Excessive relationships

by tobybee

So thus far we haven’t done any posts on John Safran’s ‘Race Relations’ show, which finished this week. For my part, I haven’t been really sure what I’ve thought about it. There’s so much I’ve enjoyed and appreciated, but also so many moments which I wish had never made it to screen. The most disappointing scenes were when Safran made no mention of the political implications of what he was engaging in/with (most particularly in his interactions with women in Thailand, where the colonial relationships implicated in a white, western man trying to date a Thai woman were not really mentioned), or when he expressed some kind of offensive ideas about Jewish women, and women generally. In fact, at times he kinda came off as a bit misogynist.

Plus there was the fact that he really didn’t at all deal with the pressure in the Melbourne Jewish community to be coupled up in a heterosexual relationship, a pressure which totally marginalises queer and single people, and reinforces the idea that dating necessarily leads to marriage. It would have been nice to have seen him critique the whole concept, rather than just the ways in which it is enforced. But I don’t want to dwell on the criticisms, because I feel like they have proliferated much more than the positive comments (or at least amongst my friends they have).

What did I like about the show? I liked that this was a chance to see my people on screen. And not just because I knew a couple of the people who popped up in episodes. But because here was someone who is intelligent and articulate, actually engaging with some complex issues involved in being Jewish in Melbourne today. He challenges the handed-down lessons which are gained by attending Jewish school, and by listening to one’s friends and family. But he also takes them, and the emotional hold they have, seriously. He challenges, but doesn’t dismiss.

The last episode (in which he got married to a bin Laden, and was crucified – you can still watch it online, through the ABC website) amazed me in its excessiveness. It was overwhelming, and to a great extent, incredibly painful to watch. But then, that is right: the problem he is dealing with—of what is the importance of marrying someone Jewish—is excessive. Who one chooses to spend the rest of their life with is, of course, a serious consideration. And how one can deal with the guilt placed on them by a community which openly disavows one’s choices. Yet throughout the series Safran never refused his own agency. He acknowledged that he is attracted to a particular racial stereotype (and we can certainly critique the implications of that), but he was willing to, to an extent, take responsibility for that; to make it a choice, rather than just something which happened. And I really admire that, and I’m glad that he put it on the table. Because in doing so, he also exposed that the decision to marry someone Jewish is just that, a decision, with its own set of necessary critiques.

So the excessiveness of the last episode was spot on, I think. And it was moving in the ways it demonstrated the entrappedness that many of us, I think, feel. I liked that he ended the series with a bit of Jew-pride, arguing that we Jews can always a find out of these problems, and I think he’s right. There’s a million ways in which we can negotiate the world we find ourselves in, and a big part of that negotiation involves the figuring out who we want to marry (and if we want to be married at all). But then we need to consider if that is ever figure-outable. Or if we just need to learn to live with the excessiveness, and be able to just see what happens.