The first time I ever heard the term “JAP” was at a spartan, secular camp in Maine that, like many of its kind, had a fair share of Jewish campers. My cabinmates and I were lodging a complaint about three older campers who came from a notably Jewish Northeastern suburb. Our tormentors had braces, and their features sat awkwardly on their faces in the way all features do in adolescence. They were like us, yet they were not, because they had chutzpah enough in bikini tops to crown themselves queens of the camp social scene. They turned the announcements, the open mics, the DJing, the talent shows into a staging ground for their own inside jokes. “Those girls can be really jappy,” the director receiving the complaints told us sympathetically. He was a member of the tribe, yes, but I had been convinced he was going to say snobby or cliquey or mean, not, you know, Jewish.
Then, less than six months later, I started seventh grade at a prep school in New York City, and I got it. JAP wasn’t just about ethnicity—it described an entire modus operandi. We used “JAP” in the halls of Horace Mann to criticize the popular girls and issue warnings about creeping conformity. “You’re wearing that? I never thought you’d be such a JAP.” JAP indicated in its broad sweep the ostentatiously wealthy—and also all those who were self-assured enough to run with them, or ride with them in their BMWs as the case often was. When we made use of the shorthand, it targeted the handful of non-Jews, including black girls, Indian girls, and WASPs, who hung out with impunity in the ranks of the “Jappy group.”
I probably uttered the word “Jap” five times a day for six years, only misunderstood when I ventured out of New York City and people assumed I was being viciously racist towards Japanese people. No, I explained, being provincial in the guise of sophisticated: Jewish American Princesses. You know what I’m talking about? Like: Kate Spade, nose jobs, drivers. JAPs.
What I realize now of course, is that people probably heard my definition, looked at me and wondered: how are you not a JAP too? I was more Gap than Gucci, more Emma Goldman than Elizabeth Taylor, but in the larger picture, these layers of distinction melt away. I may not have been fashion-forward, label-conscious, or manicured, but I occupied a certain role in my family—nurtured, adored, taken shopping before big events by my mom and grandma, encouraged to follow my dreams by my dad. Cab fare was pressed into my hand late at night. My world was both large and small: it revolved around three or four cities with large Jewish populations.
I was Jewish. I was American. And in the broadest sense of the term, I guess I was a princess too.
I stopped using the term “JAP” as much when I graduated high school, but when I learned about Bravo’s “Princesses of Long Island” I was actually thrilled. Finally, it was our turn. After spotlight-lovers from every ethnic and racial group have been afforded a reality TV platform to act out and confirm every awful stereotype, it was only fair.
My defense of both the term JAP—and the first reality show that depicts the JAP in her natural habitat—will earn me ire, I’m sure. There’s been handwringing over the idea that the show’s crop of marriage-obsessed, parent-dependent, materialistic and very Jewish reality show stars are Bad for the Jews. Most of my Jewish friends indulge in the show, but cringe a little each time. Elissa Strauss thinks our enjoyment of the show amounts to “hipster racism.” And yet I tune in without compunction, though I have chips on my shoulders about sexism and about anti-Semitism both.
These princesses are shallow and sheltered and petty, but they’re not terrible—and neither are they degraded by the camera the way many minorities and women are on TV. Perhaps my lack of concern arises because many (though not all) Jews have indeed achieved a level of material success in America while holding fast to community, a contrast which itself is the object of the show’s satire. “Princesses” is a riff on too-comfortable insularity more than on Jews or Judaism—the kind of comfort and insularity that buoyed the girls at camp and school who excluded me, the kind of comfort and insularity that someone coming to New York might see in my demeanor despite my protestations to the contrary.
Now when I watch the show, I roar with laughter and shake my head with recognition. These characters are a caricature, but only by an inch or two. I grew up with those princesses. I was not permitted at the same lunch table as those princesses—but I also share more with those princesses than I’d like to admit. The show allows me to laugh at the kind of people who baffled me as a teenager, and laugh at myself too.