Jewish. American. Princess. Benign as these words may be apart, together they form an unpleasant image. The American Heritage Dictionary calls JAP “offensive slang” and defines it as, “a Jewish American girl or woman regarded as being pampered or overindulged.” Urban Dictionary, an online site with reader-created definitions, is less delicate: A JAP is a “large-breasted, outwardly attractive, internally spoiled, greedy, complicated, self-righteous and obnoxiously difficult and overbearing Jewish female.”
Pop culture first chronicled—though didn’t yet label—the JAP in literary works like Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, published in 1959. Roth’s Brenda Patimkin, the rich Radcliffe girl, and Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk’s naïve beauty, embodied what would become the JAP’s signature traits—narcissism, materialism and sexual manipulation, even if innocently so.
It didn’t take long for the JAP to find her way to screen. The stereotype of the urban and suburban JAP was portrayed by some of comedy’s “it girls”: Goldie Hawn’s character in Private Benjamin, Fran Drescher on The Nanny, Jennifer Aniston’s character, Rachel Green, on Friends and Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in the movie Clueless.
Whether getting laughs or not, JAP has long been a thorn in the side of many Jewish feminists. Numerous conferences have been held to eradicate the term. In 1987 the American Jewish Committee orchestrated a Conference on Current Stereotypes of Women in response to a series of incidents on college campuses in the early 1980s—“Biggest JAP on campus” contests and “No JAPs” housing ads, for instance. Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of Lilith Magazine, said, “Jewish women’s self-esteem is being critically damaged by the stereotypes” and that the word was causing young Jewish women “to distance themselves from their identity.” One of the speakers even claimed that the use of the term JAP was eroding the Jewish community.
The word is decidedly negative. To call a Jewish girl or woman a JAP is likely to maul her feelings or smear her reputation. It may also be a malicious, misogynous or anti-Semitic act, says Gail Dines, a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston, who believes that at the core of the term’s use is a “concealed hatred of Jews masked as sexism.” Dines, who co-edited the best-selling textbook, Gender, Race and Class in Media, believes that many Jewish women accept the term because “humans have a tendency to internalize oppression. They are buying into a wider cultural view of themselves.”
Dines feels that the blame for this acceptance lies with Jewish men, and she’s not alone in this line of thinking. To compensate for the stereotypical view that they are un-masculine, Dines believes that Jewish men use the word JAP to bond with non-Jewish men. “It helps re-masculinize them. They can say, ‘Look we can f*** over our women, just like you f*** your women over,’ saying, ‘I’m as tough as you are.’”
Women have been trying to drain JAP of its negative power, by reclaiming it on the playing field of comedy where so many other ethnic stereotypes have been confronted. In 1982 Debbie Lutatsy and Sandy Barnett Toback crafted The Jewish American Princess Handbook, complete with guides, photos, and a “Jewish Jargon” index. According to this tongue-in-cheek manual, the JAP can expect a life of parental indulgence, Rolex watches, nose jobs, hair straightening and pursuing NJBs (nice Jewish boys) with the same fervor the crusaders sought the Holy Grail. The tagline on the cover reads, “We’re not spoiled, just selective.”
Whoopi Goldberg (who, despite her stage name, is not Jewish) contributed to a charity cookbook in 1993 with a recipe titled “Jewish American Princess Fried Chicken.” Not unexpectedly, the recipe’s major spice was humor: “Send chauffeur to your favorite butcher shop for chicken. Have your cook melt oil and butter, put flour in brown paper bag…close top of bag (watch your nails) and shake 10 times. Hand bag to cook and go dress for dinner…Have cook prepare rest of meal while you touch up makeup. Dinner is served! You must be exhausted.”
The humor fell flat with some; Goldberg came under fire from the Anti-Defamation League and others for publishing the recipe.
But what’s wrong with being a JAP anyway? Or, at least, laughing at them? As is happening across the board with racial and ethnic slurs, some younger Jews now sport JAP as a badge of pride.
Tablet editor, Alana Newhouse, (who’s referred to herself as a “well-honed JAP”) recently wrote in the Boston Globe that, unlike the cultural fabric surrounding the Marjorie Morningstars, “something has shifted over the past decade or so, as Jewish culture and mainstream pop culture have become ever more enmeshed,” giving way for today’s JAP to be in vogue. Madonna, queen of the ’80s Material Girl at a time when consumer materialism reigned, wears a red Kabbalah string around her wrist and calls herself Esther. So, if a Jewish woman wants to don a JAP T-shirt in all its pink and glittery glory, do we mark her as a she-force? That is, a savvy feminist armed with the power of irony, waging battle against the oppression of one word, no longer a princess of any kind.
Or maybe she just likes the fit of the shirt against her new implants.
-Adapted from a Moment Magazine article by Rebecca Frankel.