Is It Time to Reclaim the Word ‘JAP’?

My former roommate Emma and I call each other “princess.” It’s a term of endearment, mostly — but I have to acknowledge its inherent connection to another term that could, if we’re being rude, characterize us both: Jewish American Princess, or as most say, “JAP.”

“JAP” comes out of the stereotype of young Jewish American girls whose “daddies” pay for everything until they grow up and find husbands (preferably doctors) to shoulder their expenses. When I was growing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s, it meant Tiffany’s bracelets gifted at bat mitzvahs and Juicy Couture sweatpants paraded down middle school hallways — items that, looking back, are ridiculous for any 13-year-old to wear (especially the sweatpants that proclaimed “Juicy” on the wearers’ butts).

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines (yes, it really does) “Jewish American Princess” as “often disparaging and offensive, a stereotypical well-to-do or spoiled American Jewish girl or woman.” Urban Dictionary gets more granular. Its crowd-sourced definitions put most JAPs in the Northeast US, specifying New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Among the definitions posted on Urban Dictionary, the word “nagging” crops up multiple times, as does “spoiled,” “materialistic,” and the idea of JAPs not knowing what it’s like to earn their own money.

I hadn’t actively thought about the term JAP in a while until I watched Tablet Magazine’s mini documentary on the subject, Can I Say “JAP”? In it, six Jewish women of various ages explore the meaning, usage, and origins of the term, some finding it extremely harmful, others finding it practical, and all of them debating the possibility that we could “reclaim” it, like certain groups have done with other harmful slurs.

In Can I Say “JAP”?, the youngest and the oldest women featured seem to have the biggest problem with the idea of reclaiming the word. “If I’m thinking of myself as a JAP, then I might not think of myself as someone who’s capable of being brilliant and outspoken and motivated and passionate and, like, someone with feelings,” says Ayelet Kaminer, a freshman at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. Anne Roiphe, a writer in her 80s, adds, “It will make it harder for my daughters and my granddaughters now to feel really proud and good and comfortable in their femaleness and their Jewishness, and those two things are intertwined.” In other words, according to Roiphe, the use of “JAP” takes power away from Jewish women, and that makes it “dangerous libel.”

Being labeled as spoiled and materialistic would make most people feel bad. Assuming that a woman relies on the men in her life to survive/go shopping is even more damaging. I’ve had Jewish female friends who’ve held down jobs where their coworkers didn’t take them seriously. The coworkers assumed these women were working on a lark while their fathers secretly funded their lavish lifestyles in the background (of all the women I know who’ve had this assumption thrown against them, it hasn’t been true once).

I can’t quite remember when I learned about — and started using — the term “JAP.” It has got to be in the context of one of two heavily Jewish spaces I occupied while growing up: Hebrew school or summer camp. At both, I spent time among the less “jappy” cohort of my peers. At camp, this was because I wasn’t from Westchester, New York. At Hebrew school, because I didn’t live in Newton, Massachusetts — two places known (at least when I was younger) for hosting a thriving Jewish American Princess culture. Not coming from either left my friends and I feeling like part of the awkward crowd, the nerds among princesses — funny to consider when the requirement of being in either of those spaces (costly sleep-away camp, a temple in a well-to-do neighborhood) entailed a certain claim to the “JAP” identity.

The word still comes up in conversation with some of my female, Jewish friends. Like Stephanie Butnick, host of the Unorthodox podcast that produced Can I Say “JAP”?, points out, the term can serve as “clever and useful shorthand” for those in the know. Emma and I used it recently to describe some long ago mutual acquaintance we were having trouble remembering (it helped — we remembered her).

Tablet’s documentary also characterizes “JAP” as one of those terms women use to put down other women. When women should be lifting each other up, they instead have handy terms like “JAP” with which to belittle each other, keeping men firmly at the top of the social hierarchy. Like Roiphe said, “Dangerous libel.”

And as with any word women can use to denigrate their own, “JAP” has no male equivalent, which Kaminer wisely points out in Tablet’s video. However, during a roundtable conversation I participated in about dating while Jewish, Alma editor Molly Tolsky astutely noted that “JAP” is gender neutral, as it could just as easily stand for “Jewish American Prince.”

In reality, unfortunately, it doesn’t. The history of the Jewish American Princess goes back to the immigrant Jews arriving in the Northeastern United States in the early 1900s, says Tablet. These immigrant families viewed success as men who could earn enough money in this new country to support their wives and daughters, and so those wives and daughters in turn could afford the American look — in other words, the ability to shop at stores that true Americans, whose families had long been established and earning money in the country, could afford.

Of all these recollections about JAPdom, Tablet’s mini doc surprised me the most when it played clips from movies from the 1950s through ‘80s featuring blatantly offensive Jewish women stereotypes. The movie Spaceballs, from 1987, includes an outrageous Jewish girl nose job joke. The movie’s male lead calls this same character “princess” in another scene, sending her home when their adventure starts to get too rough. In 1958’s Marjorie Morningstar, in which Natalie Wood (not Jewish) plays the Jewish titular character (whose real last name in the movie is Morgenstern), Marjorie’s love interest insists she’s going to “marry some nice, young doctor, and with your mother’s blessings, help him develop a practice in New Rochelle.”

More modern references don’t do much better in avoiding this negative stereotype. In Community, Alison Brie’s character, a Jewish young adult who winds up at community college after overcoming a prescription drug addiction that made her leave a fancier four-year institution, often gets treated like a spoiled, little girl, mainly by the show’s leading white male, a former lawyer played by Joel McHale (and sometimes Brie’s character’s love interest). Then there’s Princesses: Long Island; their exaggerated portrayals of the JAP role would be unbelievable if all reality TV poking fun at certain cultural groups (think Jersey Shore and Italian Americans) didn’t do the same.

While the Jewish American Princesses of Long Island certainly perpetuate a harmful stereotype, they’re at times self-aware (I’m being a little generous) and can be irreverent about their roles as relatively young, Jewish women. As The New Yorker noted in a story about the cast a few years ago, they play up their Jewishness, perhaps using Yiddish more than they would were they not on Bravo and joking about their nagging parents. “You’re 27 years old, you gotta get married already,” one says in a put-on New York accent as she mocks her parents. “You gotta go for a doctor, or lawyer, somebody who has money, somebody who can take care of you.”

This tracks almost word-for-word with a Joan Rivers joke featured in Tablet’s documentary. At age 21, Rivers jokes, her parents had hopes for her to marry a doctor. Next year, they downgraded to “alright a lawyer, a CPA.” When she reached 26, her parents would settle for “anything.”

The key difference between Rivers’ brand of JAP and the Princesses of Long Island’s lies in their agency. The Long Island princesses don’t really seem to know what they want — it’s dictated by their families’ wishes, with whom they all seem to live even though they’re in their late 20s. Meanwhile, Rivers made JAP jokes as she worked to make it as a comedian, to infiltrate the men’s club that was (and still is) late night television.

Part of the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype is knowing what you want and verbalizing it. The stereotype designates this as being spoiled and demanding, but it could also relate how a self-described “JAP” like Rivers achieved success in her industry.

In addition to calling me “princess,” Emma also uses the term for another close friend of hers who isn’t Jewish. She acknowledged to me that the term is less about Judaism and more something that she uses “in reaction to you both expressing your specific desire about something.” Being assertive and naming your needs isn’t inherently bad, but it is widely viewed as negative when women do it — one of those special double-standards that led to Hillary Clinton getting undue criticism during the 2016 presidential campaign and countless women who voice their opinions at work getting called “bossy” by both male and female co-workers. This is once again how a term like “JAP” is used to keep women down.

Toward the end of Tablet’s documentary, Roiphe almost changes her tune about the negativity inherent in “JAP.”

“Maybe it has a different meaning now,” she suggests. “Maybe it looks differently.”

Maybe the world is starting to see assertive women, including assertive Jewish women, as strong and powerful, not demanding and spoiled. Maybe we can ditch the negative connotations of “JAP” and keep the confident attitude it implies.

Read More