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Open Access Publications from the University of California

White Nose, (Post) Bawdy Bodies and the Un/dancing Sexy Jewess

  • Author(s): Schwadron, Hannah Sarah
  • Advisor(s): Savigliano, Marta E
  • et al.

"White Nose, (Post) Bawdy Bodies and the Un/Dancing Sexy Jewess" looks at asks how and why the 19th century figure of the exotic Jewess reappears in progressive US pious and porn subcultures, recent cabaret and burlesque acts, mainstream dance films, and magazine spoofs of the sexier Israeli sabra to articulate an updated Jewish femininity through various techniques of parody. I argue that today's Sexy Jewess embodies the most recent addition of a specifically American lineage of Jewish jokes predicated on an excessive and unattractive Jewish female body, and assess how the self-professed sexiness of contemporary Jewish female performers both challenges and reiterates long-standing cultural anxieties tied to race, gender, class, and sexuality. The phenomenon of the Sexy Jewess raises questions about the so-called `post-assimilatory' and `post-feminist' implications of Jewish female performance modalities that tweak and play with stereotypes even as they insist upon a double Jewish and gender difference. My research: 1) introduces how performers complicate self-critical jokes of the inferior Jewish female body through both marking and modifying a Jewish otherness, 2) documents the techniques Jewish female performers employ to mimic and master `sexiness' and, 3) theorizes how performances of Jewish female identity use the body to both participate in and parody `appropriate' femininity toward distinct ends. In order to question the viability of sexy ruse as a critical means of performing Jewishness, I draw on and intervene in three interrelated fields: Jewish Studies, Gender and Feminist studies, and Dance and Performance studies.

In order to contextualize the Sexy Jewess construct and its relationships to spectacles of US Jewish femininity, I take a dance studies approach that combines methods of choreographic analysis, participant performance ethnography, and archival work on genealogies of Jewish female performers to theorize how the body renders meaning in historical and contemporary contexts. I use print and online reviews, and performance ephemera like program notes, posters, photographs, giveaways, blogs and even tweets to discuss the textual and visual material surrounding live and online Jewess performances. My project also makes use of personal interviews with performers, choreographer-directors, and audiences as well as focus groups among viewers with ranging familiarity with dance and Jewishness to better understand how Jewish female shtick operates from a diverse set of perspectives. To frame my research, I borrow from scholarship on Jewishness and humor, gender and feminist studies dance and performance studies to analyze sexiness and funniness in relation to femininity, race, and social mobility.

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