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The Jewish American Princess - Beyond the Stereotype

Jewish Americans have created some of the world’s most beloved movies and shows. So it might be surprising that, when it comes to on-screen representation, Jewish characters are often reduced to stereotypes. Jewish women especially tend to fall into a few well-trodden character types, one of which is the “Jewish American Princess.” The phrase is traditionally a derogatory term applied to a certain kind of upper- or upper-middle-class Jewish American young woman, but this stereotype has sometimes been acknowledged and claimed by female Jewish creators. Here’s our Take on the role this complicated character plays in film and TV, and how Jewish representation onscreen can move beyond the stereotypes.

TRANSCRIPT
Jewish Americans have created some of the world’s most beloved movies and shows. So it might be surprising that, when it comes to on-screen representation, Jewish characters are often reduced to stereotypes. Jewish women especially tend to fall into a few well-trodden character types: the overbearing and hypercritical mother; the gossiping yenta; or the wealthy, well-educated young woman obsessed with her money, looks, and finding a rich guy to support the comfortable lifestyle she’s used to. In other words, the Jewish American Princess.

The phrase “Jewish American Princess,” or JAP, as we’ll say in this video, is traditionally a derogatory term applied to a certain kind of upper- or upper-middle-class Jewish American young woman — but it’s one of the most complex and controversial Jewish stereotypes, which has sometimes been acknowledged and claimed by female Jewish creators. It usually involves a character from a place with a large Jewish community, like New York City or its suburbs. She’s typically highly educated — an example of an achievement-oriented so-called “model minority.” In the past, that achievement likely centered on finding a successful husband, while increasingly today the character may be a hyper-achiever in her own profession. Most of all, the JAP is privileged, and she’s often cast as spoiled because she lives off daddy’s money, indulged by her parents, and looking for a suitable husband to provide for her in the manner to which she’s accustomed. If we look deeper, though, the materialism that’s projected onto this character is more than a little sexist, and it reflects pressures on a long-othered minority group to assimilate and rise in the American social hierarchy. Recently, Jewish creators have interrogated the complexities of the JAP identity in an effort to reclaim the term.

Rachel Bunch: “Jewish American Princess, a term that on one hand, does reinforce negative, negative stereotypes about both Jews and women, but on the other hand, is a term that we want to reclaim and own.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 4 Episode 15)

But is that fully possible when this stereotype has been long used as a cautionary tale one tries to avoid being or a vehicle for someone else around her to learn a lesson? Here’s our take on the role this complicated character plays in film and TV, and how Jewish representation onscreen can move beyond the stereotypes.

Where Did the “JAP” Come From?
The JAP stereotype first gained ground in American popular culture after World War II, as upwardly mobile middle-class American Jews who felt established in the country still struggled to prove that they had acclimated to everyday American life. The assimilation of American Jews was conditional: they had long been othered in American society. Wealth, conspicuous consumption, or high-status education were positive tokens that allowed them to show off their “Americanness” and claim a place in the social hierarchy.

But as mainstream middle-class life became increasingly connected to the image of the suburbs and the purchase of home goods, some Jews felt that American Jewish culture was becoming too materialistic. Jewish writers like Philip Roth and Herman Wouk connected this materialism to women, likely because housewives were the target demographic of commercial goods in the 1950s and 60s. Wouk’s 1955 novel Marjorie Morningstar and Roth’s 1959 anthology Goodbye, Columbus are early examples of a Jewish man confronting a Jewish American Princess. In Goodbye Columbus, Brenda is of a higher socioeconomic class than Neil, and the tension between Neil’s working-class lifestyle and Brenda’s family’s new money sensibilities tears the young couple apart.

Throughout the 20th century, the image of the JAP was perpetuated through comedy by Jewish creators and entertainers.

Princess Vespa: “I am Princess Vespa! Daughter of Roland, King of the Druids!”

Lone Starr: “That’s all we needed… a Druish princess.” - Spaceballs

Jewish comedienne Gilda Radner summed up the character in her 1980 Saturday Night Live parody of a Jordache Jeans commercial, “Jewess Jeans.” The JAP came to be portrayed with certain visual cues: frizzy hair, a large nose that she may have surgically altered, and designer clothes and handbags. In keeping with her attempts to assimilate, the JAP reflects a more secular version of Jewish culture, and often JAP characters are only implied to be Jewish or their Jewish culture is referred to only subtly.

Perhaps the most key element of portrayals of the Jewish American Princess is her money, which often comes from her father or her husband.

Monica Geller: “Come on, you can’t live off your parents your whole life.”

Rachel Green: “I know that! That’s why I was getting married.” - Friends (Season 1 Episode 1)

The JAP is rich, as well as often portrayed as knowing the value of a good bargain, thus reinforcing broader stereotypes about Jews and money. Roth’s writing and later characterizations alike were addressing concerns of classism and consumer culture, but these critiques were complicated by the fact that they had an air of misogyny. The JAP came across as a tool to criticize not American materialism in general, but Jewish women’s materialism specifically. The sexism and antisemitism intertwined with portrayals of the JAP were accepted because many of these (often damaging) onscreen characterizations were created by Jewish entertainers (usually men). So this let non-Jewish audiences feel this was an inside joke it was okay to laugh at (sort of like the caveat of “It’s okay, I’m Jewish” after an iffy comment).

Jamie Lauren Keiles writes about the JAP for Vox, “At worst, she is… the ever-haunting spirit of the Jewish nouveau riche as it tries to find its place in the American class system. At best, she performs her own kind of Jewish drag, reclaiming the anti-Semitic tropes of yore as a positive ideal of Jewish womanhood.”

Meanwhile, alongside the materialistic, “new money” identity of the JAP, versions of the JAP also reflected longstanding positive values of the Jewish community — like an emphasis on education, achievement, and being a notable community contributor. Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend examines a modern iteration of the JAP, who can be an extremely industrious, driven, self-possessed, and professional overachiever. Still, Bloom’s character Rebecca Bunch has internalized and continues to exhibit some of the less modern stereotypical aspects of the trope — like her privilege, entitlement, and the idea that settling down with a man should come first. While Rebecca is too successful to need to rely on any man for money, she upends her life in pursuit of love and, subconsciously, seems to base her entire self-acceptance on the need for male validation.

The JAP is also inseparable from another stereotype she’s destined to turn into: The Jewish Mother widely portrayed as both excessively loving and hypercritical.

Naomi Bunch [singing]: “By the way, you’re looking healthy and by healthy, I mean chunky.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 1 Episode 8)

Keiles sees the JAP as a response to the “nagging, overbearing” Jewish mother whose “image was designed to absorb the stigmas of the old world. Her inverse, the JAP, was entitled and withholding, designed to take blame for the stigmas of the new.” Significantly, male authors have painted the JAP as sexually withholding or using sex to manipulate men into settling down with her so that they will support her wealthy lifestyle and indulge her as her parents did.

Given the inherent misogyny of the stereotype, could the JAP ever offer a nuanced discussion of class and consumerism in American Jewish culture and America in general?

The “JAP” And Classism - Teaching Us a Lesson
Some JAPs break away from the confines of money and superficiality, embarking on a redemption arc that’s not exactly riches-to-rags but at least riches-to-middle-class-clothes. Characters like Baby in Dirty Dancing and Rachel Green on Friends essentially demonstrate how not to be a stereotypical JAP, winning over the audience by proving their depth, self-sufficiency, and lack of materialism or class snobbery.

On Friends, Rachel’s Jewish identity is rarely referenced directly, but she enters the scene with all the quintessential JAP signifiers: she lives off her father’s credit cards; she’s college-educated, but has never had a job; she belonged to a sorority and was engaged to a man with a lucrative job, and she finds her pre-rhinoplasty look a source of both humor and embarrassment. But over time, Rachel evolves into the anti-JAP. She works her way up from a waitress to a successful businesswoman who can support herself and a child. She finds both confidence and independence in her romantic relationships and is no longer defined by the men in her life. Rachel’s autonomy serves as an inspiration in her family, while her sisters are the butt of jokes because they’ve failed to rise above the stereotype.

Likewise, in 1987’s Dirty Dancing, the Jewish protagonist, Baby, marks herself as the non-JAP of her story by being an idealist who sees beyond class divides. She’s contrasted with the other snobby summer vacationers of her demographic and (again) a sister who fits the JAP stereotype to a T. In both stories these sisters serve the function of illustrating that Baby and Rachel are superior because they aspire to be independent women, don’t see it as their highest calling to marry a rich doctor (or orthodontist), and don’t look down on people with less money. In examples like these, the JAP character’s role is to show audiences or protagonists how to be better than her.

Dr. Houseman: “Our Baby’s going to change the world!”

Max Kellerman: “And what are you going to do, missy?”

Baby: “Oh, Lisa’s going to decorate it.” - Dirty Dancing

Overall, filmmakers tend to use this archetype to teach someone a lesson (whether that’s another character or the audience) — usually about class, privilege, or snobbery. Baby becomes the teacher of open-mindedness to the classist upper-middle-class Jews in her society.

Meanwhile, in the 1990s comedy series The Nanny, Jewish protagonist Fran Fine teaches high-society WASPs how to humanize Jewish Americans. Fran ticks many boxes of the stereotypical JAP: she’s loud-mouthed, dressed to the nines, and eager to marry well to appease her overbearing mother. But Fran isn’t as wealthy as the traditional JAP, and when she’s compared to the Sheffield family, she’s almost déclassé. Fran’s Jewishness marks her as someone who can never fit in with their stoic sense of propriety.

Fran Fine: “Oh boy, do you have gorgeous tchotchkes!”

Max Sheffield: “I begbeg your pardon?”

Fran Fine: “Oh, you know, your bric-a-brac, dust collectors.”

Max Sheffield: “Ah, the Rodin, yes.” - The Nanny (Season 1 Episode 1)

But her journey with the Sheffield family is less about her appreciating herself or coming into her own, and more about teaching Maxwell and his children how to live a life that’s a little less uptight and a little more free-wheeling.

In countless stories, the most fundamental “lesson” that the JAP character has to learn is to be less self-centered and pay more attention to the needs of others — a process that typically involves outgrowing her more typically JAP characteristics.

This might also involve facing the fact that she’s privileged not only because of her money but also because she’s almost always white. The JAP is traditionally an Ashkenazi Jew (meaning of Eastern European heritage) and is powerful both because of her white privilege and in spite of her Jewishness.

Rachel Menken: “But I do know what it feels like to be out of place… to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it.” - Mad Men (Season 1 Episode 1)

Often, stories about this character explore the class complexity of what it means to be both an othered minority and an affluent elite in our society. While it may be easy for the JAP to point to her minority status as proof that she relates to marginalized people in general, frequently, the JAP’s story is about her becoming more cognizant of her advantaged position. Numerous depictions of this character (old and new) force her to confront her privileged bubble. Or if she doesn’t reform, the story might highlight that the character is well-aware of how much power she yields through her race, class, and financial security.

Reclaiming The “JAP”
While some previous representations did involve Jewish women in key creative roles such as screenwriter or co-creator, perhaps the two most in-depth, nuanced explorations of this trope today are the creations of Jewish female showrunners: Rachel Bloom’s awkward-but-confident Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s plucky, sometimes too confident Midge Maisel, played by Rachel Brosnahan, in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Rebecca lives in a modern-day musical comedy, while Midge is a 1950s housewife and mother, but both grapple with to what extent their JAP identity is something they can escape, or whether they should want to. At the beginning of their stories, both feel the need to break out of their more stereotypically JAP existences. Rebecca throws away her successful lawyer lifestyle in New York to move to West Covina, California, where there’s not much of a Jewish community so the people she befriends don’t understand her Jewish identity. Likewise, Midge risks the stable comforts of her life as a New York City mother to bravely build a career as a stand-up comic.

Like in some previous JAP stories, Rebecca and Midge are pushed by their narratives to become a little more aware of their privileged station in life and to connect with others in a less self-centered way.

But both women use creative outlets (whether songwriting or stand-up comedy) to process just how complex their experiences as Jewish women really are. They (and the shows about them) mine their culture for material like when Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives us the famed JAP rap battle between Rebecca and her hometown rival Audra. Rebecca grows enough to examine her behavior through the lenses of not only herself and her own personal history but also of her culture and her womanhood. And when Rebecca and Audra reconnect later to reprise their dynamic in a “JAP praise fight” where they out-compliment each other, this culminates with the pair questioning the limitations of the JAP stereotype. Still, whereas Baby and Rachel Green were supposed to largely overcome their backgrounds, both rap battles underline that the JAP is really a complicated set of cultural cues reflecting a particular socioeconomic class and subculture.

Audra Levine [rapping]: “‘Cause we’re liberals!”

Rachel Bunch [rapping]: “Duh, progressive as hell!”

Audra & Rachel [rapping]: “Though, of course, I support Israel.” - Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (Season 4 Episode 15)

In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s modern understanding of the JAP archetype, this is not a simple cartoon that someone ought to just “transcend” or “learn a lesson from.” Rebecca is a self-aware person who evolves, yet all these elements of her cultural upbringing (rightly) remain a big part of who she is. And even as Midge’s blue comedy act diverges from our stereotypical image of the JAP, in other ways she’s still very happy to bathe in the comfort of her privilege and embrace the signifiers of this type both in her life and in her comedy.

Heckler: “Go home and clean the kitchen.”

Midge Maisel: “Oh sir, I’m Jewish. I pay people to do that.” - The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Season 1 Episode 8)

Conclusion
In searching for nuanced portrayals of Jewishness, womanhood, and Jewish womanhood onscreen, we should ask ourselves how to move beyond outdated stereotypes Even The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has attracted negative attention for relying on multiple Jewish stereotypes, some of which make the show more relatable but can also border on uncomfortable. As portrayals continue to evolve, it’s worth asking: must we always look to identify Jewish women onscreen by how they conform to the stereotypes we’re familiar with?

Charlotte York: “There’s just so much to take in. The history, the tradition, the philosophy, oy! You guys! That was my first ‘oy’!” - Sex and the City (Season 6 Episode 3)

Or can we imagine ways of both living and portraying Jewishness that don’t rely so much on what we think the audience expects? We should also continue to look to non-white Jewish American comedians, actors, and writers who can share their own unique perspectives on their cultural identity. And we should consider what it means that some of our most iconic onscreen Jewish characters are not actually played by Jewish women. Most importantly, we should ask ourselves: when we’re quick to laugh at a JAP on our TV screen, are we laughing with her, or at her?

SOURCES

Cohen, Derek, and Deborah, Heller, editors. “Jewish Princesses.” Jewish Prescences in English Literature. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt80f02

Friedlander, Whitney. “How TV Is Smashing the Jewish Woman Stereotype.” Complex, 22 June 2016, www.complex.com/pop-culture/2016/06/jewish-american-princesses-in-pop-culture

Ingall, Marjorie. “Why The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Is More Subversive Than You Think It Is.” Town & Country, 4 Dec. 2018, www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a25399462/marvelous-mrs-maisel-jewish-feminism/

Keiles, Jamie Lauren. “Reconsidering the Jewish American Princess.” Vox, 5 Dec. 2018, www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/5/18119890/jewish-american-princess-jap-stereotype

Klein, Jessica. “Is It Time to Reclaim the Word ‘JAP’?” Alma, 5 July 2018, www.heyalma.com/time-reclaim-word-jap/