I was in the audience last night of a local theater, watching new plays by young playwrights. They were wonderful until the last one, which almost got me to leave early. While most of the audience seemed to be whooping it up, I was feeling more and more depressed.
The play’s main character was a Jewish woman so completely caricatured she could only be called a Jewish American Princess (a.k.a. JAP). She had a fake New York accent and all the stereotypical trappings such women are supposed to have: great wealth, prudishness to match and so on. Plus she was racist and stupid in equal measure.
To be fair, I don’t believe the young author is anti-Semitic, and certainly has plenty of company in creating Jewish female characters obsessed with money and themselves. And I suppose in some universes, Jewish American Princesses are funny. I have never found them so but since people in the audience were guffawing, I may be missing something.
When I mentioned it to my son the next day, he surprised me by saying he believes there are some people who fit the stereotype. I asked other men (and women) I know and they too agreed. But is the tail wagging the dog or vice versa?
Because nowhere is the stereotype as prevalent as it is in books, TV, music, theater and film.
Goodbye Columbus was one of the first to showcase the stereotype, though Marjorie Morningstar was there first in an earlier incarnation. Let’s not forget Frank Zappa’s famous song “Sheik Yerbouti” and Sarah Silverman’s riffs and skits.
Silverman might say she is making fun of the stereotype to explode it while Zappa’s song was unapologetically harsh. But after seeing all of these caricatures ad nauseum, I would have to say that for me, a little goes a long way. I’m, uh, how should I say it? Pretty full and don’t want to swallow any more.
Because the image of the “JAP” is so persistent in our culture, no one even questions it at this point. But as a Jewish woman trying to create characters that DON’T fit the stereotype, this pernicious, ugly, female Jewish cartoon often leaves me cold. As a colleague said, the whole JAP thing is at best, lazy writing and at worst, malicious. A dog that’s been whipped multiple times.
I can’t help but think that if any other ethnic group was portrayed this way—as a Hindu or Muslim American princess, for example—the audience would be up in arms. Yet somehow Jewish women continue to be fair game.
Except the ones I know are vibrant, brave, highly educated with advanced degrees, curious, kind, disciplined and talented. They are comfortable with their sexuality too, thank you. And yes, Virginia, we have our bad days, sometimes really bad—like everyone else.
But if the dominant culture is so smitten with Jewish American Princesses, how can artists and writers who don’t want to be defined by them break away? Isn’t there something else we can put up as a counterweight to the stock figures we see onstage and in films?
I’ve heard people say you should take the words people use to label you and invert them, so the labels have new meanings that transcend the old stereotypes. I’ve never tried that because to me it always seemed more reactionary than real. But it could be an interesting exercise. What do you think?
- Jenna Zark
Jewish American Playwright (J.A.P.)
Jewish American Professional
Jewish American Person
Filed Under: Arts & Culture