In Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen, Henry Bial argues that popular culture often features “double coding”: representations that speak in different ways to different groups, whether or not they are intended to do so. In particular, he describes how Jews may find meanings and pleasures in certain texts that “feel” Jewish to them while non-Jews may experience the same text without sensing Jewishness. The concept can be applied to texts that feature overt Jewish content—from music or language to stereotypes—and even to texts that feature none. I would add, moreover, that double coding is an interpretive strategy that diversity minority groups and subcultures employ, primarily related to experiences of cultural disempowerment or relative media invisibility.
To exemplify the concept of double coding, we can begin by exploring a text with no obvious Jewish content: TNT’s Leverage (2008-2012). First, we can acknowledge that, like many Hollywood television productions, this drama – about a team of thieves who champion underdogs against the rich, powerful, and corrupt – features some Jews both on and behind screen. The show’s head producer and creator Dean Devlin is the son of Jewish-American television producer Don Devlin (while his mother was Filipino). One of the series’ stars, Gina Bellman (Sophie Devereaux), is of Russian and Polish Jewish heritage. Several writers and directors for the series are also Jewish. And the most memorable villain, featured in both the pilot (“The Nigerian Job”, 2008) and the final episode of the fourth season (“The Last Dam Job”, 2012), is corporate executive, thief, and would-be murderer Victor Dubenich, played by Canadian Jewish actor Saul Rubinek. Rubinek, like the character he plays, features an Eastern European last name that signals his ethnicity. Moreover, Rubinek, born in a German detention camp in 1946, has several stereotypical characteristics of the Ashkenazi Jew: he is short, fleshy, and swarthy, with curly black hair and a prominent nose.
The presence of Jews within or behind the scenes of a production does not make it “Jewish,” of course. Little actual content connected to Jewish culture or religious Judaism can be found in the series, with the significant exception of the “The Two Live Crew Job” (Season 2, Episode 7, 2009), in which Holocaust survivor siblings ask the Leverage team to recover a painting stolen by the Nazis that belonged to their father. The episode also features Jewish Israeli actress and producer Noa Tishby, who plays Mikel Dayan, whose name may resonate as homage to Israeli military leader Moshe Dayan, while her toughness may hint at a stereotype of Israeli women, including the early pioneers and such figures as “iron lady” prime minister Golda Meir. It is puzzling that Tishby speaks almost no English in the episode, mostly using Hebrew to communicate with her team, who do not respond in Hebrew but seem somehow to understand her. All this may be evident to Jewish and non-Jewish viewers, although Jews may be more inclined to notice that the episode uses the term “Shoah” instead of “Holocaust” in the episode and to wonder why no point is made of whether Mikel understands that she is involved in stealing Nazi-looted art.
Beyond most obvious features that may be true of many otherwise “non-Jewish” contemporary television dramas, those invested in double coding may pay particular attention to the series’ main character, Nathan Ford (Timothy Hutton). He is the only markedly ethnic and religious character featured in the program, albeit of Irish Catholic not Ashkenazi Jewish descent. The primary signs of his heritage are represented in broad stereotypes: alcoholism (with a particular love of Irish whiskey) and that he attended seminary and considered becoming a priest when younger. His Irish conman father is a recurring character and we hear references to the “old country” and Nathan’s deceased mother as well, whose Irish surname was Logue.
This singular focus on ethnicity stands out from the rest of the characters and the series, certainly, but for those reading for Jewishness, there is even more to consider. The name Nathan Ford, for example, is not Irish. “Nathan” comes from the Hebrew Natan, meaning “to give” (as in a child given by God to his parents). Ford is British and, by virtue of the fame of Henry Ford, may feel primarily American to viewers. Moreover, as the leader or “mastermind” of the Leverage team, Nate (as the others call him) resonates far more with the concept of “Jewish head” or yiddishe kop(f) than any Irish stereotype. This Yiddish term identifies an intelligence that helps Jews to succeed (or just to survive) more than the strength of the body, which is seen as a gentile trait, according to Nathan Abrams in The New Jew: Exploring Jewishness and Judaism in Contemporary Film.
For a more in-depth exploration of this topic, see “Yiddishkeit, “Jewissance,” and Double-Coding in Leverage.”
To provide a second example of double coding with a focus other than Jewishness, we can consider “reading queerly.” As Alexander Doty argues in Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, “While we acknowledge that homosexuals as well as heterosexuals can operate or mediate from within straight cultural spaces and positions—after all, most of us grew up learning the rules of straight culture—we have paid less attention to the proposition that basically heterocentrist texts can contain queer elements.” Doty’s reading strategy leads to his second book, Flaming Classics: Queering the Film Canon, in which he argues for queer interpretations of Hollywood classics including The Wizard of Oz (1939) (as lesbian coming of age film), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) (as bisexual via Monroe and Russell’s characters’ intimate friendship), and Psycho (1960) (as gay—but not for the crossdressing).
To draw conclusions about the tendencies and pleasures of interpreting texts via double coding today, we must acknowledge viewers’ concerns with limited available representations. Even as the number and variety of “positive” (non-villainous, non-self-loathing) Jewish roles in Hollywood film and television increased (beginning with Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen, according to Bial), the strategy of reading for the pleasure of double coding has continued, especially within genres other than comedy/sitcoms that rarely feature “out” Jewish characters. Similarly, as we see increasingly diverse LGBT characters in 21st-century productions, there can still be a desire to read queerly, and to validate queer experience as part of otherwise straight viewers’ experience. As Doty posits in the introduction to Flaming Classics, “I’d like to see queer discourses and practices as being less about co-opting and ‘making’ things queer (well, there goes the title of my first book, too) and more about discussing how things are, or might be understood as, queer.”
Because we all take pleasure in seeing core facets of our identities represented on screen, double coding will no doubt continue to be an important reading strategy for members of groups experiencing past and ongoing disenfranchisement.