Is the casting of Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers in an upcoming Showtime series problematic?

As social media has pointed out, the casting of non-Jewish women as Jewish women has become rampant and it's sending a certain message.
September 22, 2021 1:21 p.m. EST

It looks like the great Kathryn Hahn may lose her perpetually underrated status. After winning over audiences with an Emmy-nominated performance in WandaVision earlier this year, the actress just scored what might be her biggest role yet: Joan Rivers in the upcoming Showtime limited series The Comeback Girl.

But the news, which was announced Tuesday, has not been met with total applause. And for good reason: Rivers was Jewish, and Hahn is not.

Which has been an ongoing conversation in Hollywood in recent years, particularly in the case of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which stars an almost entirely non-Jewish cast playing Jewish characters who are very much defined by their background. Everyone from star Rachel Brosnahan to her parents, played by Tony Shalhoub and Marin Hinkle, to even Luke Kirby, who plays late and beloved Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce are not Jewish.

Consider, then, the cases of comedy series Broad City and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, both of which starred, were created and written by Jewish women. Much was applauded about their authenticity. But it's a problem that they felt so novel.

As New York Times columnist Jason Zinoman tweeted of the recent Hahn casting news, "Two perhaps opposing thoughts: 1) Great actor, seems like a good fit 2) Maisel, Shiva Baby, now this. Hard to ignore that Jewish women are not getting cast for these roles."

Similarly, Backstage writer Casey Mink tweeted, "I love Kathryn Hahn more than anything on earth and she is going to absolutely murder it and I will sob when she wins her Emmy for it but also jfc we just really are never gonna cast Jews to play Jews then?"

On her podcast in October, Sarah Silverman summed up the problem most succinctly, after discussing the film On the Basis of Sex, which starred non-Jewish actress Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most iconic Jewish figures in America.

"There was not a Jew to be seen in front of the screen," said Silverman. "I don't mean to get into identity politics or any of that stuff, acting is acting, that's what's beautiful about acting. But patterns emerge, and this is what I see: Jewish actors that are women – especially 'Jewy,' now we're getting personal – they don't get even a Jewish woman role. You will not see a Jewish woman play her if it's a character that is courageous or a character that deserves love."

Silverman added, "I'll tell you what Jewish actresses get to play – you get to play the bitchy or sassy friend, the friend of the main beautiful woman, and then your lines are the exposition... Or you get to play the c--ty girlfriend before the guy realizes what love can be, or you play that guy's book agent. But if the character deserves love or is brave or good or righteous, you will be played by a Felicity Jones or the woman who plays Mrs. Maisel."

And that's the problem at the root of this lack of representation. As writer Wendy Rosenfield wrote in a Broad Street Review piece in 2020 about Maisel, "The show’s other principal family, the Maisels, all played by Jewish actors? Not so marvelous. They scream, cheat, talk money, lie. Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson, Midge’s manager and devoted sidekick, is misgendered as a multi-season running joke and never deemed worthy of romantic feelings or even sexuality. Maybe she’s asexual. Who knows? Who cares? ... Why not put someone like Jenny Slate in the title role? Too Jewish? Nobody would believe a girl like that could get a life like this?"

As the conversation around Jewish representation becomes a bigger one, the hope is casting will turn around. But as we know, when it comes to Hollywood, that could be a glacial change. In the meantime, it's certainly sending a message.

Hahn and the creators of The Comeback Girl have yet to respond.