Chanel, Amanda, Joey and The Return of the Jewish American Princess

Going Forward Into the Past With 'Princesses: Long Island'

Where Are JAPs of Yesteryear? Chanel and Ashlee are among the titular princesses on Bravo’s reality show.
Bravo
Where Are JAPs of Yesteryear? Chanel and Ashlee are among the titular princesses on Bravo’s reality show.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published August 09, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
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They’re all too real — and far more unsettling than anything the 1970s and ’80s ever conjured up.

Back then, when the JAP stereotype of the self-absorbed, indulgent, mean-spirited, sexually withholding and empty-headed Jewish woman first came careening into the light of day, grabbing hold of the American Jewish imagination, anthropologists, folklorists, historians, journalists and writers had a field day trying to account for its appeal. Some attributed the origins of the Jewish American Princess to the growing affluence of the American Jewish community, claiming that it reflected a set of deep-seated anxieties about the consequences of upward mobility. Still others linked its origins to feminism. A rebuke rather than an affirmation of its principles, the stereotype offered a counter-narrative — a one-two-punch — to the story of those who determinedly sought to redress the imbalances of patriarchy. The JAP, after all, gives her heart to Daddy.

What bound together these disparate interpretations was the notion that the JAP stereotype and its real-life counterparts were historically contingent phenomena, destined to fade away along with the circumstances that birthed them.

Over the course of the past 30 to 40 years, much has changed. To catalog the ways in which America, and with it the American Jewish community of 2013, contrasts with America and the American Jewish community of the 1970s and ’80s would warrant its own column, perhaps even two. Suffice it to say that every arena of daily life, from the economy to ritual practice and knowledge, is now constituted so very differently that one might reasonably conclude that the JAP should be a creature of the past.

But no, she’s back, and with a vengeance. In fact, based on the evidence at hand, on the screen and in the blogosphere, it appears as if she might never have gone away in the first place. Say it ain’t so! Haven’t we learned anything over the years? What happened to independence, agency, introspection and selflessness, values born of feminism? Did we make a wrong turn somewhere along the line?

Yes, I know that “Princesses: Long Island” is only a television show and a far cry from Masterpiece Theatre at that. I am also well aware that the program is meant to be entertaining and that viewers are not supposed to parse its every phrase and visual detail as if it were the gospel truth. All the same, the enterprise, from start to finish, gives me pause. As one of the ‘’old Jewish proverbs” the show is so fond of invoking (and slightly amending) puts it, “A bird you may set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your mouth can never return.”


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