“Attention, all K-Mart Shoppers, there are Jews in Aisle 12″: The Art of Parody in Southern Belles and The Hebrew Hammer
April 1, 2010 | 10 Comments
Forms of Southern identity and Jewish identity have long been highlighted in Hollywood film. As our course syllabus affirms, these features have often “been the products of creative teams combining those who have had experience inside the region or ethnicity with those who come to it from outside.” The examination and exploration of identity within film is linked closely with ideas of “the other,” as approached by both those inside the unit (regional or ethnic film world) and those outside.
This paper examines two fairly recent Hollywood films—Southern Belles and The Hebrew Hammer—and explore how both use parody to construct ideas about identity. Using ideas of “the other,” I argue that each film uses stereotype as the main vehicle of their parody, and they examine and comment on notions of who is a “Southerner” and who is a “Jew.”
The use of parody to examine identity types is extremely interesting. Before moving forward, it is necessary to define “parody.” The Oxford Dictionary defines parody as “an amusingly exaggerated imitation of the style of a writer, artist, or genre”; here, we can expand this definition to include the style, or defining elements, that distinguish units of people.
Parody often comedically expresses ideas through overstatements and hyperbole to make declarations about ideas, people, and people groupings. In her book, A Theory of Parody, author Linda Hutcheon claims that parody “always implicitly reinforces even as it ironically debunks […] parody is what Mikhail Bakhtin might have called a form of authorized transgression” (xii). Indeed, as parody is often created by those within the “other” they seek to examine, they are given permission to embellish conceptions and amplify stereotypes. In other words, it is socially permissible to lampoon your own people, if you do it with warmth from within.
Parodies always have referents. By nature, referents signal the targeting and highlighting of a specific group, and this inherently signals notions of “the other”. Are southerners and Jews a well-known enough type (i.e., a well-known enough “other”) for a successful parody? How do parodic examinations of identity intersect with insider/outsider explorations of identity? How does stereotype play into parody? The following discussion examines what kind of knowledge filmmakers assume their viewing audiences bring to the film, and debates the issue of “the other’s” in relation to these films.
The first of thee films we watched was Southern Belles. An implicit parody of Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, the movie also used parody to examine its focal type: Southerners. Many different types of Southerners are pictured in the film, however. This was a “hick flick” film, and the South as a whole seems to be composed largely of trailer parks and margaritas.
The film’s South takes on a rather hopeless coloring with the two protagonists, Bell and Belle, considering escape, but instead boarder on becoming outliers in the community. Except as the movie progresses we see that one buys her way back in. Apart from Bell and Belle’s struggles with the South’s unique way of life, this paper focuses on two other important representative characters—Bell’s boyfriend, a self professed follower of “hill-hop”, and Margery, the neighbor for whom Bell and Belle frequently babysit. Both characters flamboyantly represent typical southern stereotypes that are familiar to both southerners, and those who live outside of the South. Bell’s boyfriend is loud, obnoxious, uneducated, and when drunk, totally out of control.
He takes full advantage of any opportunity to display the Confederate flag (e.g., his hat, his car, his clothing, etc.), he is close-minded and self-obsessed, and shows little respect or appreciation for anyone else. This is a typical and widely-familiar image of Southerners; this character takes on an easily recognizable persona to represent a common conception of Southern working-class identity, played up in other areas of popular culture (such as the Blue Collar Comedy tours). Here, parody inflates an aspect of “Southern-ness” to a hilarious and outlandish degree, and thus calls attention to common definitions of the South.
The Margery character is also very important; a hyper-religious woman, she once ventured out of her community and received, instead of freedom, a child who binds her both to her original community and a dead-end, minimum-wage job. This image is, again, a recurring and representative picture (albeit overstated) of lampoons of the modern South. In class discussion, we realized that many of us, as members of the South and thus part of the film’s in-group, found resonance in the film’s exaggerated, stereotype-driven parody.
The second film viewed within this subgroup was The Hebrew Hammer; its focal type, or people group, were Jews. Here, as in Southern Belles, the film’s parody extravagantly explored group stereotypes to examine perceptions of identity. Within the film, Adam Goldberg plays a Super-Jew known in the Jewish community as “The Hebrew Hammer.” He is enlisted to help the Jewish Justice League save Hanukkah from the destructive wishes of a new anti-Semitic Santa. Through the Hebrew Hammer’s journey, audience members are exposed to various Jewish stereotypes. Stock Jewish “characters”, such as the Jewish mother, continually appear as core Jewish beliefs but are embellished to extreme proportions (e.g., during a fight with Santa, and when the clock stroke signaling magnetizing, overwhelming commands to rest).
The distinction between Jews and Gentiles is made throughout the film in outlandish ways. While in K-Mart, the Hebrew Hammer is attacked because of the announcement that “there are Jews in Aisle 12”. Again, exaggerated stereotype-driven parodies form a compelling discourse on Jewish identity, and notions of Jewish character outside the Jewish community.
I greatly enjoyed our class viewing of The Hebrew Hammer. Drawing from Hutcheon’s ideas about parody, it was pleasant (also interesting to see) because, we, as the audience, authorized the transgressions the film made towards Jews by recognizing its Jewish-supported production. This stamp of “Jewishness” provided reassurance: the in-group was making fun of itself; it was parodying itself by embellishing stereotypes forced upon them for years. Though not Jewish myself, I greatly admire and respect the Jewish faith, and, have spent time studying its history and modern evolutions. Because I came into the viewing experience with prior knowledge both of Jews and traditional Jewish stereotypes, I found the film immensely entertaining and insightful.
This knowledge, at least while viewing the film, made it easier to view and have fun with, instead of worrying about the anti-semitic possibilities of laughing at the absurd exaggerations of the movie. It placed me within the “inside group”; because I felt aligned with the Jewish “other” group, I found it easy to permit and accept their so-called transgressions.
After watching this film for the class, I viewed it with some friends of mine who are rather unfamiliar with the Jewish faith. Suddenly, during this viewing experience, what was once amusing and tolerable, felt grubby and offensive. Watching the film with an outside group so far removed from the film’s focal “other”, its embellishment of stereotype was uncomfortable and unsatisfying.
Both Southern Belles and The Hebrew Hammer use parody to examine ideas and understandings of Southern and Jewish identity. Exploration of identity—often of an outside group—is best when composed and viewed by those both familiar with “the other” and its accompanying stereotypes.
The Hebrew Hammer. Dir. Jonathan Kesselman. Perf. Adam Goldberg and Judy Greer. Intrinsic
Value Films, 2003. DVD.
Hutcheon, Linda. A theory of parody: the teachings of twentieth-century art forms. New York:
“Parody.” The Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Timberg, Bernard. Syllabus. COMM 652: Media and Difference: Southerners and Jews in
Southern Belles. Dir. Paul S. Myers and Brennan Shroff. Perf. Anna Faris and Laura
Breckenridge. LaSalleHolland, 2005. DVD.