Earlier this week, the hip-hop wunderkind Macklemore was called to task for a performance at an event in which he wore a bad wig, beard and large beak-like nose — what Gawker and others labeled as an offensive Jewish caricature. Macklemore was quick to respond to the accusations — not only clarifying that the character was not intended as a Jewish caricature but that he is opposed to ethnic and racial tropes of all kinds and that he hopes to be a champion of tolerance and diversity. But the world has yet to hear any words from Katy Perry about playing a Jewish caricature in her Birthday video, which debuted last month and now has over 12 million views.
In the eight minute video she cross-dresses to play Yosef Shulem, a DJ at a bar mitzvah party who is portrayed as a nerdy, food-obsessed, and socially awkward Jewish man. Just to be absolutely clear about how disturbing her character is in this video it is helpful to know the context: In the video she plays four other characters: a clown, an elderly stripper (a rip-off of Johnny Knoxville’s Bad Grandpa), an animal trainer, and a lazy princess. The Jew is the only ethnic or race-based character. The overall message of the video? Clowns and elderly strippers and lazy princesses and weird animal trainers and Jewish men are really fun to laugh at.
In the first part of the video Shulem says:
I do bar mitzvahs. I do weddings. I don’t do funerals… but for a price I’ll do your funeral.
Ha! Jews will do anything for money! That is so funny. Then Shulem makes a circumcision joke. One can only watch this video and wonder how many millions of her fans will come away with a warped view of Jewish men.
Just to be clear, perceived Jewish nerdiness is not off-limits in terms of comedy. Another woman who cross-dresses to play a Jewish man — Vanessa Bayer of Saturday Night Live — riffs on the intellectualism of Jewish men in her act Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy. Bayer portrays a young Jewish man with an insider’s comic sensibility — mixing in a critique of class and family bonding with a sweet nod to Jewish values of critical thinking. Perry’s caricatured Jewish man, on the other hand, is ridiculed for his horrible beat boxing. It makes me cringe — and wonder — has she heard the Beastie Boys or Mattisyahu? Does she know Yuri Lane or Jay Stone? Or is the world just supposed to laugh at the thought of a Jewish man beat-boxing?
When the video was released, Daniel D’Addario of Salon pointed out the Jewish stereotype as did Nolan Freeman of TIME and Ariana Bacle of Entertainment Weekly. Those voices need to be amplified.
Years from now, Americans will look back on this video and be reminded of a time when it was still acceptable to ridicule Jews in public. Perry’s video will be placed alongside Asian caricatures like Long Duk Dong of Sixteen Candles and gay caricatures like those in Damon Wayans’ Mo’ Money. She’ll probably wish that she never made this video.
As for now, I hope that Perry offers an apology along the lines of Mackelmore and pulls the video off the web. It belongs as part of history — but has no place in a society that values cultural and ethnic diversity.