Jessica, 2019, performance lecture for Marathon Screenings.

Jessica is a performative slide-lecture that traces the origins of the name Jessica to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, and then goes on to compare the story of the original Jessica to Baby in Dirty Dancing. In both stories, a young Jewish woman runs off with a dumb, but handsome goy. Dad’s angry.

TRANSCRIPT:

Jessica

Father, can’t you see I’m burning.

Between 1981 and 1997, Jessica was the first or second most popular girl’s name in the United States. There are currently 805,259 women named Jessica living among us, with the majority between the ages of 22 and 38. We are surrounded by Jessicas. There are probably Jessicas in this room right now.


Please tell me: What does Jessica want?

The first Jessica I ever met was born in 1988. She was married to a cartoon rabbit. But the name Jessica is older than that. The first Jessica appeared in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, written in 1596. Jessica is the daughter of Shylock, the play’s famous antagonist. The name Jessica was Shakespeare’s invention, an Anglicized version of the Hebrew name Iscah, meaning vision or foresight. Jessica is a woman who sees the future.

Before we discuss The Merchant of Venicewe should note that Merchant is a deeply anti-Semitic artwork. Shakespeare had probably never met a Jew, and he used Jewish identity as a convenient symbol of greed and villainy.

In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica, a Jewish woman, wants to sneak off with her Christian boyfriend, an Italian guy named Lorenzo. Along the way, she steals her dad’s money and betrays him.

So, the answer is clear, what Jessica wants is to run away with her boyfriend to spite her dad.

Jessica’s story in The Merchant of Venice bears a strong resemblance to the plot of the 1987 film Dirty Dancing. In both stories, a young Jewish woman falls in love with a sexy, but slightly dumb goy. Jessica and Baby both lie and steal their dad’s money to win the object of their affection. And in each case, the illicit affair creates a rift between father and daughter.

I confess, I find these kinds of stories thrilling. A young woman, on the cusp of adulthood, faces a choice. Obey her father and remain a child or defy him and become a woman. A choice between a dad and a boyfriend.

And what better way to become an adult than with two men fighting for your affection? Over here, Jerry Orbach, and over there Patrick Swayze. Over here Shylock and over there Lorenzo. The illicit nature of the affair, the forbidden object of your affection, the risk of getting caught, only stokes the flames of desire.

Baby is caught between a father who is unable to fully see her as an adult, and a boyfriend who is an outsider, a criminal or a cad.

Of course, her boyfriend’s illegitimacy only makes him more alluring. By choosing him, she succeeds in her realaim: getting Dad’s attention.

In The Merchant of Venice, misrecognition between fathers and their children is a source of anxiety. Children are weaponized, viewed as repositories of wealth or inanimate extensions of their father’s will. In a scene between “Old Gobbo” and Launcelot Gobbo, the father refers to the son as “the very staff of my age, my very prop.” Launcelot responds, “Do I look like a cudgel or a hovel-post, a staff or a prop?... Nay, indeed if you had your eyes, you might fail the knowing me.” 


The struggle to be seen by your father is a struggle for selfhood, agency and autonomy. Like Baby, in TheMerchant of Venice, Jessica’s alienation from her father is expressed as shame and ambivalence.

Jessica is triangulated between “blood,” family obligation, and “manners,” her social being, her actions. In other words, the difference between who she is and what she wants. 

When Jessica runs off with Lorenzo, stealing all her father’s money, Shylock speaks of her as an extension of his body and his fortune. Her betrayal is not only familial, but a betrayal of nation–she gives up her Jewish identity to marry a Christian.

Shylock explains that he would see his daughter dead to get his money back. Country and family are intertwined. The wealth of fathers is the wealth of nations, stolen by disobedient Jessicas. Dad’s not just angry, he’s homicidal.

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, having successfully stolen her father’s money, Jessica and Lorenzo speak of betrayal. In each of these stories, Dido, Medea, Pyramus and Thisbe, lovers misunderstand each other, turn on each other, or otherwise go astray. Finally, Jessica, who sees the future, predicts that Lorenzo will also break his “many vows of faith.” Just as Jessica steals from her father, Lorenzo steals from Jessica. 

What can we learn from Jessica? What does the future hold?

I want to choose between my boyfriend and my dad, between going and staying, between blood and manners. Like Jessica, I want to believe that I have a choice. But the illusion of choice gives way to more of the same.

It’s a well-known fact that all boyfriends grow up to be dads.

In Dirty Dancing, in a weird turn of events, Johnny and Baby end up wanting the same thing: Jerry Orbach. Johnny even tells Baby that he has a dream about her father, about being recognized by her father, man to man. Baby tries to rebel, but she ends up with a man who’s obsessed with winning her father’s approval. Baby’s agency, her desire, turns into a stepping stone for Johnny’s paternal ambitions. He’s ready to receive his inheritance, to become a man. Likewise, Jessica steals her dad’s money, but she gives that money to Lorenzo, who by the end of Merchant is legally recognized as Shylock’s rightful heir.

Jessica’s desire is a conduit for the transfer of wealth from point A to point B.

And what is desire? What do you feel, when you watch Johnny’s hand trace the curve of Baby’s hip? Desire is energy and movement, a path between bodies. What is the quality of a longing glance, or a lingering close up? Film is a kind of training. It teaches us lessons.

When we watch a film, we are taught where to look and what to want. Practice is repetition. Film trains me to align my desire to the transfer of wealth between men.

In 2006, I lived in Brooklyn. Every day, I rode the Q to my job in Midtown. On the train was a sign about the benefits of organ donation. According to this sign, after he died in 2004, Jerry Orbach donated both his eyes to an anonymous recipient. Jerry Orbach had perfect vision. Imagine Jerry Orbach’s eyes, out there, sitting in someone else’s head. Just when you think you’re finally free, suddenly Dad’s everywhere.