Monday, November 17, 2008

A theory of the JAP

Every American Jewish woman not literally in rags begging for gruel has, at one point or another, been called a JAP. Frustrating as this is to those of us who do not spend our days chatting with the girls over manicures about how to find a lawyah or bankah to marry--and alas, most Jewish women do not fit this stereotype--like all stereotypes, it has some basis in reality.

Rather than looking at the JAP as a slur, we should think of it as a subculture, one no more or less valid than hipsters, bears, or farm-obsessed urbanites. Like any other subculture, one's natural-born physical appearance and background play a part in membership, but it's mostly about performance, about choice of dress, hairstyle, lifestyle. And, if this needs pointing out, not all JAPs are Jewish or female, although the culture is rooted where it's rooted. (As with hipsters, JAPs are, of course, never self-proclaimed, and can be spotted a mile away.)

So, as promised, a theory: why is there a subculture of high-maintenance, materialistic Jewish women? Where do these 'princesses' come from? One possibility is that Jewish women overcompensate with artifice (eating disorders or fancy clothes) for a lack of 'conventional' (i.e. blonde-and-blue) beauty. That's probably part of it--one can make fun of the JAP for hair-straightening, but consider the likely reaction to the alternative. And it goes far in explaining the gender tilt of the subculture.

Here's another idea: Jews, as Jews, voluntarily deny ourselves full participation in mainstream American society. A world of Christmas and ham, Lilly Pulitzer and small-town childhoods, is distant to many of us. But, at the same time, we want in. So we overcompensate in the areas we don't see as threatening our Jewish identity. For a woman to focus on shopping and finding a man is plenty American; to obsess over both must be very American. The JAP is an especially enthusiastic consumer of and participant in the lowest-common-denominator American culture, hoping (subconsciously) that this will be enough to balance out the difference inherent to her non-Christian background.

7 comments:

PG said...

You seem to assume that the JAP is sort of an isolated phenomenon in American culture, but what about the BAP? Surely there is a [fill-in-ethnicity] American Princess for every non-WASP (the original Princesses) community.

The "find a man within my community" seems to be especially important to the Princess identity without being all that American. (I have been told by conservatives that "excessive" focus on one's ethnic background, particularly in choice of spouse, signifies failure to assimilate and is unAmerican.)

Phoebe said...

I'm pretty sure BAP is a play on JAP. It's not that there aren't princess-equivalents in other cultures, but has every black woman been accused of being a BAP? Do black men avoid dating black women because they assume Bappiness? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

"I have been told by conservatives that "excessive" focus on one's ethnic background, particularly in choice of spouse, signifies failure to assimilate and is unAmerican."

Ha, right, unless you happen to be white and Protestant, in which case pairing off with someone like yourself is charming in a 'high-school sweetheart-Mr. and Mrs. Mike Huckabee' kind of way.

Anonymous said...

I think you are ignoring the obvious: as Jewish people have a higher median income then most other groups more of them have the money to spoil their daughters with if they choose to do so. It's pretty hard to be an "American princess" if your household income is $50,000 a year and you live in Ohio.

Phoebe said...

"It's pretty hard to be an "American princess" if your household income is $50,000 a year and you live in Ohio."

It's harder to be a visible one, but there are children spoiled and flashy clothes purchased at all socioeconomic levels. In fact, if anything the JAP tends to come from less wealthy parts of the Jewish community--think Fran in "The Nanny." If she were already well-off, she wouldn't care so much about finding a rich husband, would she?

PG said...

has every black woman been accused of being a BAP? Do black men avoid dating black women because they assume Bappiness?

I'm a little skeptical that this has happened to every middle and uppper-income Jewish woman. It must have some relationship to geography and closeness to the Jewish community. My closest friend who is Jewish is technically "half Jewish" (one of her parents converted and she was raised in the faith), has lived her whole life in the Midwest or Mid-Atlantic (Wisconsin, Virginia, St. Louis) and mostly seems to be Jewish in a religious rather than super-cultural way, if the two can be teased apart. She's engaged to someone who is not Jewish (or of any religion) himself, but who is willing to raise their kids in Judaism. I don't think she's ever had the JAP experience, even though her parents are reasonably well-off.

On the other hand, I definitely can say that within my community, guys will avoid matches with women based on the perception that the woman has been too accustomed to the good life and will be dissatisfied with, or excessively demanding on, his income. I think there's a necessary patriarchalism built into the -AP phenomenon as you've described it -- the idea that women go from the house of their indulgent father to that of their husband, and that such women lack the ability/desire to earn their own damn money.

Withywindle said...

You might also want to see if there are equivalent phenomena among Jewish communities in Britain, France, etc.

Anonymous said...

In France they're called FRAPPES.