Yesterday, Sydney White director Joe Nussbaum left the following comment on our review of his film:
Ms. Voynar, my name is Joe Nussbaum and I directed Sydney White. I fully respect your opinions about the film. I just wanted to let you know one thing. As a novel approach, the extras casting directors on the movie used real student groups as extras. The marching band is a real college marching band, the ROTC real ROTC, the a capella group, etc. One of the groups of college kids who did a wonderful job helping us out was the University of Central Florida Jewish Student Union. Granted, they were not Hasidic Jews, but they were a Jewish group who I chose to wardrobe as Hasidim in order for the quick identification. I totally respect that you thought this was a bad choice. What I don't appreciate is your attack on the women of the UCF JSU as being "fat and uniformly unattractive." I hope that none of them read this blog. They are who they are (I happen to think they were neither fat nor unattractive - I also spent more time with them than you have as my wife and I had our Passover Seder with them). Perhaps you would have preferred that I had cast models.
I decided to respond to Mr. Nussbaum here on the site, in the hopes of opening up some debate on the issue of stereotyping in films. My response is after the jump ... feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments. Hi Joe,
Thanks for clarifying the casting choices you made, I appreciate it. I should have clarified, perhaps, that it was primarily in comparison to the "Greeks" in the film (especially the beautiful blond Kappas) that the Jewish women seemed fat and unattractive (and to be fair, I probably I should have used the word "dumpy" instead of "fat"). I wasn't attacking the women themselves, I was attacking the fact that they were costumed and made up such that it appeared unattractive in comparison to the slinky, sexy Kappas. Kind of how the Omega Mu's in Revenge of the Nerds were all costumed such that they looked like they dressed as bag ladies and had horrible hair and makeup to emphasize that, if they're in the "smart" sorority, they must be ugly and undesirable.
Like the Jewish women who took on the role of Jewish students in your film, those actresses were not unattractive in real life, but they were made up to deemphasize their beauty, and that was, I felt, the case with the Jewish women in your film. Even Charlize Theron, lovely though she is, can be made very effectively to look unattractive by hair, makeup and costuming, as we've seen in a couple of her films. You could have chosen to give them attractive hair and makeup and wardrobe choices that would have emphasized their beauty, but that's not the choice you made. My comment on the Jewish women was a critique of your choices in how you presented them, not of their real-life attractiveness.
Actually, I had a bit in the review about that, that I cut due to space. And I could have also gone off on the other side of it -- that it's also stereotypical that the blond Kappas were all model-thin and gorgeous, and focused way more on fashion and beauty than on the business of being in college (I don't think I saw any of them actually with a textbook outside the classroom scenes, although Rachel was portrayed as intelligent and ambitious) when there are many smart, attractive blond women in college who are not also shallow, Paris Hilton wanna-bes.
Of course I wouldn't have preferred that you used models (if you've read my work consistently you'd know that I loathe films like Bratz, etc, that paint girls and women as perfect Barbie dolls). I've lived the past 13 years in NYC, New Jersey, upstate NY and Seattle, and just recently relocated with my kids back to OKC, where things are considerably less ... diverse, and I suppose I'm feeling sensitive about my kids only being exposed here to stereotypical views of other cultures, including the Jewish community. When we lived in NJ and NY, my oldest daughter (now 22) had many friends who were Jewish, Russian, and Lebanese; in Seattle we lived in an area that was 22% Asian, with lots of Russians, Germans, Hispanics and Scandanavians, and we attended a Tibetan Buddhist monastery.
Here in OKC, my 10YO (who, as I mentioned in my review, was my viewing partner) will not be exposed to as broad a swath of cultures as she would have in other places, and I guess it just struck a nerve with me that the Jewish students she saw in your film came across as such a stereotypical representation. I homeschool my kids, and she's been reading Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and will be reading The Diary of Anne Frank; my grandparents are Holocaust concentration camp survivors from Poland, and it's important to me that, although our family is not Jewish (so far as I know anyhow), my kids understand the horrors of the Holocaust. Part of what allowed the Holocaust to happen, what allowed ordinary people to look away from what was happening to the Jews then, was the stereotyping of a culture.
Before they put Jews in concentration camps, the Nazis were distributing propoganda with cartoonish depictions of Jews with big noses, or caricatured as rats, etc. I'm sure you know all this, and I'm not accusing YOU of being anti-Semetic, I want to make that clear. But it's the stereotypical representations of that culture, like what I saw in your film, that get in the heads of people like I'm surrounded with in Oklahoma, who aren't exposed much to the broader Jewish culture. That in turn contributes to making them think that all Jews are "different." And that, Joe, is what ultimately makes stereotypical representations like those in your film, no matter how well-intentioned, dangerous.
There are ways that would have been less stereotypical in which you could have represented those students as Jewish. And while I have enough Jewish friends to know that they probably would have a much better sense of humor about being represented that way than I do, I know many beautiful Jewish women (NOT models, just real women who happen to be Jewish) and I just think -- you know, there's so much intolerance in the world, so much emphasis on our differences, that the demographic at which this film is targeted doesn't need to see another image that fixes it in their heads that all Jews dress in black, look dumpy and have Hasidic ringlets. I just think there are ways to convey what you wanted to convey without being so blatant in emphasizing differences.
To be perfectly fair, my daughter really enjoyed your film (I believe I noted that in my review as well), she likes Amanda Bynes (as do I) very much, and the overall message of the film was positive. And I get that it's a reality from middle school on up that the blond and the beautiful do tend to rule the world, and it was nice to see a movie where the average dorks (and I consider myself in that number) get the upper hand. I would have just liked to see you represent their difference in less stereotypical ways. Thanks for responding to clarify your choices as a director.