Monday, December 08, 2014

Hollywood Mores and How to Counter Them

About 20 years ago there was a movie about the Chasidic way of life called A Stranger Among Us. It was a major motion picture with Melanie Griffith, an a-list star (at the time) portraying the main character, Emily Eden. It was directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet. And it was written and produced by Robert J. Avrech, an Emmy winning screenwriter who happens to be an Orthodox Jew.

That movie got mixed reviews. But I loved it. It was the first time Orthodox Jews (Williamsburg type Chasidim no less) were portrayed as anything other than silly caricatures whose way of life was primitive. It was instead a very sweet portrayal of a group of devout Jews whose values we should all emulate. 

Mr. Averech wrote about his experiences producing this movie in the current issue of Jewish Action Magazine. I must admit that with all the various criticisms I have had about this community, I had rarely painted them in a good light myself. And for that I apologize.  There is indeed a lot to admire about them and a lot that all religious Jews have in common with them – as I was reminded when I re-watched this movie last week.

What intrigued me is the kind of unwarranted prejudice against Orthodox Jewry there is in Hollywood. Especially in light of the fact that Hollywood is so…well, Jewish!  Not that I hadn’t noticed it myself in the stereotypically negative portrayals of religious Jews.

Mr. Avrech tells us about his encounter with a very powerful female executive at Walt Disney Studios who took umbrage at a scene in that movie that to her seemed very anti-feminist. The dialogue between the feminist cop Emily and a young Chasidic woman went as follows: 
Emily: And what do you want to be when you grow up, little Leah?
Leah: A wife, a mother.
Emily looks at Leah in shock.
Emily: That’s it?
Leah: But Emily, what could be more important?
What kind of message does that send young women who want to be more than ‘barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen?!’ ...she must have thought as she panned that scene.  Here was her reaction: 
“Look, Robert, I like your script. But this scene undermines women and our fight for equal rights. With all due respect, I am Jewish and I happen to know that Orthodox men say a prayer every morning in which they thank God for not having made them women. Your whole scene endorses the patriarchal family structure that is totally regressive—with all due respect.” 
Fortunately for Mr. Avrech, that movie was already green-lighted by even more powerful executives at Disney, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. Those lines remained in the script and were spoken by the actors exactly as originally written.

Ironically that same executive later met up with Mr. Avrech and told him she married a man that had converted for her. And... you guessed it. He's is becoming observant. Here is what she told him:
“The thing is, he’s getting serious. Really Jewy. Much more than me. In fact, he’s putting on those little boxy thingies every morning.” ...he’s also saying it...“You know—that prayer thanking God for not making him a woman.”
Poetic Justice?

At any rate Mr. Avrech’s main point about the deteriorating standards of Hollywood is what I really want to focus on. The Jewish founders of the movie industry who were secular to be sure, still promoted a positive image of the American family as the role model for all Americans. The Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 featured the following words: 
“The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.” 
Times have certainly changed. Those words have long ago ceased to be the standard for Hollywood. Instead the nuclear family hardly exists anymore. Even on broadcast television – that has long ago surpassed movies in influencing American – and even the worldwide culture .

To put it the way Mr. Avrech puts it: 
Postmodern Hollywood is a landscape of shifting morality where the traditional family is seen as a hateful, antiquated institution comparable to Jim Crow. 
He is right about that. I have been saying it for years now. And it seems that every year it gets progressively worse. There are no more programs like Father knows Best, Happy Days or  Seventh Heaven where family values always came out on top. 

Prodded by uncensored popular cable productions like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad that were siphoning off their viewers, major networks revised their censorship policies and removed some – perhaps even most – of their former barriers and taboos so as to be able to compete. That has clearly expedited the downward spiral of societal standards.

Just to point to one example of this, there was a time where it was considered an embarrassment for a young teenager to have gotten pregnant. Now there are day care centers for teens with children in some high schools. Where casual sex among adolescents used to be rare and frowned upon just a few decades ago, it is now almost a foregone conclusion that it will happen. Which is why public schools include lectures on contraceptives in their sex education classes. There is little to no attempt to talk about the morality of teenagers having sexual encounters. It is all about preventing pregnancies (or venereal disease and AIDS) in the assumption that - like it or not - most teenagers will have sex.

Of course there is a lot more that contributed to the lowering of these standards. Including the invention of oral contraceptives which bred the sexual revolution of the sixties. But there is not a doubt in my mind about Hollywood’s part in all this. People tend to emulate their heroes.  In far too many cases, those heroes are the characters of their favorite TV show. If they are ‘doing it on TV then I want to do it too’.

I realize that most Americans do have decent values. Orthodox Jews are not the only ones that do not approve of the lack of morality in sexual matters on TV and in the movies.  I’m sure that no parent wants their teenager to have casual sex with a classmate. But the reality is that it could and very easily does happen. And why wouldn’t it when it so glorified on TV and in the movies.

Which is one of many reasons why sending children to a religious days school is paramount. It is there that family values are reinforced. An adolescent in a Jewish high school having casual sex is a rarity even in a coed school. Even if they watch TV. They are taught to know the difference between what they see on TV and what they do in their own lives. They are taught to live the values of the home and not the street. And most of them do.