Stereotypes, canards, stock figures — the whole sorry business of labeling people wholesale rather than piecemeal — die hard. Just when you think they have gone away, into a historian’s drawer, they resurface, assuming a new lease on life. Neighborhoods come and go, people come and go, governments rise and fall, fashions wax and wane, but stereotypes endure.
I’m given to such gloomy thoughts as a result of watching television or, more to the point, the slew of episodes that constitute the universe of “Princesses: Long Island,” the latest reality show, courtesy of Bravo. This program leaves me sputtering and in a state of high dudgeon — yet I can’t turn away. Apparently, I’m not the only one: If comments on the blogosphere are any indication, these princesses court a very large audience.
“Princesses: Long Island” follows a group of single Jewish women in their late 20s as they fret, pout, strut about in exceedingly high heels and very short dresses, drink like sailors and talk like them, too. Fixated on their bodies, especially their “boobs,” they spend an inordinate amount of time getting dressed and undressed, shopping, texting and worrying about their dwindling marital prospects.
Some of the girls talk of finding a good Jewish man, but that’s as far as it goes. Jewishness as an informed religious, cultural, ethnic or existential posture doesn’t seem to register much with any of them. Jewishness is more of an aesthetic preference, on the order of “tall, dark and handsome.” Some of the girls, most especially she who is known as “Chanel” — I kid you not — like to toss off tired and stale Yiddishisms (“Oy, I’m shvitzing”) and to hold the occasional Sabbath dinner in which copious quantities of Manischewitz (Manischewitz?!) are downed.
Otherwise, being Jewish does not take up much room in their lives. True, each show opens with an obligatory and perfunctory reference to a cutesy Jewish folk saying or proverb, but that conceit is a strategic one, designed to burnish the group’s Jewish credentials. It doesn’t ring true. These girls wouldn’t know a midrash from a bubbe-mayse.
Equally fabulous, in the literal sense of the term, is their economic situation. Now and then, there’s talk of being “entrepreneurish”: Amanda promotes a product of her own devising, which she calls a “drink hanky”: a swath of fabric, usually a leopard print, that wraps around a frosty alcoholic drink in lieu of a napkin.
Joey, Amanda’s bosom buddy, has come up with an equally daft proposition: a combination breath freshener and lip-gloss, which she calls Kissamint. Apart from these two aspiring businesswomen, no one else appears to hold down a steady, let alone a demanding and responsible, job, or to concern herself in the least with finances. They live on air — or, better still, on their parents’ dime.
If you haven’t seen the show or do not know someone who has, you might think I’m making up things as I go along. I wish I could say that I am pulling your leg, but, alas, I’m not. Chanel, Amanda and Joey are no figments of my imagination or simulacra of the Jewish American Princess, the so-called JAP of yesteryear.
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.”
This story "Chanel, Amanda, Joey and The Return of the Jewish American Princess" was written by Jenna Weissman Joselit.