Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Nanny Fine, not a "JAP"

The "JAP" is back. On the show "Girls," one of the characters evidently fits the bill. Emily Shire situates the David Mamet's daughter character within the history of the "JAP" in American culture. One bit jumped out:

Perhaps the television character most commonly associated with the JAP stereotype was Fran Drescher as Fran Fine on the 1990s show “The Nanny.” Her nasal whine, love of shopping, and general lack of decorum drove the plots and jokes of the series.
If Nanny Fine was a "JAP," then I've been misunderstanding the term. She's a working-class woman amidst British and WASP elites. She's, well, working. Not a daddy's girl - her father remains off-screen, and isn't her source of income. Plus, she's not exactly frigid. Granted, Fran Fine's cultural identity is distinct, and she's not going to be heralded any time soon in that 'did you know X is Jewish' category in which we might place, I don't know, Lauren Bacall, or any of the more recent ice-queen ingenues revealed to have rabbis in their lineage. She's unabashedly ethnically and culturally Jewish. But a "JAP"?

"The Nanny" as a show is incredibly not offensive to Jews, both because it offers us a rare Jewish female character who's presented as the height of sex appeal (the other: Lisa Cuddy on "House"), and because of the class dynamics. The world of the show has no place for rich Jews or, for that matter, working-class Gentiles, Niles the butler excepted. Jews on the Upper East Side are scrappy underdogs, a set-up that doesn't quite mirror reality (there are of course low-income Jews, but they're more likely to be living in a huge Hasidic family than working as nannies in Manhattan, and in reality, many of Mr. Sheffield's neighbors would have been Jewish), but that ends up being what allows the show not to give us a "JAP."

So if Nanny Fine of Flushing was a "JAP," in Shire's estimation, which Jewish female characters were not? The problem is that the "JAP" is not merely a stereotype of a kind of Jewish woman, but our only way of conceiving of an American Jewish woman in literature or onscreen. A history of representations of the "JAP" is a history of representations of American Jewish women, so much so that it's easy to lump in even the occasional not-princessy examples, as Shire does with Miss Fine. 

Shire's conclusion leaves something to be desired:
Even with many of the stereotypes intact, JAP characters can be emotionally layered and compelling to watch — a fact evidenced by Shoshanna Shapiro and her peers. The Jewish American Princess may be with us for a while, but that doesn’t mean she has to stay the same. We’ve just got to let her evolve.
I mean, kind of? Better a nuanced and interesting "JAP" than a cut-out figure. But as long as "JAP" is synonymous with "representation of American Jewish woman," the underlying concern remains.

And, because I love online-newspaper comments, this, from someone who comments using his Facebook account to comment, because god forbid people not be able to trace this gem back to the source:
The stereotype is around because it's true. Anyone involved in a Jewish community has had the misfortune of meeting these types of women. Let's face the truth - the JAP stereotype wasn't concocted in some smoky Hollywood boardroom. These women actually exist. Let's focus on discouraging this kind of behavior in our communities instead.

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