Those Princesses Are Not My Reality

Appropriate to the genre, I will begin with a true confession. I am not a reality TV aficionado. So perhaps, my take on the newest show on Bravo, “Princesses: Long Island,” will be missing the enthusiasm that reality TV fans may otherwise bring. I watched the first two episodes after I decided that it might be useful for me, as a psychologist living and working on Long Island, to have some idea of what was being portrayed in case someone brought up the show during a therapy session.

I know enough about these shows to understand that part of the fun of the viewing experience is to throw people together, expose their vulnerabilities, get them all excited so they begin to talk about one another in snarky ways, and build up to some major explosive fight scene (kind of like the stages of orgasm, as defined by Kinsey). In addition, there is the chore of choosing participants who will be prime examples of every horrific cultural stereotype about the group being portrayed (whether it is Italians on the Jersey Shore, or LA Housewives). I get it.

And still, after watching the show, I felt despondent and at a loss. Where could I possibly begin and what should I write about? Written previews for the show indicate that it’s about “six Jewish college graduates” living on Long Island. After watching for two hours, it was not at all evident that going to college had been part of their life experiences. Besides the fact that only two women even discussed working at all (“poor” Joey from Freeport and Casey, who escaped to Manhattan where she works as a cocktail waitress as she pursues her artistic aspirations), there is absolutely no mention of anything they do other than shop, party, get their nails done and look for men. They do not seem to read or discuss literature, politics, news, theatre, sports, or be involved in any charitable or cultural endeavors. There are many mentions of their experiences being in high school, but in general, their behavior seems to be most similar to that of young pre-teens in middle school.

As a Jewish woman, I am despairing that these women are portrayed as archetypal stereotypes of “Jewish American Princesses,” a phenomenon, that Lilith Magazine exposed as dangerously sexist and anti-Jewish over twenty years ago. Again, I remind myself that the use of ethnic stereotyping is endemic to the genre, not unique to the Jews. And yet, I ask myself, why would the women on the TV show submit to being portrayed in these embarrassing, even mortifying situations? I am thinking about when Ashlee asks the manager of the nail salon to carry her on his back to her car after her pedicure, or when Amanda and her mom vie for Amanda’s boyfriend’s attention while trying on bikinis. And, on the other hand, why do so many people want to watch the show?

Unfortunately, being on TV is still an American dream, one that is tied to feeling special and exceptional, even if the salient special thing about you is that you’re on TV. It’s troubling to see people so drawn to this mode of being known. As a therapist, I am concerned at the apparent lack of self-knowledge these women display as they yearn to be known by countless others. Are they being exploited by their naivete and desire to be on TV? Or do these TV princesses have more self-knowledge than we imagine? Could it be that they are savvy young women for whom this is a worthwhile acting opportunity, and that they are hoping to move from this show to something bigger and better? Even if the latter is true, their choice of a “role” is unflattering, to say the least.

In terms of the viewers, we know that young women are the largest viewing audience for reality TV. Mark Fishman, a professor at Brooklyn College has written of the “guilty pleasures” that viewers get from watching TV personalities act in horrible, forbidden and degrading ways. We may feel a sense of “schadenfreude,” a delight in the misfortunes of others. No matter how bad our own parents are, we can’t imagine that they would be as hurtful as the parents on the show who seem determined to get their daughters married off, to any Jewish man, who is currently breathing and comes with money and a penis, as though this alone will offer meaning and substance to their daughters’ lives. No matter how much we may be materialistic or immature, it is satisfying to see that there are women who can outdo us in both spheres. Perhaps, we tell ourselves, we are not so bad after all.

As for reality, the young Jewish women I know and see and work with on Long Island are smart, capable and funny. They are also caring, independent and thoughtful. They know that princesses live in castles, but that they live in the real world. Many of them are working hard to make that world a better place. Let’s celebrate them. Let’s make them our cultural heroes.

Nechama Liss-Levinson, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Great Neck, NY and the author of several books, including the recent award-winning children’s novel, “When the Hurricane Came.”

Your Stories

  • "I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"

  • "This holiday we take for ourselves,
 no longer silent servers behind the curtain, 
but singers of the seder,
 with voices of gladness,
 creating our own convocation,
 and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."E.M. Broner

  • "The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."Rabbi Leora Kaye

  • "The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."Rabbi Arthur Green

  • "To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach

  • "Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan

  • "Tu B'Shvat is more than a New Year for Trees -- it is a call to action. To observe Tu B'Shvat isn't to read and pray, but to do, to plant, to place one's hands in contact with the Earth....While we may mark Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day once a year, we are responsible as Jews to act as environmental stewards every day."David Krantz - Aytzim: Ecological Judaism

  • "Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."Rabbi Rachel Ain

  • "“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein

  • "I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."Rabbi Paul Jacobson

  • "Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."Rabbi Yosef Blau

  • "Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."Rabbi Sharon Brous

  • "Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"Rabbi Naomi Levy

  • "The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."Dr. Aryeh Cohen

  • ""I have never felt that repentence, prayer, and tzedakah would change my fate. Rather, I feel that through honest reflection, refinement, and a sense of responsibility, I do have incredible power to affect the decree for others.""Cantor Ellen Dreskin

  • "Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld

  • "This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."Rabbi Laura Geller

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