The Racism Underneath the Stereotype of the Israeli Bimbo

Thirty-five years after Ofra Haza sang 'Frecha,' Channel 2 is airing a new series 'Amamiyot.' Has anything changed?

Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan
Shachar Atwan

It’s hard to forget the moment of the breakthrough: 1979, Ofra Haza was an unknown singer, playing the character of Dina in Assi Dayan’s film “Schlager” and singing a song called “Frecha” (which can be loosely translated as “tart”), written for her by the director. It was a kind of ideological manifesto about a flighty girl who doesn’t have the patience for long words, who feels like dancing and doing silly things, and most of all − feels like shouting that she’s a frecha. Why? Maybe simply because she’s tired of people trying to shut her up.

Thirty-five years on, almost a generation later, the frecha − a word that became a racist, derogatory term − seems to be in the same place, more or less, having progressed only in terms of quantity. In the new television series “Amamiyot” (sort of, ordinary women) which is being broadcast on Channel 2, the heroines are four frechas who share the desire to shout out loud that they are frechas, as opposed to the firm command to smother their identity as Mizrahim (those of Middle Eastern or North African origin).

What do they do in order to conceal their true identity? They scheme here and there, stretch the truth, try to speak in high-flown language and struggle to climb the social ladder by means of a rich husband. You don’t have to work hard in order to understand that the title “Amamiyot” (or “common girls”) is an euphemism for “frechot.” And why do they conceal their identity? Because a frecha, by nature, is ashamed; a large number of unsuitable characteristics and unflattering labels that are better off stored deep in the ceiling closet at home in the housing project.

The people who helped to introduce the frecha into Israeli culture were the late writers Netiva Ben-Yehuda and Dahn Ben-Amotz. In “The World Dictionary of Hebrew Slang,” which they published in 1972, frecha was defined as “a derogatory term for a simple, uncouth girl, lacking education and refinement, who dresses and wears her hair according to the latest fashion.” The detail omitted from the formative definition, and that may have been unnecessary because it was so transparent, is of course the ethnic affiliation.

“The term ‘frecha’ is always connected to Mizrahi ethnic labeling,” says Shira Ohayon, the educational director of the Mediterranean Andalusian Orchestra, who is a prominent Mizrahi researcher and feminist activist. She herself changed her name in her youth, after she was told in no uncertain terms that with a name like “Simha” she wouldn’t go far, but even that didn’t prevent her from being labeled a “frecha from Be’er Sheva” when she started her military service.

“I was a good girl, a nerd, and as soon as I arrived in [IDF intelligence] Unit 8200 I was cast in the image of the frecha from Be’er Sheva. And why? Because of my lipstick. That’s ridiculous of course, because if an Ashkenazi soldier (of European origin) wears lipstick that’s considered good grooming, but when I wore it, it became frecha-like behavior,” she says, thereby directing attention to the fluidity of visual symbols.

Ostensibly it seems that when it comes to trademarks there is a sweeping consensus: Everything that doesn’t accord with the generic index of European refinement and is likely to be considered bad, loud and cheap taste, is immediately categorized as typical of frechas. For example, short dresses, tight-fitting clothes, generous décolletages, strong colors, leopard prints, high heels, large gold jewelry, heavy makeup, long and colorful fingernails or a peroxided mane of hair.

But what is the validity of this consensus in an era of multiple trends, in which the guiding principle of “mix and match” has led to a situation where the significance of clothing and of supposedly clear-cut styles of dress is no longer as direct or unequivocal as it once was.

If we stick for a moment to the dictionary definition of “frecha,” and to the final category, adherence to the latest fashion − what is a “fashionista,” a devout fashion lover who considers her body a vessel for the latest fashion, if not a super-frecha? And if the essence of being a frecha is related to the need to recreate yourself while climbing the social ladder, and thereby to blur the traces of your previous identity, as in “Amamiyot,” who hasn’t been a frecha at some point in her life? It turns out that frecha is not as natural or as stable a category as described.

“I think that the concept ‘frecha’ in itself is outdated. Who decided that only someone who likes things that glitter and are of questionable taste, like me for example, is a frecha? And what about the girl who wears beige on beige on beige and carries a Louis Vuitton bag, is she less of a frecha?” asks fashion designer Dorin Frankfurt, whose 2013 spring-summer collection, Bat Yam Rococo, was a tribute to local culture with hints of what is considered deliberate bad taste and presumed frecha style.

“Of course I thought about what is called ‘frecha-ness’ when I designed the collection,” she says. “But in my definition, at least, a frecha is a matter of dosages. In other words, even if you take all the classiest and most fashionable clothes that exist, if they aren’t suited to the build of the woman wearing them then that’s frecha-like, and it has no relation to education but rather to the sense of self-criticism. What it actually means is cutting yourself off from your surroundings.”

She believes that this definition of frecha is what expands the original ethnic labeling. “Aren’t all, those people who live in residential palaces and luxurious high-rises and think that they’re living in Europe, with their huge cars − in other words, people who are cut off from the place and lack any self-criticism − aren’t they frechas according to the definition? Well-groomed fingernails and large pieces of jewelry do not necessarily identify a frecha in my opinion, but people who live with prejudices and speak out of lack of familiarity with the place and the culture in which they live, that’s the essence of frecha behavior in my opinion.”

In effect, Frankfurt is also the one responsible for Ofra Haza’s look in “Schlager.” At the time she designed the famous frecha clothes for her − a long, wide skirt and a loose shirt, both of shiny shell-colored satin, and a black strapless dress matching her high patent-leather boots. At the time she was criticized for the clothing because it did not faithfully reflect the girl from the boondocks or the image of the average frecha in low-cut jeans and dyed blonde hair.

Frankfurt’s attempts to formulate a fashion proposal in the guise of the frecha are still among the few that have been made here. In Israel the “frecha” remains an objectionable category even after international haute couture is no longer afraid to deal with deliberately loud and cheap images. The example that comes to mind immediately is that of Tom Ford and Gucci in the mid-1990s. The American designer brought new life to the Italian fashion house when he encoded the seductive wardrobe of the Italian frecha: very low-cut, tight-fitting jeans, buttoned shirts opened generously to reveal dark-colored lace bras, both in shiny satin fabrics in gemstone colors. Thick leather belts, shiny patent leather shoes and matching bags; everything that broadcast juicy sexuality and financial power, and a lack of interest in apologizing for flaunting these two things, or anything else. The best ambassador of that look was Madonna, who is herself the embodiment of the American frecha.

Poet Adi Keissar, the initiator and the spirit behind the association of Ars Poetica poets, is not interested in cooperating. “I want it to be clear that I have a problem with the concept ‘frecha’ because it’s entirely a social labeling. The same look on me and on a girl from [the development town of] Sderot will be interpreted in entirely different ways. I’ll be cool, and she’ll be considered a frecha. Besides, it’s hard for me to use that concept. What does it actually mean − condescension toward people from the outlying areas? I believe, incidentally, that anyone who exaggerates his personality traits by means of clothing, or expresses himself in what we call an immoderate or uncritical manner, is admired far more than someone who wears a uniform empty of content just because it seems sophisticated to him,” she says − making it clear that she is referring to hipsters, in case she wasn’t understood.

“I also think that there’s a lot of hypocrisy here in the definition of ‘subversion’ or ‘alternative.’ We grew up here in a country that wants to be Europe although it’s part of the Middle East. Our agenda is very Western, so is finding a Swedish Indie group that two people know subversive? I don’t think so. Real subversion is not to align yourself with that Western code, but to study your own culture.”

From the TV show "Amamiyot."Credit: Yannai Yehuiel
The Mallul sisters from the TV reality show "Beauty and the Geek."Credit: Dana Keren
Comedienne Orna Bannai playing the Frecha in the satirical TV show "Eretz Nehederet." Credit: Courtesy
The original proud Frecha, Ofra Haza.Credit: Ya'akov Sa'ar, GPO

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