The Thread: Outside the Gaze

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I sat in my mother’s passenger seat—a beige pleather upholstered bench—and stared at my reflection in the flip-down mirror, flattening my nasal septum with my finger. I was in seventh grade; not a baby. I had made it through my first year as a new kid. I had befriended the right girls. But although their popularity protected me from most of the teasing, it didn’t get me the thing I really wanted, which was a boyfriend. And underneath that was a longing to be confirmed desirable by the gaze of a thirteen-year-old boy.

It couldn’t just be any boy, either. I had standards. There were boys I didn’t like, even though they were popular. And then there were the ones I wanted, who were cool enough to be boyfriend material. The Jameses and the Matthews and the Zachs. And there was Ryan, the boy I’d liked since I was five years old and shared a kindergarten classroom with.

But none of them liked me. In fact, no boys my age liked me. Desperate to understand why, I started to pick myself apart. Maybe it was my clothes: too babyish, not sexy enough. So I ditched my thrift store style and wore the bodysuits and baggy ubiquitous forest green Union Bay jeans. No boys. My hair had always been shoulder length or shorter, but I heard boys liked long hair, so I stopped cutting mine and let it grow beyond my shoulders. No boys. And now, in my inventory of self-improvement, I had landed on my nose, which was why I was sitting in the car instead of walking in the grocery store, imagining how much better I would look if I had a nose job.

It wasn’t even a full nose job that I wanted; it was a tiny stitch, maybe two, that would flatten my septum and improve my whole face. I watched as my nose went from vaguely Semitic to American-as-apple-pie white girl with the tiniest pressure. I imagined a stitch, like the kind you got for injuries, an outpatient surgery. It was such a small thing, one I obsessed over all year.

My mother claimed that I was intimidating: too smart, too talented, too confident (ha!), too much. She used the Yiddish word zaftig (juicy) to describe my body as well as hers and all the bodies of the women on her side of the family (the Jewish side) except my grandmother, who was always dieting. My grandmother had three daughters and celebrated every time they lost ten pounds (or more!) by buying them new clothes. She hadn’t done it to me yet, but it was only a matter of time. I thought it was a matrilineal curse: my soft body, and too-long septum (though if I were being honest, my septum was definitely more like my dad’s, which was the not-Jewish side.)

The Jewish woman I thought was truly beautiful was Barbra Streisand. Of course, Barbra had an even more prominent nose than I did, but she carried it better. On Barbra, the nose looked regal, against her violet eyes and her auburn hair. Plus she had the most incredible voice of anyone (even better than Celine Dion or Mariah Carey, which was 1994 pop culture sacrilege to admit but was my honest opinion). If I could look like anyone, of course I would have chosen someone more model-beautiful: Kate Moss, maybe, with her flat-bottomed nose. Or Christy Turlington or Niki Taylor (though if I’d been paying attention, I might have noticed that both of them had septums that laid less than flat, and Niki’s resembled my own). But the fairy godmother in my imagination would only let me change myself so much and this is how I arrived at Babs.

The following year, for my Bat Mitzvah, I received Great Jewish Women, a giant hardback with glossy pages and inky portraits and mini biographies of Jewish women who had, in their own way, saved or changed the world. There were the ones I knew, like Anne Frank, Hannah Arendt, and Barbra Streisand. And there were many that I didn’t know, including Golda Meir and a woman named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Like my grandma, Ruth Bader was born in New York City to immigrant parents. Both were first-generation American Jewish girls who loved to read, but Ruth Bader went off to Harvard Law School in the early 1950s—one of nine women in her class, recently married to another Harvard Law student, Martin Ginsburg, and the mother of a toddler. She wasn’t allowed into the library because women were “a distraction” to the men studying. As though the mere presence of a woman would send these men who were supposed to be among the smartest in the country into a lustful tailspin. In her first year, the dean of Harvard Law asked Ruth and her female classmates to justify having taken a spot that should have gone to a man. Despite the hostility, Ruth excelled in law school and became the first woman on the prestigious Harvard Law Review.

When her husband got a job in Manhattan, she transferred from Harvard to Columbia Law School, where she ultimately received her degree, graduating first in her class. But even with her education, she couldn’t get a job interview, let alone a job as an attorney. Eventually, one of her professors helped her land a clerkship in the United States District Courts, and then she taught law at Rutgers University. For most people, especially most women of her era, this biography alone is impressive. For Bader Ginsburg, this is all just the groundwork for what she went on to become famous for later in her life. It was not her looks, her desirability, or her feminine wiles; it was her razor sharp intellect and the ways she could use it.

This groundwork phase is the focus of the RBG biopic On the Basis of Sex, being released later this year. Originally, Natalie Portman was supposed to play young Ruth. Watching a trailer a few weeks ago, I was irritated to see Felicity Jones in the lead. Jones, who you might know as the lead (Jyn Erso) in Star Wars Rogue One, is not Jewish. She’s very beautiful, and an accomplished actor, but something about this casting got under my skin.

I remembered the social media discussions I’d seen around The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a Prime Original Series that you should definitely watch if you haven’t. Maisel is a family comedy set in early 1960s Manhattan about a young Jewish mother who discovers herself as a standup comic after her husband leaves her for his secretary. It’s a funny, sweet show with that early Mad Men costuming; escapist and beautiful. Some of my Jewish friends thought it problematic that the lead is being played by Rachel Brosnahan, a very lovely not Jewish actor. Why didn’t it bother me with Miriam Maisel, but it bothered me so much with RBG?

Because Maisel is a made-up character, I have no point of reference for what she should look like. Jews look all kinds of ways, and the idea that you can tell who is Jewish just by looking at them has its roots in anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda. However, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has a real face, a strong and lovely face. We can see in photographs what she looked like as a younger woman, and it’s not like Felicity Jones. It’s not just that Jones is a movie star, and Bader Ginsburg was a woman who didn’t look like a movie star. It’s that Felicity Jones is distractingly attractive, and frankly, putting her face on this story gives the impression that RBG may have been helped along by her looks. As though her sexual currency was just as important as the hours she studied, the arguments she crafted, or the determination she showed in the face of very real discrimination not only on the basis of her sex, but on the basis of her Jewish heritage.

Our society values women primarily as objects of beauty and sexual attraction; I don’t hold it against any woman who weaponizes her beauty to get what she wants. I do take issue with the implication that this is Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story, and I take issue with the erasure of her Jewish heritage. And from the early reviews I’ve read, the Jewish erasure didn’t stop with the casting. Apparently Bader Ginsburg’s Judaism is downplayed in the film.

This would be depressing at any time, but there’s a particular violence to it in the current moment, when anti-Semitism is so rampant. There’s been a fifty-seven percent increase in American anti-Semitic violence since the swearing-in of the current president. The shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue; attempted shootings at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers around the country; swastikas casually spray-painted on Jewish spaces. And a little more than a year ago, a crowd of (mostly) white men carrying torches felt fine chanting “Jews will not replace us” in the streets of Charlottesville. Holocaust survivor and humanitarian grandpa George Soros’s name is used as shorthand for the international banking conspiracy. I used to openly laugh at that conspiracy’s ridiculousness, but it’s hard to laugh lately.

Underneath the gentile-fication of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this larger problem. What is driving this need to make her look less Jewish? To erase her Judaism, minimize her nose, and reimagine her as a movie star hottie instead of as a brilliant, tenacious mind? In the early 1970s psychologist researchers coined the term “physical attractiveness stereotype“ for the assumption that attractive people carry other socially desirable personality traits. It is the flip side of lookism, the discriminatory treatment of people who are considered unattractive. These two biases infect all of our perceptions, but Hollywood is a particularly thick stew of lookism, bias, white supremacist beauty standards, and sexism. Very few actors, especially female-presenting ones, are what we would call unattractive. And, those people who don’t fit the traditional beauty norms that work in movies are often called on to play the bad guys, the fat friends, and the hilarious, weirdo sidekicks who are a foil to the action and the hero.

Movies present worlds on screen with a heightened lookism/attractiveness stereotype. In film, the good people are almost always beautiful; the bad are often ugly. So, in Bader Ginsburg’s biopic, they cast a beautiful woman to portray a beautiful mind, even if that means erasing some of the culturally Jewish things about Bader Ginsburg’s face, life, reality. It speaks to how highly the filmmakers regard her, but it is also a frustrating reaffirmation of the way the white supremacist culture sees and others those outside its norms. (Particularly Hollywood culture, which has, ironically, always employed a lot of Jewish people, from Lauren Bacall to Steven Spielberg, and the many producers and directors whose names are less famous but whose work is well known.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself is said to have approved of Felicity Jones’s performance. Of course she would be flattered by a film that glamorizes her into a movie star hottie with a kickass intellect. But what is that instinct to make good people beautiful, and doesn’t it play into the same narrative that tells us that ugliness is bad? And isn’t that a cousin to the idea that we can see who the “bad guys” are, as though rapists and the child molesters have a “look” to them, instead of the truth, which is they are our neighbors and friends and fathers and family, and as likely to be attractive as anyone else? In a culture of white supremacy, isn’t this same line of thinking what killed Jemel Roberson, the security officer “good guy with a gun” who stopped a mass shooter while in uniform, and was shot by the police before he could say a word? And Philando Castile, who was carrying a permitted weapon and tried to explain that to the police in his traffic stop? And twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot in part because officers perceived him as older and a threat instead of as a child with a toy? Lookism has consequences, and depending on how you look, they can be deadly.

Great Jewish Women, that book I was gifted, contained an alternative narrative to the teen magazines I was inhaling at the time. It was the narrative of backbone and determination, of accomplishments outside the gaze. Ruth Bader Ginsburg accomplished all that she did looking the way she looks—which is lovely, but not like a movie star. Her beauty was not her secret weapon, her mind was. She became a Supreme Court Justice as a Jewish woman, at a time when women were rarely allowed into law schools. Jews of her era (including her own husband) were not allowed to buy property in certain suburbs, join certain country clubs, or work for “white shoe“ law firms (so-called because their lawyers wore white shoes all summer at their restricted country clubs). It wasn’t a glamorous beauty that made her “The Notorious RBG.” She was a Jewish girl full of grit and intellect, in a society that judges people (and particularly women) on their looks. She is the subject of two movies in a year (On The Basis of Sex, and RBG, a documentary that was released in May). She might be the most celebrated feminist of the current moment. This is the story I needed as a young girl; this is the story we all need.

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Rumpus original logo and art by Aubrey Nolan.

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The Thread is a monthly literary conversation, developed for The Rumpus and edited by Julie Greicius. Send us what you’re reading that you can’t stop thinking or talking about to [email protected], or reach out to Marissa on Twitter or Facebook, and she just might pull the threads of it apart for you in a future column.


Marissa Korbel's writing has appeared in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Guernica, Bitch, and The Manifest-Station. She works as a public interest attorney supporting campus and minor sexual assault survivors. Marissa lives in Portland, Oregon with her partner and their toddler. More from this author →