Unorthodox Essay

“From the beginning,” says writer and executive producer Anna Winger, “we were interested in telling a deeply human story about the search for self-definition, freedom, community, about a young woman looking for her place in the world and struggling to find it.

Which scene(s) depicts this theme of a woman’s search for her identity to greatest effect? What directorial choices are employed? How effective are these?

Unorthodox, a book initially written by Deborah Feldman then adapted into a Netflix show, shows the story of a young woman who had just escaped from her Hasidic community try to thrive in a new environment and learn more about herself. This series explores the idea of women’s emancipation and finding their own narrative.

One scene that stood out to me that conveyed the message of the search for identity most was the scene in episode 1 where Esty goes swimming in the lake with her new friends and takes off her wig. The lake in this scene was important as it was extremely close to a villa where a conference took place, in which the Nazis decided to kill the Jews in concentration camps. This contrasts with how the lake is viewed in the present, with people from different walks of life coming to the lake and enjoying their afternoon. By using a location that was so significant in the holocaust, this helps the directors to add impact and weight to the location. It also acts as a challenge where Esty has to overcome and adjust to places with dark histories.

Esty’s clothing when going into the water plays a big role in understanding her willingness to explore herself more. Unlike her peers who are wearing bikinis, Esty goes into the water wearing conservative clothing that covers most of her skin, even after taking off some layers of clothing. Though to the average person it may seem weird to go into the water wearing layers of clothing, her Hasidic community would consider it as unacceptable, as she is taking off her clothing in front of others which is seen as revealing. At the same time, by her only taking off a few layers, and not everything shows that she is still not ready to fully let go of her culture yet, but is taking small steps towards letting go of expectations set to her. At the same time, this also shows that she is taking agency in the sense that she is not afraid to go against what she is expected to do.

A crucial moment in this scene is when Esty takes her wig off in the lake. Women in the Hasidic community do not show their hair in public as it is seen as indecent and revealing. By going against what is expected of women from her community, this serves as a sign of liberation and emancipation of the rules put in place, and paving her own way towards freedom. Another reason why this scene is so impactful is because it is similar to a Mikvah, in that she dips her head underwater. Mikvahs are used to purify and cleanse the individual, so by Esty doing so, this represents the cleansing of her own self, and letting go of her own self for a new beginning. The aerial shot showing that Esty is just a tiny person in a vast lake also helps to show that there is still lots to explore about herself in this big vast world.

This scene in Unorthodox serves to show Esty’s willingness to go against what she has been expected to do by her community and that she is taking agency of her own life. At the same time, this also shows the idea of emancipation and freedom from the shackles that have been put onto her by her own community.

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