I feel kinda weird posting about this as I don’t tend to get worked up about Jewish stereotypes in media, and my mind isn’t even totally made up in this case, but I was just surprised to see the dearth of discussion on this topic and I wanted to see what y’all think.
I was recently watching the TV show “Suits,” and I have to say, I was kind of taken aback by the portrayal of supporting character, Louis Litt. He’s the pretty much only explicitly Jewish character in the show*. And the way they write him is something else. They portray him as way over the top nebbish, neurotic, constantly scheming, and weak in a way that reinforces some of the most painful stereotypes about Jewish men. What’s more, his role is primarily a foil to the masculine, blonde haired*, smooth talking, Harvey Specter, who, despite being a similarly skilled lawyer, usually gets the best of Louis by virtue of his superior charisma, integrity, and unflappable confidence. In the rare cases where Louis actually shows off his legal prowess it is almost exclusively in the realm of, I kid you not, finance. His specialty in finance is prominent enough that it is a pivotal plot point multiple times. Enlisting this help is also pretty much the only thing that causes Harvey to show any Louis any respect. The rest of the time they seem to pretty much show Louis seething in insecurity and plotting ways to climb to a higher position in the company. This isn’t to say that he’s never given a sympathetic portrayal, but there are some pretty wild stereotypes being used out of the gate.
I initially thought it was a pretty cut and dry case of antisemitic undertones (like the Harry Potter goblins or whatever) but since the show’s writing overall was quickly getting too stupid to even half pay attention to, I just moved on with my life. I started thinking about it again when I saw the Bernstein controversy taking over the internet. I hadn’t ever heard a peep about antisemitism in Suits, even though it’s one of the most popular shows on TV. When I looked it up to see what people were saying, I was surprised to see that almost nobody was talking about it. All I could find was this obscure old tumblr post, which said much of what I was thinking and more (although more eloquently, I recommend reading it), and a Quora question with one response. The single reply notes that, surprisingly, not only are both the actors who play Louis and Harvey Jewish, Specter is a Jewish surname.
So what do we do with this? Certainly neither would be the first Jewish person to be involved in a production with antisemitic themes, but it’s definitely not nothing. To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of it. How about the last name? It seems like Specter is usually a Jewish name, but not in all cases. I it’s not the kind of name that would make the average viewer assume Harvey to be Jewish–especially when his potential Judaism is NEVER referenced. At the very least, it’s worth noting that both I and the author of the previously mentioned Tumblr post (which appears to have had quite a lot of thought put into it) initially assumed that Harvey was a gentile. The show goes out of it’s way to bring up Louis’ Judaism multiple times, if they wanted to portray Harvey as Jewish, why never mention it? If you ask me, the dichotomy of traits between Louis and Harvey occurs, for all intents and purposes, between a Jewish character and a gentile one.
From a certain viewpoint, I feel like it doesn’t really matter whether the actors were Jewish in real life. The reason that art, especially storytelling, is important is because it allows us to convey meaning in a unique and unbelievably deep way. The medium allows for unconscious associations and thematic implications that have the ability to convey entire worldviews that could never be exhaustively explained in a literal way. At the end of the day, I think the average viewer is very likely to believe that Harvey is not Jewish. Because of that, to most people, the foil relationship between the rival characters is thus: Louis is pathetic, emasculine, neurotic, greedy, and Jewish. Harvey is secure, masculine, honorably determined, and white.
Obviously this isn’t going to cause mass conversions to neo-Naziism, but associations like this in media are genuinely meaningful and I think we ought to be conscious of them. Then again, I don’t want to be too dramatic. I severely doubt that many (if any) of the people involved in the creation of the show are trying to put hate out into the world, but in this instance, the portrayal seems pretty over the top and I really think it could’ve been avoided. I think it’s important to discuss these things, because that’s how we improve them. For example, I think it’s pretty unlikely that the props department on Maestro was perpetrating a conspiracy to portray Jews offensively, but we still talk about it because tapping into stereotypes can be harmful even when there’s no ill intent. I’ll add that, personally, I found myself way more hurt by the implications about Jewish masculinity in Suits than by that ridiculous plastic triangle they glued onto Bradley Coopers face–and that’s coming from a big nosed, Jewish composer in Boston (although I’d prefer we’d refrain from both). At the very least, I thought a shot at a third mention of this topic on the internet.
Maybe I’m totally off base and that’s why there’s so few, it’s very possible. What I described here is only my best attempt at approaching something I found to be problematic. If there’s a better approach or a reason it’s not really problematic, I’d obviously like to know. I also just want to know how other people felt. I should also disclaim that I haven’t watched every episode of the show, less because of the antisemitism and more because it kinda sucks, but every single thing I could find online says that Harvey never identifies himself as Jewish. I also know that Louis’ personality changes a bit towards the end. I watched some later episodes, it’s really not that enormous–nor would a change in personality towards the end invalidate my points about the majority of the show.
*I think Daniel Hardman is the only exception to this, as he is shown wearing a yarmulke. But I wanted to focus on Louis here. Suffice it to say that the only other Jewish character being the season 2 villain who slyly takes control of the doesn’t help matters.
*As I mention later, the actor that plays Harvey is Jewish. Obviously blonde Jews exist and I’m not trying to reinforce stereotypes here. In this section, I recount my first impressions of the show (and how I expect many viewers would perceive it). The fact is that, due to stereotypes and its relative rareness, most people don’t associate jews with blonde hair. If the show took a second to have Harvey mention being Jewish, as it does multiple times with Louis, I would be praising it for representation. But because they chose not to, it reinforces the dichotomy that I discuss in my conclusion. It’s also worth noting that, due to a mistake by the hairdresser, Harvey’s hair is much darker in the first season. Here’s the interview regarding that.