A girl walks in the room with that confident swagger, wearing a pair of Maonolo Blahniks and an authentic Prada bag, sporting recently manicured nails and highlighted hair. She speaks loudly in a thick downstate accent, holding a cell phone in one hand, and adjusting her headband with the other.
The image of the Jewish American Princess—or JAP—has come a long way since Natalie Wood’s portrayal of an upper middle class Jewish woman in the 1955 movie Marjorie Morningstar. Today, “JAP” has taken on a whole new meaning, especially here at the University at Buffalo, where students’ definitions of the term have sparked a longstanding battle between the usually downstate girls whom it labels, and those from upstate who see themselves as vastly different.
“They travel in groups and all wear sweatpants, obnoxiously long wife-beaters, Northfaces, side ponytails, overly tan skin, and big sunglasses,” said sophomore legal studies major Amanda Sebring—who hails from Western New York—of the stereotypical JAP.
“JAPs are stuck up, snobby, cliquey, stupid, and materialistic,” said junior English and communications major Samantha Boltax. “They have no substance, and I would know since I went to high school in Great Neck with hundreds of them.” Some people, like freshman communications major Rachel Anderson, go as far as avoiding any contact with perceived JAPs at all. “If I see them in an elevator, I always wait for the next one.”
“It’s never good to stereotype, but it’s as if there’s a giant cookie cutter somewhere popping these girls by the dozen,” said junior international studies major Jack Niejadlik. “They all look the same across the board—every single one.”
But while some take the label with the grain of salt and treat it as a harmless joke, others find it offensive—especially the girls who are the butt of the joke. “What makes a JAP any worse or better than any other girl?” asked junior business major Mike Rosenstein.
“People have a very visual view of what a JAP is, but every girl downstate looks like that. It’s a very unrealistic expectation,” said senior theater and English major Donna Graham. “You have two opposite groups of people—upstate and downstate—that are terrified of being judged and that makes them even more judgmental. I’m a JAP, and just because I carry a designer bag, that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
The label becomes a problematic when people use the JAP image to define Jewish girls in general and perpetrate anti-Semitism. The stereotype can lead to misconceptions about a whole group of people.
At UB, it’s not uncommon to hear JAP jokes—“What does a JAP make for dinner?” “Reservations.”— or to see groups such as “People in Favor of Building a Wall Around Long Island to Separate it From the Rest of the World” and “Shut the Fuck Up Long Island Girls” on Facebook.
When asked about what he thought about JAPs, sophomore business administration major Brock Darrah admitted, “I would definitely not date one—they’re all bitches.” Junior environmental design major Derek Baker agreed, confessing, “I could never date a JAP girl because they drive brand new cars and mine’s a beater. I go to monster truck shows and I’m sad because they’re crushing better cars than I have.”
This rabid back and forth at UB begs a larger question to be asked—how much of the JAP-hating is simply the product of different cultures mixing, and how much of it is fueled by pop culture?
The JAP terminology and ideal reaches well beyond the confines of the academic spine. The popular clothing store Urban Outfitters ran into trouble in early 2004 when they began selling T-shirts that were emblazoned with the phrase “Everyone loves a Jewish girl” surrounded by dollar signs and purses. After receiving a letter from the Anti-Defamation League, Urban Outfitters yanked the shirt from their production line after the first batch completely sold out.
In spite of the backlash against it, many are embracing the term as a symbol of high society. The label is now being used to describe such idols as Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker, who are known for their chic clothes and high-class nature. Many typically White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) celebrities are celebrating their style and refinement via the term JAP. The label is being reclaimed by women who are city-wise and know their way around shops and spas regardless of their religious or ethnic backgrounds.
A Jewish artist, Rhonda Lieberman, has engaged in such works as “Chanel Hanukkah,” which featured fake Chanel bags and lipsticks to create a menorah. At first, she found it difficult to accept the emphasis on appearance she felt growing up in Jewish culture. After a while, however, she admitted, “I soon discovered that questioning this taboo was the key to integrating parts of my experience and myself that threatened to cancel each other—and me—out. Not to reconcile them, but to let them coexist, honoring and appeasing each one.”
Whether people embrace the label JAP as the chic answer to today’s cosmopolitan woman, or use it as a term to deride an entire ethnic group, it has ingrained itself on pop culture’s consciousness. As Graham suggested, much of the stereotype lies in ignorance, and the only way to combat this is to break out of one’s cultural barriers and see these girls as more than just a term, but as people as well.