The return of the JAP
BEFORE PARIS HILTON made a career of flaunting her daddy's money, before Carrie Bradshaw transformed Manolo Blahnik from a shoe into a raison d'etre, even before Madonna unabashedly asserted herself as a Material Girl, there was the Jewish-American Princess. First identified in postwar America, the JAP was a girl lavished with the best in life-from the top of her professionally straightened mane of hair, to the nose job she got for her 16th birthday, to a wardrobe of designer clothes and the most expensive shoes money could buy. The entitled, shallow JAP may have been sexually frigid, but as a stereotype she proved remarkably promiscuous, spreading quickly and burrowing deep in the national psyche.
By the 1980s, the JAP had gone from being a quirky ethnic sketch to the presumed identity of nearly every Jewish woman, a trend that reeked of anti-Semitism and misogyny. Galvanized by a slew of incidents at college campuses-including anti-JAP graffiti, ''Biggest JAP on Campus'' contests, and housing ads that warned ''No JAPs''-Jewish feminists and other community leaders launched a successful campaign to scour the term from public discourse.
''There is nothing funny about a put-down of Jewish women that has become a generic term for materialism, self-indulgence, loudness and so on,'' Francine Klagsbrun, editor of the bestselling ''Free to Be... You and Me,'' was quoted as saying at the American Jewish Committee's Conference on Current Stereotypes of Jewish Women in 1987. ''We are eating away at our own community.''
Now, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Herman Wouk's ''Marjorie Morningstar''-which, along with Philip Roth's ''Goodbye, Columbus,'' is widely viewed as one of the earliest references to the stereotype-the JAP is back. Only this time, the term isn't an insult but an ironic badge of honor.
Last fall, the New York Post reported that The Style Network was casting for a show called ''JAP Squad,'' which, according to a network executive's email quoted by the Post, was to star ''girls who know where to go in NYC for the best deals, who know the nail salons, the bakeries, the spas....'' (After protests from Jewish groups, the show's producers said they were looking for a better title. Maybe ''Jew Eye for the Goy Guy''?) Rachel Factor, a Japanese-American actress who converted to Judaism, is entertaining audiences nationwide with her one-woman play, ''J.A.P.'' And in May, Doubleday will publish ''The J.A.P. Chronicles,'' a novel by Isabel Rose about seven wealthy Jewish women who reconnect at their camp reunion.
''To call yourself a JAP is to wink at yourself,'' says Rose. ''We're saying it's OK to be Carrie Bradshaw. Carrie Bradshaw is JAP-py.''
Carrie Bradshaw, however, is not Jewish-but that hardly seems to matter anymore. Something has shifted over the past decade or so, as Jewish culture and mainstream pop culture have become ever more enmeshed, generating what is now a pretty loopy time for us young Jewish women. Gwen Stefani is on MTV singing a hip-hop version of the anthem from ''Fiddler on the Roof'' and The New Republic describes Madonna in her Kabbalah class diligently saying the grace after meals that we often skipped out on in our Hebrew School days (probably to listen to Madonna tapes in the girls' bathroom). Thirty-six years ago, the very WASPy Ali McGraw was cast as uber-JAP Brenda Patimkin in the film version of ''Goodbye, Columbus''-and she played her kind of WASPy. These days, the Jewish Sarah Jessica Parker is cast as the ostensibly non-Jewish heroine of ''Sex and the City.'' And she plays her pretty Jewish.
This month, Heeb magazine, a cheeky glossy aimed at Jewish 18-to-34s, features a spread of conspicuously non-Jewish models dolled up as ''JAPs''-tiaras, Louis Vuitton bags, the requisite cup of Tasti D-Lite frozen dessert-wryly proposing that you don't even have to be Jewish to be an American Princess.
''The consumerist element that was criticized in the JAP has now been embraced by American society,'' says Riv-Ellen Prell, author of ''Fighting to Become Americans: Assimilation and the Trouble Between Jewish Women and Jewish Men'' (2000). ''JAPs were the designated narcissists in the 1970s, but now we no longer feel shame about all being narcissists.''
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To some, JAP is just the latest slur to be embraced as a means of self-empowerment, much the way gay culture adopted ''queer'' and African-Americans use the n-word. JAP's comeback may signal a new era in identity politics, one in which Jewish women, feeling victorious after battling the double burden of misogyny and anti-Semitism, peel away many aspects of the old stereotype-the snobbishness, the dependency on daddy's Amex, the sexual frigidity-and keep... well, the shoes and the Chanel.
''It's a classic structure of integration,'' says artist and critic Rhonda Lieberman, who has engaged with the stereotype in works like ''Chanel Hanukkah,'' which used fake Chanel handbags and lipsticks to create a menorah. ''You reject certain early parts of your background and then, when you're grounded, you can revisit those things and-through choice-decide whether or not you want to reclaim them.''
But not everyone thinks the revival of the stereotype is harmless fun. Given the noxious ideas about Jews and money, many feel uneasy about making the celebration of consumerism into a Jewish affair.
''There should be a distant early warning signal that warns us of incipient anti-Semitism when Jews are ineluctably connected to money and privilege, as is the case often with the JAP stereotype,'' said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of Lilith magazine, the Jewish feminist publication that spearheaded the earliest journalism about the stereotype beginning in the 1970s.
''We all negotiate the world through shorthands,'' said Prell, who, along with Lieberman, will be a panelist at an April 12 symposium in Chicago titled ''The JAP: Star Turn for a Stereotype?'' sponsored by Nextbook, an organization aimed at promoting Jewish culture. ''We can try to have control of them, but my own sense is that we have to be careful because they can so easily get out of our control. We're playing with fire.''
But for some of the neo-JAPS, the consumerism was wrapped up with their experience of Jewish culture.
''The Jewishness was the dressing up for the bar mitzvah, not the [religious] services,'' Lieberman, the artist, said, describing how she felt growing up. For a while, she said, she tried to strip her Jewish identity of the focus on appearances, but eventually realized that this too was unsatisfying.
''I soon discovered that questioning this taboo was the key to integrating parts of my experience and my self that threatened to cancel each other-and me-out,'' she said, in a speech on the subject. ''Not to reconcile them, but to let them coexist, honoring and appeasing each one.''
In the end, this may all come around, as issues of cultural importance often do, to Barbra. In one of the sharpest episodes of ''Sex and the City,'' Carrie wonders aloud why Mr. Big chose another woman over her. Suddenly she's reminded of ''The Way We Were,'' the classic 1973 movie in which the neurotic, curly-haired (read: Jewish) character played by Barbra Streisand loses her man to a simpler, straight-haired (read: WASP) woman. Carrie belts out the movie's theme song, and a hybrid personality emerges that is at once Jewish, smart, complicated in the best way, and unembarrassed by sartorial fetishes. Though Mr. Big might not have understood it, Carrie did. For some women today, that's more than enough.
Alana Newhouse is the Arts & Culture editor at the Forward.