Our Princesses, Ourselves?
Thoughts on Jappiness

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.

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a journalist, essayist and fiction writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, the Washington Post, the Hairpin and the Forward among other places. Find her at www.sarahmseltzer.com and tweeting too much at @sarahmseltzer.

Image from Eric.Parker via photopin cc.

4 comments on “Our Princesses, Ourselves?
Thoughts on Jappiness

  1. Rainbow Tallit Baby on

    Your cultural arguments do not apply to boys, which I find troubling.

    Also, though my mother used the term “JAP” she gave me an early and thorough feminist critique of it. Including how it undermines powerful or assertive women. Did your parents have no reaction to the term?
    It is at least 25 years since Lilith’s original examination of “JAP”. I don’t feel this is progress.

    If we see that kind of privileged behaviour in others, and in ourselves, beyond laughing shouldn’t we see what we could do to change it.

  2. Sms on

    These are fair points, but they go beyond the purview of my blog post, which was a very specific look at the term and the show.

    I should indeed make it clear that boys were also included in my teenage use of the word JAP–and the men on Princesses of Long Island are certainly as familiar and yuk-worthy as the women, sometimes even more so!

    My entire career as a feminist and progressive and Jewish writer and activist is about examining privilege and pushing for equality–but I do think there’s a value in humor, self-mockery and lightheartedness . It allows us to keep perspective.

  3. Jen @ The Well Read Fish on

    It’s funny, I was just working on a piece on jappiness. I too first heard the term and came into contact with it when I was at a secular (though 99.9% Jewish attended) sleepaway camp out east.

    I am Jewish, but never fit in there. I wasn’t from the right suburb, I wore the wrong clothes, at 8 I wasn’t shaving my legs, my parents didn’t wear lots of gold and play tennis and didn’t drive a BMW to Visiting day. I was “other.” I knew this and I was bullied.

    But, this happens with all kids. This, I know. But, when I realized that the JAP was detrimental to my own Jewish identity wasn’t until college. I went to school in the midwest. Many jappy girls ended up there but remained amongst themselves cloistered in one of two sororities. Most of them refused to integrate with a new community, remained elitist and snobby and homogenous within their own group. You could just see this by looking and listening to them. But then these judgments I had about them were confirmed even more when I heard this with my own ears that thought that others were 1. jealous of their lifestyle and 2. they thought folks from Wisconsin were backwards and not like them and therefore meant to be avoided.

    For me, jappiness is more about not wanting to get out of a group of people just like themselves. This does happen in other cultures, for sure. However, for me, I was left explaining to people who’d never met a Jewish person just “why Jewish people were like that.”

    They aren’t. Not all of them anyway. I’ve been defending Judaism and my own connection to the religion most frequently because the jappy stereotype is loud and very much a true part of Jewish identity in America. I think it is important that a stereotype does not become a defining figure in what being a Jew in America is all about.

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