening descriptions of disproportionate wealth and power, the description of the "traditional" Jewish mother - "the over bearing, the cheek pinching, and the charming" - manages to brush both philosemitism (which is not as helpful as it sounds) and antisemitism at once.

I am not one to hysterically cry "antisemite" or "self-hater". In advancing Jewish stereotypes, both positive and negative, this programme hinders rather than helps the explosion of myth and ignorance. Jewish Mum of the Year is damaging not just to public understanding of Judaism, but to our own self-image. One paper may gain an aunt, but the agony is all ours.

David Hodari, 21, is a final year history student at the University of Nottingham. Follow him on Twitter here.

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Last updated: 11:44am, October 23 2012