Advertising, as any consumer with their head screwed on is aware, isn’t really about telling the whole truth. That’s not to say that consistently eating Special K won’t give you the body of the fresh-faced model in red – simply that it’s just as likely you’ll end up with a stomach ache and a craving for chocolate. Buying that shampoo probably won’t leave your hair as salon glossy as Cheryl’s, unless you’re blessed with a personal hairdresser. And no matter how adorable the mascot, car insurance is surely not best chosen on that basis.
So the natural response, as we read with mirth of the woman who is suing Lancôme over the failure of her 24-hour-cream to last for that period, is to shake our heads. “How ridiculous,” we think. “Surely that’s not a real story.” Unfortunately, it is. Rorie Weisberg, who comes across as a veritable “disgusted of…” is apparently taking legal action so absurd that it is reminiscent of a case contested by Ally McBeal.
But, I’d hazard, the reason it’s been so gleefully shared around the web? She’s not just any disgruntled customer. She’s from the Orthodox Jewish community, a world brimming with seemingly bizarre rules and restrictions, like not being able to put on make-up on the Sabbath. A sexist, antiquated, closeted world where, as Weisberg’s case clarifies, women slather on make-up on a Friday night and require it to remain until sundown. A world where women see nothing strange about doing this.
The public seems to have something of a fascination with the strictly Orthodox community, just as it does with any other supposed outliers – Gypsies, say, or Mormons, or the Amish, or indeed people with 16 kids, or the unbelievably obese. I’ve lost count of the number of documentaries casting an eye on the Jews of Stamford Hill, or the regularity with which stories about sex guides for the ultra-religious appear. A photograph of an ultra-Orthodox man wrapped in plastic on a plane was shared around the globe, and discussed with amusement on Have I Got News For You.
To an extent, there’s a natural intellectual curiosity about a closed society; media coverage, and indeed television and books, offers a rare window. If we cannot experience something ourselves, the next best is to be told about it. Yet there’s a fine line between curiosity and thinly-veiled contempt, between offering the opportunity for people to learn about something and giving them a get-out-of-jail-free card to laugh about it.
At the risk of disagreeing with the herd, I found watching the musical The Book of Mormon rather uncomfortable, given that we were essentially being asked to snigger at the ignorant, whether the Mormon missionaries or the generic African villagers. Oh, but it was actually poking fun at American exceptionalism, I’m told. Well, yes, but what about the fact that it involved smug, superior writers all but giggling like children at a culture distinct from their own?
The Mormons, of course, have reacted rather well to the show, and launched a recruitment drive off the back of it. Good for them. And of course we should be able to laugh at religion, to point out its absurdities, and still tolerate it as part of a healthy melting-pot society. I might be Jewish, but I’ve no more connection than the next person to the baffling decisions made in the name of faith by those on the extreme fringes of the community. I can see the comedy value in a passenger who has essentially cling-filmed himself because he is so devout; I can appreciate how ludicrous it is that the woman wouldn’t just reapply the next morning. And it’s not as if these stories are fabricated to cast strictly Orthodox Jews in a bad light – on the contrary – perhaps frustratingly for the rest of the Jewish community – they are all too real.
And I know exactly why newspapers, documentary makers and bloggers seize on these cases – they are funny and ridiculous, and they guarantee plenty of web traffic and twitter discussion. But it’s hard to be totally relaxed with the way laughing about extreme religious behaviour has become so mainstream, so trendy.
For by and large, there is no attempt at understanding, at examination. These anecdotes are not reported on because they tell us anything about those communities, only because they are humorous. They reveal absurd caricatures taking observance to the furthest extreme, and tar an entire community with the brush of the strangest member. As a supposedly tolerant, inclusive society, I’m not sure we should be so comfortable with that.
This piece orginally appeared on the Independent website. See the orginal here