How TV Saved My Soul
Growing up Orthodox, television became an enlightening portal to another world — of women.
I grew up scared of women. The thought of talking to one of them engendered in me a genuine sense of panic.
My Orthodox Jewish community traded in traditional gender roles. Mothers were cooks, and fathers were breadwinners. Young men were hormonal bundle of evil desires, and young women nothing more than receptacles of those dangerous desires.
Religious life revolved around men and their obligations while women provided support at home. As a result, I could only conceive of this foreign sex in the framework of mother or whore. I often felt in awe of women’s sensitive emotional capabilities or overwhelmed by their sexual powers.
That I now spend most days as a 28-year-old guy engaging with women seems less like a personal victory and more like a miracle. I’ve only recently come to realize the extent to which television contributed to this change.
A Kid, Immersed in Women-Centric TV
Like many American kids, I watched a lot of television — sometimes more than six hours a day. But unlike many American kids, I depended on TV as I might a best friend. This is not to say I didn’t have actual, human best friends. I did. But TV allowed me, a female-fearing introvert, to become enlightened and to appreciate women.
Despite the religious ideology instilled in me — like women’s having to wear modest clothes in public so as not to tempt men — I was eager to immerse myself in the lives of the bawdy, independent women on Golden Girls (1985–1992), the eloquent crassness and candor of the Conners on Roseanne (1988–1997), and the aspirational mother-daughter relationship between Lorelei and Rory Gilmore on the Gilmore Girls (2000–07).
Further, Buffy’s sarcastic abilities impressed me even more than her physical prowess (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997–2003). Even Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003), with at-times whiny and always angsty Joey, felt like an education in our overlapping feelings of the challenges of adolescence.
And then there was Lois from Malcolm in the Middle (2000–06) as the sane core within an insane home; Elaine Benes’s neurotic energy and searing wit on Seinfeld (1989–1998), Vivian Banks’s of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990–96) teaching everyone, black and white students alike, the brutal history of slavery.
While my exposure to contemporary gender roles through television sensitized me and taught me to respect women, my personal experience with the opposite sex still felt outdated, and would, for a time, regress.
Alone with My Laptop, Pam, and Elliott
For six formative years of my life, women existed only in the abstract, as figments in my repressed and sheltered mind. From 17 to 19, I lived in the town of Nof Ayalon in Israel, a cluster of homes and religious educational institutions situated halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
There, from seven in the morning until midnight, my male classmates and I studied the Talmud in a monastic, ascetic environment. Women arose only as topics of discussion — as a legal object to categorize and quantify, and something to avoid lest we were tempted to have pre-marital intimate contact.
We rarely saw women on the weekends. And even so, we were harshly discouraged from both talking to them and looking at them, even those who were modestly dressed. This was viewed as sinful. While it seems extreme, these were the rules.
This sexual segregation continued throughout my college experience at Yeshiva University until I was 23. Like many yeshiva boys, I would go to the third floor of the library simply because that floor had a women’s bathroom (for female instructors and librarians) so we could get a glimpse of this “finer sex” who we’d one day be allowed to date, marry, and inseminate.
While in Israel, I was without a television. I had nothing to counteract my zealous religious mind-set. I was immersed in an insular world, devoting myself wholly to rabbinical texts, neglecting all culture outside of our world.
I did, however, make an exception for The Office (2005–13) and Scrubs (2001–10) because, as I would tell myself, these shows were innocuous, emotionally uplifting, and educational. So during the day, I studied the intricacies of Jewish law, and at night, alone with my laptop, I alleviated pangs of loneliness by vicariously pining for The Office’s Pam (Jenna Fischer) Scrubs’ Elliot (Sarah Chalke).
But pining is not the right word. As I watched these sitcoms, I began to idealize the women within them. As much as I still felt stuck in the paradoxical mind-set of righteous/promiscuous, I related strongly to Elliot and Pam — their playfulness and neuroses, their utter and plain humanity, their ability to prank. They were my peers.
As I became more obsessed with American television, I discovered I empathized more with female characters than male. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt so emotionally connected to a TV character than Elisabeth Moss’s detective, Robin Griffin, on Top of the Lake (2013).
Moss’s detective is flawed and tormented, brilliant yet belligerent toward male authority — and considerably more interesting than most male characters on recent television, including Netflix and the like. Unlike it would some straight men, this identification with Moss’s character didn’t force me to question my sexuality. Rather, it firmly challenged the outmoded sense of gender roles that had been so carefully instilled in me, within my community.
TV, To You I Am Grateful
Philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Levinas has said that all human beings — regardless of race, sex, and ideology — make a claim on our minds before we can categorize them for consumption. His understanding of humanity has prompted me to switch around the question.
Now, instead of asking how does this Otherness fit into my understanding of the world? I ask what does this person’s otherness do to my simplistic understanding of the world? The burden is not on women to prove their worth, but on men’s to prove ours in response to essential differences as distinct human beings.
I am grateful to my dear friend, television — and women-centric shows like Top of the Lake and Orange Is the New Black (2013– ) — which coaxed this shy, zealous guy into the world at large, through great storytelling and fully-drawn characters through which he could live vicariously.
The more I realized women were not people to fear or to place on a pedestal, not someone to solve or explain, the more I understood the depth and range of stories women offer throughout culture.
Though no longer Orthodox (I quit rabbinical school to pursue a career in writing), I know countless women who fight for equality within the bounds of Jewish law. I chose a different path.
Young me would look on my life now and feel intense shock that most of my close friends are strong, complex women: doctors, lawyers, nurses, mothers, babysitters, public servants, Orthodox and secular, all of whom continue to challenge my biases and shape my sensibilities.
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