Saturday, August 10, 2013

Rhoda Studies 101

So I've now watched from the second (not the first - it's unavailable) episode of the notorious "JAP" Bravo reality show, up through I'm not saying what number. Possibly too late to write about it for a thing that isn't WWPD, unless I find a timeless angle, which... I think I might, so maybe more later, elsewhere. But for now:

The first thing I noticed: the "Princesses of Long Island" - most of them, at least - retain their original noses. A definite change from earlier generations of the same milieu. Is it that they really own their Jewishness? Is it just some kind of Ashkenazi-Sephardic divide, with the former (for some obvious historical reasons I could think of) more likely to have undergone this procedure?

I point this out not to gratuitously bring up noses, but because the original-nose-retention (in the midst of a great deal of artifice otherwise) seems somehow emblematic of the show. The whole unapologetically-Jewish thing. A few seconds hardly go by before we're reminded that the women - who seem basically like reality-TV women everywhere, and who one half expects to start speaking in Essex accents - are Jewish. Did they mention recently that they're Jewish? This, despite only one of the women being a practicing Jew, or seeming at all plugged into anything culturally Jewish, for that matter. The others have evidently been instructed by producers to play up the Jewish angle, to drop various Hebrew expressions that don't make any sense in the context, and seem incredibly forced. One asks all men she meets if they're Jewish, in a way that seems beyond artificial. So basically the same relationship to Jewish-Americanness as "Jersey Shore" had/has (?) to Italian-Americanness. Or the TV-show version of this.

Maybe the show is anti-anti-Semitic. It represents Jews as big drinkers and not remotely clever or intellectual. Overanalyzing everything? Overachieving? Overrepresenting the group in graduate schools? Not so much! Oh, and if the "JAP" is frigid, well, our pal Erica clears that up.

Should I be offended that this show kinda-sorta claims to represent me, a Jewish woman about their age, living not on Long Island, fine, but in New Jersey, which might be exactly the same thing? (There was an intro shot of a tristate-area strip mall that brought me right back to my most recent supermarket trip. And I'm half thinking, 'but I just bought groceries, how am I back there?') Probably. I'm not, but only because of a likely misguided belief that no one would imagine I belonged to that subculture. I'm about 50 primping-steps away from being socially acceptable in that world. But to someone from well outside it, by virtue of being American, Jewish, female, and not a complete hippie, I may well read as a "JAP." Which is why all American Jewish women effectively have to find this stereotype offensive.

As with all minorities, we're probably all the same to outsiders, yet small internal differences seem immense to us. Growing up, I virtually never encountered this subculture for any length of time (once at summer camp, at 8, and then not again until Birthright Israel, at 23), other than to have it drilled into me from day one that I was not and should not ever be that. That princessy-ness was simultaneously anti-feminist and repulsive to men. Not sure how I came to grow up with this message - it seems to more often come from Israeli-American communities. Maybe an urban vs. suburban thing? A clash between those with more cultural capital than economic and those in the reverse situation?

There's a kind of mutual class snobbery between whatever the thing I was brought up as and whatever that is. The only instance of bullying I can remember from my childhood involves that sleepaway camp, where I was harangued for not blowdrying my hair (I was 8!), and having clothing that clashed (is that still a thing?). But the very same Jewish women who are most attuned to issues of gender-and-marginalization are probably the ones most wary of coming across as "JAPs," despite this being nothing more than a gendered stereotype, with intersectionality written all over it. It's complicated.

As Jessica Grose pointed out, this show really harps on the age of the participants, displaying their age with their name, which is not a normal thing done on reality shows. (We don't get the ages of their dates, parents...) Grose sees this as highlighting that these grown women live like children, which they do. But as Rachel Arons picks up on, the age is what brings drama to the proceedings. Time is running out. They're all on the cusp of 30. Which has tremendous significance for them, because they need to be married by that age. The moment all the women are 30, some kind of timer goes off.

Which... I don't even know. That view is hardly unique to this one subculture. But they're stuck in a frustrating middle-ground, culturally. Traditional enough that it's a tragedy if they're 29 and single (and that it would be tragic if they married out), but not enough that someone in the community has it together to find them spouses.

And then you get the show's Snooki (the very short, quirky one) getting quasi-proposed to by her father, with a diamond ring, with her mother present, to mark her 30th birthday. One of those reality-TV moments you can only hope was scripted.

What is anti-Semitic about the show, I suppose, is that it perpetuates the idea of the perpetually single-and-desperate Jewish woman, the one whose very Jewishness somehow rules out the possibility of her pairing off, yet makes her all the more keen to do so ASAP. (You'd know about this if you'd taken Rhoda Studies 101.) The single woman in American mainstream culture virtually is a Jewish woman, so thoroughly has that cliché caught on. A certain New York-area accent and 'Semitic' appearance is shorthand for 'perennially single-and-doesn't-want-to-be sidekick'.

And yet! Women in this subculture do get married. Happens every day, I'd imagine. There are, after all, men of the same subculture, who contrary to what Philip Roth might have you believe, tend to prefer their female equivalents, and not to be running off with low-maintenance WASPs (whom they'd be meeting where, exactly?). These particular women are, one gets the sense, unusual in their milieu for still being single at their age. A subset of a subculture. Yet the show's message is, look at how repulsive Jewish women are to the opposite sex! Who would want anything to do with them? When it's like, a) not all Jewish women are anything like this, and b) of the ones who are, this does not seem to be an impediment to pairing off.

No comments: