More Than Words
Question: How do you give a J.A.P. an orgasm?
Answer: Scream "Charge it to Daddy!"
--Lynn Davidman, illustrating stereotypes through humor at "Images of Jewish Women in The United States"
Along with the Jewish Mother, the Jewish American Princess has increasingly entered American culture as an acceptable stereotype of Jewish women. Many of the most politically correct of us use the term as an innocuous description--devoting little thought to its existence as a gendered and ethnic stereotype.
"It always makes me uncomfortable when people use the term `J.A.P.,' but I occasionally use it too" says Talya Weisbard '99-'00, Co-Chair of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, indicating a degree of Jewish ambivilance about the terms.
She adds the caveat that she would only employ the term in conversation with other Jewish students in order to provoke people--to make them slightly uncomfortable.
Such stereotypes were explored at "Images and Stereotypes of Jewish Women in the United States," a forum at the Harvard Hillel Tuesday night. After a lecture delivered by Bunting Fellow and Brown University Professor Lynn Davidman, male and female students discussed contemporary assumptions about Jewish women.
In her lecture, Davidman historicized these stereotypes, noting they emerged in American culture in the period following World War II. It was during this period of time, she says, that the immigrant Jewish community as a whole reached a certain degree of affluence and assimilation in America.
Affluence enabled Jewish mothers to stay at home and suffocate children with well-meaning dictums and chicken soup, while wives and daughters had the leisure to morph into superficial, whiny consumers. At least, that was how the situation was presented by Jewish male writers and artists, Davidson noted. The scholar counts Phillip Roth, Herman Wouk and later Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld, among those who introduced and popularized such stereotypes concerning Jewish women in American culture.
As with many stereotypes, Jewish female generalizations emerge from some combination of fact and fiction. Many who use the terms describe their being "just the perfect description" of a certain person they know.
However, one wonders if the occasional aptness of such terms justifies their frequent use. The J.A.P. stereotype, for example, might apply to any nouveau riche spoiled child, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Yet it is Jewish women who are saddled with the stereotype--and some aren't too happy about it.
"I think the term [J.A.P.] is offensive," says Crimson editor Laura E. Rosenbaum '00, who attended the Wednesday night lecture. "It ties religion to a stereotype about economics and behavior."
Some Jews and non-Jews who admittedly employ stereotypes argue that they are not offensive, only humorous. However, the stereotypical Jewish mother--although endearing--is essentially not a `good mother,' and the traditional J.A.P. image is more an Ivana Trump distortion of consummerism than an indulged beauty queen.
Some terms generally considered racist or otherwise derogatory change meanings depending on the contexts in which they are used. The homophobic slur "queer," for example, can be empowering when co-opted by the gay community. Stereotypes of Jewish women, however, do not have this redeeming quality, according to Weisbard.
"The J.A.P. stereotype can't be a point of pride--it's just a very negative stereotype," she says.