'Girls,' Sex and the All New JAP

HBO Character Represents Evolution of a Stereotype

Not So Simple: Shoshanna Shapiro, center, played by Zosia Mamet, is more than the sum of her allowance.
JoJo Whilden/HBO
Not So Simple: Shoshanna Shapiro, center, played by Zosia Mamet, is more than the sum of her allowance.

By Emily Shire

Published June 17, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Within her first two minutes on screen, it’s evident that Shoshanna Shapiro is a Jewish American Princess. From perfectly coiffed hair to a pink Juicy Couture tracksuit to her admission that her parents are paying $2,100 a month for her Nolita apartment, Shoshanna, one of the four protagonists on the HBO show “Girls” — which finished its first season June 17 — seems like the latest incarnation of a long-running stereotype. She says “obvi” more often than the Federal Communications Commission should allow, and when she’s not complaining that her outfit is “at least 6 months old,” she’s lazing around her plush apartment. When she accidentally mistakes crack for weed in the season’s seventh episode (“Welcome to Bushwick a.k.a the Crackcident”), a mutual acquaintance, Ray, is annoyed at being left to watch over her. Though he’s only just met Shoshanna (and she’s ridiculously high), he can tell what kind of girl she is. “I’m not a f**king JAP day care,” he says. And can you blame him?

Some critics have dismissed Shoshanna as a flat character, or “comically overbroad,” as Gawker’s John Cook wrote. Others go further, seeing something “malicious” in her portrayal. In comparison with the other three leading characters on “Girls,” Shoshanna “seems to be sitting around, waiting for them to show up and use her as a punch line,” Miriam Krule wrote on Jewcy. Such criticism, however, isn’t entirely fair. Along with others on recent TV shows, Shoshanna emerges as a more emotionally complex and empathetic character than her one-dimensional pop cultural forebears. Indeed, she marks a critical evolution of the JAP stereotype.

To understand the significance of Shoshanna, deftly portrayed by Zosia Mamet, it’s important to consider the history of the JAP character in books, TV and film. Marjorie Morgenstern of Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel “Marjorie Morningstar” and Brenda Patimkin of Philip Roth’s 1959 novella “Goodbye, Columbus” set the stereotype in postwar America, though neither book used the term “JAP” specifically. But both characters were depicted as materialistic, vapid and dependent on their fathers’ finances, qualities that became embedded in subsequent portrayals.

Over the next decade, the JAP image became so pervasive that in 1971, Julie Baumgold’s article “The Persistence of the Jewish Princess” appeared on the cover of New York magazine. Baumgold defined Jewish princesses by their sense of entitlement, their self-absorption and their overconfidence in their subpar beauty. “For one thing, she expects,” Baumgold wrote. “Clops and blows come from Above, but still she expects. It isn’t mere hope; it is her due.”

In addition to being spoiled daddy’s girls, JAPs were portrayed as obnoxious, loud and lacking sexual appeal. JAP jokes proliferated, reinforcing stereotypes about resistance to cooking and housekeeping, incessant whining and indifference to sex. Whatever once made these princesses desirable to Roth’s and Wouk’s male characters had by this point disappeared. Perhaps, overwhelmed and repulsed by their own overbearing mothers — as in Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” — Jewish men, along with popular culture, viewed these women with sexual disdain.

Movies and television also played up the crass, one-dimensional JAP for laughs. There was Lila Kolodny (played by Jeannie Berlin) in the 1972 film “The Heartbreak Kid,” a boorish, unpassionate bride whose husband left her while she was incapacitated by sunburn during their honeymoon. Elaine Lefkowitz (played by Dinah Manoff) of the late ’70s to early ‘80s TV show, “Soap,” was an obnoxious, demanding and bossy princess whose father pawns her off on an unsuspecting, and then repulsed, husband. Gilda Radner’s recurring character Rhonda Weiss on “Saturday Night Live” was a vapid ditz who spoke with a grating Long Island accent and was obsessed with presents from her wedding shower. Perhaps the television character most commonly associated with the JAP stereotype was Fran Drescher’s Fran Fine on the 1990s show “The Nanny.” Fran’s nasal whine, love of shopping and general lack of decorum drove the plots and jokes of the series.

At first glance, Shoshanna Shapiro is just the latest JAP doll on this long conveyor belt of stock figures. She is a major source of comic relief on the show, and is more of a caricature than any of the other characters. Her fanatical obsession with “Sex and the City,” and her declaration that her British cousin Jessa Johansson is “so f**king classy” for not being on Facebook, draw instant laughs. Yet each episode also reveals other layers to Shoshanna’s character that go beyond the stereotype. It’s not that she is any less of a princess as the series progresses; she still loves her clothes, her parentally funded apartment, and her Camp Ramah memories. But she also displays a vulnerability and earnestness that was notably lacking in previous JAP characterizations.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.