Tomorrow, I’m going to a press screening of the new Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen comedy, The Guilt Trip (in theaters December 19). Originally titled, My Mother’s Curse, Rogen (Andrew) plays son to Streisand (as Joyce).
Inventor Andrew invites Joyce on a road trip with him to sell his contraptions, and search for Joyce’s former love interest.
From previews this looks like another excuse to bring out tired Meet the Fockers tropes about nagging Jewish mothers and their apron string clinging sons. I’m not excited.
But I am open to being surprised, and a part of me wonders if the film will mange to bring anything new to the obvious stereotype of the Jewish mother. Rogen often tries to tackle a formula, like the romantic comedy in Knocked Up, and make it more true and modern. He’s usually a little overambitious, and the final product is ambiguously successful for mocking a convention, while still not quite managing to subvert it.
As someone who has a Jewish mother, and grandmother, I am not unfamiliar with mass email forwards in comic sans, frank inquiries about my intentions to procreate, or having another human being unnaturally interested in the amount of food I consume.
The caricature of the smothering, manipulative Jewish mother is also omnipresent in entertainment culture. Streisand herself has played a few recently, as she’s aged into the role — Rozalin Focker and Mama Rose in Gypsy.
Fran Fine’s mother, Syliva, on The Nanny is the quintessential Jewish mother. She’s got chutzpah acquired in the NYC outer boroughs, adult children she treats like actual children, and an outsized vocal register.
She’s also loving and fiercely proud. Anthropologist Margaret Mead is often credited with bringing this personality to the American consciousness through her research on eastern European shtetl in 1962.
Mead drew parallels between American Jewish mothers and their Polish predecessors who were the heart of village life — feeding, cajoling, and overseeing the collective’s children.
She also noted that Judaism in particular exalts motherhood. Creating life is a mitzvah, a good deed that heals the world. So mothers are granted especial reverence, and by extension, the power to guilt trip.
Immigrant culture at the turn of the century also contributed this archetype of a mother who lives vicariously through her children, with each successive generation expected to better itself. This focus on success and scholarship dovetails with the Tiger Mom mentality. As the daughter of a Chinese immigrant father, I am also familiar with this personality.
Stereotypes exist for a reason. A genuine cultural observation is made and then enlarged. They’re shorthand for complicated phenomenon, and can telegraph lots of information with little description.
But with the Jewish mother thing, the movie version feels really dated. Let’s see if Guilt Trip has anything new to offer.