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Our Princesses, Ourselves?
Thoughts on Jappiness

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 hand wringing 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.