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The evolution is especially apparent in scenes involving sex. A common stereotype was that Jewish American Princesses lacked all sexual feeling, or saw sex solely as a trade-off for the material comforts of marriage. And in fact, until the season finale, Shoshanna is the lone virgin on “Girls.” Her first sex scene is with someone she met at a Jewish sleep-away camp, and she is clad in a perfect set of high couture matching bra and panties. Yet Shoshanna’s virginity is a source of anxiety, shame and desire rather than an indication of disinterest. When her sexual advances are rejected because she is a virgin, Shoshanna squeakily responds, “I’m the least virginy virgin ever!” Though the line has a ridiculous, Valley girl quality to it that infuses the scene with humor, there is also emotional texture in Shoshanna’s insecurity. Sex is perhaps the one thing this princess doesn’t have, and wants more than anything else.
Shoshanna is not the only JAP on TV that goes beyond a flat, stock character. Rachel Berry on the TV series “Glee,” played by Lea Michele, is known for her self-involvedness, impatience and sense of entitlement. Rather than whine for a mink coat or a gold wedding band, however, Rachel uses these qualities to move closer to her goal of becoming a Broadway star. She makes good on her kvetching through commitment to her professional dreams.
On the cable show “Mad Men,” Jane Siegel is another recent example of the evolved JAP. Played by Peyton List, Jane oozes selfishness after her marriage to advertising agency partner Roger Sterling. She vacillates between behaving like a spoiled child and a frigid goddess, and as her marriage crumbles she demands a new apartment in exchange for a business appearance. But when it becomes clear that Jane desires a new home because she cannot bear the memories of her relationship with Roger, her desperation and regret become painfully sympathetic.
In addition to imbuing JAP characters with complexity, these depictions also represent a reclaiming of identity. With a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, they go so far as to embrace materialism, entitlement and other princess qualities. Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City,” though never formally identified as Jewish, bears some JAP signifiers: She is obsessed with shopping, hates the outdoors and doesn’t like to cook. None of these traits comes across as negative, but instead they are all presented in the context of Carrie’s humor, intelligence and sensitivity. Rather than force Carrie into the obnoxious and sexually unappealing stereotype of the past, these qualities shape her glamorous and whirlwind lifestyle. They are part of her charm and make her one of the most iconic characters in television history.
This is not to say that all of popular culture, or even television, has now embraced the evolved Jewish American Princess. Turn on Bravo, and every Jewish woman on a “Real Housewives” series seems like a living punch line for the corniest jokes. Materialistic, pampered and lazy, they embody the most obnoxious and obvious JAP traits. Ironically, it’s reality television rather than scripted that can’t seem to let go of the caricatures. Worse than grotesque, these one-dimensional women seem archaic.
Such outdated characterizations are doing everyone a disservice, and not just because they’re wrong. Depicting Jewish women in such crass ways is bad not only for Jewish women, but also for television. Even with many of the stereotypes intact, the JAP character can be emotionally layered and compelling to watch — a fact evidenced by Shoshanna Shapiro and her peers. The Jewish American Princess may be with us for a while, but that doesn’t mean she’s got to stay the same. We’ve just got to let her evolve.
Emily Shire is the chief researcher at The Week magazine and a freelance writer. Find her work at emilyshire.wordpress.com