How Come Boys Get To Keep Their Noses?
By Tahneer Oksman
Columbia University Press, 296 pages, $30
We seem to be living in a golden age of comic female abjection. Not long ago, the ethereal fantasy women that film critic Nathan Rabin famously dubbed “manic pixie dream girls” ruled the airwaves. These magical creatures continue to float across our screens, but Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Amy Schumer and their many inheritors —some of whom, like the girls of “Broad City,” are outrageously Jewish — have put the Judd Apatow boys to shame in their depictions of how gross, weird and hilarious it can be to have a body.
Tahneer Oksman’s study “‘How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?’: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs” is a welcome reminder that, in comics that appear on the page as well as comics who get up on stage, Jewish women are insisting we reckon with their bawdy bodies. Oksman’s book begins in the period following World War II, when American Jews were desperately (if fitfully) trying, as anthropologist Karen Brodkin once put it, to “become white folks.” In this context, Jewish women’s bodies were relentlessly caricatured as excessive or even grotesque bearers of an ethnicity that refused to melt away. Oksman — who teaches writing and is the director of the Writing Program at Manhattan Marymount College (and, full disclosure, a grad school acquaintance of mine) — finds that Jewish women comics artists began to cartoon themselves as a way to repossess these caricatures, allowing them to explore and even enjoy the absurdities of secular American Jewish life on their own terms.
The first and most influential artist Oksman discusses is Aline Kominsky-Crumb, whose career began in 1972 with a comic called “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman.” “Goldie” kicked off the first issue of “Wimmin’s Comix,” itself the first all-girl publication in the exploding underground comics world of the time. That world starred male artists such as Robert Crumb — Kominsky-Crumb’s eventual husband and collaborator — who reveled in the grotesqueries of sex and the body. Goldie was a character every bit as disgusting as any Crumb ever drew, and, Oksman suggests, both more transgressive and less appreciated because she was a pimply, bloated pubescent girl. When readers first encounter Goldie, as a tween, she holds out hope that her excessive, Jewishly marked body will change on its own. “When I’m 18,” she thinks, “I’ll be beautiful.” Instead, early adulthood forces her into a series of roles, including bosomy Jewish wife and lingeried sex object. These ugly experiences play out on her body as they did for the original “neurotic women,” Freud’s hysterical female patients, misshaping it further. “The more I was ostracized,” Goldie reflects, “the more I degenerated.”
A measure of salvation comes for Goldie when she begins to recognize her creative potential. The same is true for a later Kominsky-Crumb alter ego, “The Bunch,” another smart, gawky teenage girl growing up in a status-conscious Jewish community on Long Island in the 1960s. “How come boys get to keep their noses?” The Bunch asks herself in the 1989 comic “Nose Job,” when half the girls in her class come back from winter break one year with their schnozzes deschnozzified. She is dejected, but refuses to deschnozz. In the comic’s next panel, we find her wandering through Greenwich Village wearing a black turtleneck, big earrings and long hair coiled in braids, thinking she might be “an artist.” Her new style, one that pulls her away from Long Island, suits her old nose. Straying from the tribe allows her to hold onto her body and what Kominsky-Crumb calls her “independent Jewish monster temperament.”
Oksman calls this kind of joyful middle finger gesture at the politics of ethnic respectability “dis-affiliation.” Just as you must grow up at least a little observant to truly relish bacon on Yom Kippur (an old joke hogged, as it were, by Jewish men), dis-affiliation is an active process, a “postassimilationist” approach to becoming what the Trotskyist writer Isaac Deutscher famously called “the non-Jewish Jew,” where by keeping one foot in the door, you get to enjoy the sensation of perpetually leaving.
The younger artists in Oksman’s study — Vanessa Davis, Lauren Weinstein, Miss Lasko-Gross, Sarah Glidden and Miriam Libicki — are less saddled with stereotypes about Jewish women. For these artists, assimilation is a given; for some, Jewishness does not come to the forefront of their work at all. They continue, however, to depict experiences of going around in recognizably Jewish bodies that are seen, both inside and outside the Jewish community, as somehow a little too much. Weinstein, for instance, draws an ode to a childhood best friend who looks just like her, except — once again — “I have a bigger nose.” The nose makes all the difference; the friend leaves her behind. At the same time, Oksman points out, we don’t always have to take these images at face value, as it were, as representing anxieties about body image. Instead, when these artists draw themselves warts and all, and indeed exaggerate those warts, it can be a way of taking up a prerogative still much more readily given to men: self-caricature as a way, as Davis puts it, to figure out what qualities “[m]ake me the most ‘myself.’” A way for Jewish women to lead, we might say, with their noses.
Marissa Brostoff is a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center and a former staff writer for the Forward.