Out­side Over There

Forward Magazine - - News - Noah Ber­latsky is a free­lance cul­tural critic who has writ­ten for Rea­son and The At­lantic.

How Scar­lett Jo­hans­son be­came a Jewish Aryan con­tra­dic­tion.

No­body is say­ing that “Rough Night” is a great film, but what charm it has comes from Scar­lett Jo­hans­son play­ing against type. Jo­hans­son’s roles tend to cast her as the per­fect woman — her last ap­pear­ance ear­lier this year as an icy su­per­hu­man cy­borg in “Ghost in the Shell” was typ­i­cal.

In “Rough Night,” she still looks the part of on­screen god­dess, but the script calls for her to slum it up. She’s the ideal white girl, fallen from grace. The thing about Jo­hans­son, though, is that she’s not ex­actly the ideal white girl. Jo­hans­son’s mother is Jewish. And as in “Rough Night,” many of her roles, if you look closely, play with the idea that Jo­hans­son is both the white Amer­i­can ideal and a step out­side it. She’s a paragon who ac­knowl­edges in one way or another that as a paragon she’s con­structed — built up, ar­ti­fi­cial. And her body of work can be seen as grap­pling with the suc­cesses and fail­ures of Jewish as­sim­i­la­tion.

The fact that Jo­hans­son has be­come the Hol­ly­wood ideal is a trib­ute to how in­vis­i­ble Jewish­ness is, and to how thor­oughly seen Jewish peo­ple in Amer­ica are not as Jews, but sim­ply as white peo­ple. Yet her roles as aliens, ro­bots and out­siders sug­gest that white­ness re­mains un­com­fort­able. a seam­less cara­pace pulled just slightly too tight. Jo­hans­son’s sta­tus as white ideal is es­tab­lished early in her break­out role as cyn­i­cal teen Re­becca in “Ghost World.” Re­becca is much more con­ven­tion­ally at­trac­tive than her best friend, Enid, played by Thora Birch. The film goes out of its way to com­ment on the fact that boys like Re­becca bet­ter.

It also goes out of its way to link Enid’s weird­ness and frumpi­ness to her Jewish­ness. One of Enid’s friends is an ass­hole racist; he greets the girls by sneer­ing, “Enid and Re­becca, the lit­tle Jewish girl and her Aryan friend.” View­ers are sup­posed to be dis­gusted by the open anti-Semitism, yet “Ghost World” in many ways em­braces the stereo­types. Re­becca gets a job and finds an apart­ment on a bor­ing sub­ur­ban street af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Enid, for her part, thrashes around un­com­fort­ably, go­ing out with an older, nerdy guy and lis­ten­ing to old blues, like Alan Lo­max and many a dis­af­fected Jew be­fore her. Enid can’t as­sim­i­late — in part, the film sug­gests, be­cause she’s Jewish. Re­becca can, in part be­cause she’s Aryan — or ap­pears so. Enid, as out­sider, ugly duck­ling, is a Jewish stereo­type. But Re­becca —a blond, bland god­dess— is a stereo­type too.

Many of Jo­hans­son’s later roles have cap­i­tal­ized on this ten­sion in Jewish iden­tity, whereby ex­ces­sive white­ness is it­self seen as a mark of dif­fer­ence. In “Lost in Trans­la­tion,” Jo­hans­son plays Char­lotte, a young, white, af­flu­ent phi­los­o­phy ma­jor in an un­ful­fill­ing mar­riage, adrift in Tokyo. The film wan­ders through the world of Ja­panese ad­ver­tis­ing, and presents the Ja­panese as shal­low, con­sumerist and tacky. Jo­hans­son is a nor­mal white girl who can’t speak the lan­guage and feels alien­ated. “I feel noth­ing,” she says tear­fully in a phone call with her mother. That call with Mother is some­thing of a mini-trope in Jo­hans­son’s work.

There’s a sim­i­lar scene in “Lucy.” Lucy is a young woman who has in­gested ex­per­i­men­tal drugs and has fright­en­ingly ex­panded her brain ca­pac­ity as a re­sult. With her fea­tures oddly frozen, she calls from dis­tant Tai­wan — where her su­per-brain has just learned Man­darin — to tell her mother that she can now re­mem­ber the taste of her milk when she suck­led as an in­fant.

In “Ghost in the Shell,” Jo­hans­son plays a body-swapped per­fect white an­droid who has a painful re­union with her Asian mother. Again and again, Jo­hans­son takes on the role of a di­as­pora child yearn­ing for con­nec­tion with home and fam­ily — ei­ther be­cause she’s white and lost in a for­eign cul­ture, or be­cause she’s Jewish and lost in white­ness.

Jo­hans­son is em­bed­ded enough in white­ness that she has never yet, to my

knowl­edge, played an openly Jewish char­ac­ter. She comes closer than usual, though, in “Match Point.” Di­rected by the in­sis­tently Jewish Woody Allen, the film is no­table for be­ing bereft of Jews — at least on the sur­face. The story fo­cuses on Chris ( Jonathan Rhys Mey­ers), an Irish ten­nis pro from a poor fam­ily who mar­ries into an up­per-crust Bri­tish fam­ily. His per­fect as­sim­i­la­tion is threat­ened, how­ever, by his lust for his brother-in-law’s girl­friend, a lower-class Amer­i­can ac­tress named Nola, played by Jo­hans­son. Sup­pos­edly, the Bri­tish fam­ily thinks Nola is un­suit­able be­cause she is poor and Amer­i­can. But in a Woody Allen film, with a Jewish ac­tor play­ing the part, it’s hardly a leap to sug­gest that Nola’s ob­jec­tion­able Amer­i­can­ness is a stand-in for an ob­jec­tion­able Jewish­ness. Sim­i­larly, Nola’s ideal white beauty is also a Jewish beauty. Chris is at­tracted to her be­cause she looks like a per­fect movie star (“So you know the ef­fect you have on men,” he says, leer­ing at her). But Chris also is at­tracted to Nola be­cause she stands in for his own aban­doned poverty and authen­tic­ity. She is poor like him; she’s an out­sider like him; she is, in the econ­omy of Allen’s film, Jewish like him.

Chris is ob­sessed with Nola be­cause she’s not up­per crust. No sur­prise, then, that when the af­fair goes awry and Chris be­gins to hate Nola’s nag­ging and de­mands, it is the echo of Jewish queru­lous­ness in her Allen-writ­ten di­a­logue that he loathes. She be­comes a kind of ghost of Jewish­ness past, haunt­ing his per­fect as­sim­i­lated mar­riage, threat­en­ing to drag him back into poverty and stigma.

Chris fi­nally mur­ders Nola. You could see this as Allen’s com­men­tary on the mon­stros­ity of aban­don­ing one’s Jewish roots. But the film mostly sym­pa­thizes with Chris; Jo­hans­son throws her­self into the role of nag­ging fish­wife, while Allen gives Chris all the poignant mo­ments of soul-search­ing. If we’re sup­posed to cheer for mur­derer Chris (and we are), then “Match Point” may be less a warn­ing than it is a tri­umphant fan­tasy of as­sim­i­la­tion.

Jo­hans­son’s more re­cent roles have been more awk­ward out­sider than as­sim­i­lated suc­cess. In “Her,” Jo­hans­son played the voice of a dis­em­bod­ied AI per­sonal com­pan­ion who falls in love with her user, Theodore Twombly ( Joaquin Phoenix). In one scene, she in­hab­its/adopts the body of a vol­un­teer sex­ual sur­ro­gate, an at­tempt at as­sim­i­la­tion that goes hor­ri­bly awry when Theodore freaks out and can’t per­form.

The most har­row­ing vi­sion of pass­ing or not pass­ing in Jo­hans­son’s oeu­vre, though, is “Un­der the Skin” from the same year, in which she plays an in­sect­like alien in­hab­it­ing a hu­man shell and hunt­ing the streets of Scot­land for un­at­tached men. Jo­hans­son’s char­ac­ter has no name, and vir­tu­ally no per­son­al­ity. Hair dyed black, she drives around in a van, her face slack and un­emo­tional, un­til she asks some man for di­rec­tions. Then her fea­tures be­come an­i­mated. The men talk back in thick Scot­tish di­alect — and then she takes them home and, via an ob­scure process, turns them into empty, gut­ted bags of skin.

In the film, Jo­hans­son’s beauty and de­sir­abil­ity are pre­sented as a false shell, from be­hind which she watches as an out­sider the (al­most uni­formly) white peo­ple around her as they shop and eat and talk on their phones. In the fi­nal scene of the film, the alien is raped and dam­aged, and slides out of her hide — the Enid con­cealed in­side Re­becca.

It’s not sim­ply a co­in­ci­dence that our cul­ture’s fem­i­nine ideal at the mo­ment is a Jewish woman whose Jewish­ness is most no­table on­screen in its con­spic­u­ous ab­sence. White­ness, af­ter all, isn’t an eth­nic­ity; it’s an agree­ment that cer­tain peo­ple’s eth­nic­i­ties and back­grounds will be in­vis­i­ble or erased or folded into an agreed upon standard of “nor­mal.”

Jo­hans­son’s ca­reer has been so suc­cess­ful, in no small part be­cause she is that nor­mal — a blond, pe­tite “Aryan” with a per­fect fig­ure and a nose just dis­tinc­tive enough to add char­ac­ter. That’s cer­tainly why she, rather than a Ja­panese ac­tress, got the lead in “Ghost in the Shell,” But Jo­hans­son has also been suc­cess­ful be­cause she projects an alien­ation from her own per­fec­tion, an unease with the skin she’s in. It’s an unease with a white con­sen­sus that many Jews, and not just Jews, can rec­og­nize. De­spite, or rather be­cause of, the glam­our and power it of­fers, white­ness can con­sume you. It hasn’t con­sumed Jo­hans­son, though, if we’re will­ing to see her Jewish­ness in her as­sim­i­la­tion, in her re­sis­tance to that as­sim­i­la­tion, and in the space be­tween the two.

Jo­hann­son demon­strates how in­vis­i­ble Jewish­ness is in Hol­ly­wood.


Stranger In A Strange Movie: Scar­lett Jo­hans­son as an alien in ‘Un­der The Skin.’

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