What ever happened to the Jewish American Princess? Once—from the 1960s until at least the end of the 1980s—the icon of the JAP was all but ubiquitous in American Jewish culture. The girl (yes, she was always a girl, even when she was a woman) Jewish men loved to hate, she was unavoidable: loud-mouthed, aggressive, materialist, niggardly in how she dispensed sexual favors, always a daddy’s girl, and an important American pioneer in the use (and abuse) of cosmetic surgery. From the height of iconographic status in the American Jewish cultural economy—Philip Roth wrote about her; Frank Zappa famously sang about her—the JAP has faded, left to inhabit tired, old jokes. Even on google.com, a search yields little of interest, and certainly nothing of recent vintage about the JAP.
To be sure, there have been sightings, and rumors abound that in the suburbs of Chicago or Detroit, let alone in the heimat of JAP-dom—Long Island outside of New York City—the JAP indeed survives and perhaps even thrives. Overheard recently on Long Island in the sanctum sanctorum of Jewish-American materialism, the changing room of Bloomingdale’s: “Oi hate huh. Oi hate huh haeuh.” Translated roughly into English: “I hate her. I hate her hair.” In print, despite the phonetic approximation, we cannot but fail to hear the inflection, the necessary lop-off of words in the monosyllabic JAP language, as if announcing that even the social effort of speaking and communicating is not worth the selfish reserves of the JAP’s energy. But there she is: focused on the exterior—she hates her for her hair.
Content always follows form; or, in a postmodern turn truly prescient for when the JAP hit the scene: form is all that counts, especially in the look, shape, and surgical malleability of the body. If the JAP were not such an academic underachiever—content to reflect only on herself and her exterior appearance; content, too, to marry the wealthiest Jewish man who comes along (think of Private Benjamin)—she might understand how the metonymy of “hair” for “her” (the words phonetically so close in the nasal twang of the JAP dialect) speaks to a critical insight that might indeed be profound.
That the JAP survives only in jokes, and perhaps never thrived but as the butt of jokes, speaks to the place of this phenomenon in Jewish-American culture and begins to outline how to understand the JAP within the wider context of American social transformation since the 1950s. The psychopathology of the JAP jokes reveals, ironically, a distinctly male anxiety: the loss of power over the domesticated woman. In the canon of jokes bandied about since the 1960s and 1970s, the JAP is typically inadequate in two fundamental arenas: the kitchen and the bedroom. In the kitchen, the JAP’s inadequacy is expressed by her refusal to cook: “What does a JAP make for dinner? Reservations.”
In the bedroom, the JAP refuses to pleasure her partner unselfishly and abreacts to the very notion of oral sex: unfortunately, the visuality of the canonical joke cannot be rendered here in print. Most of the time, kitchen and bedroom intermingle and are inseparable in the criticism of the JAP, and the JAP’s inadequacy traverses and transgresses both realms in a purely masculine rage of unfilled desire in both the kitchen and the bedroom: “What is the JAP’s favorite wine/whine? ‘You want me to do WHAT?’” The “what” is shouted, nasalized, and inflected up to emphasize disgust in the suggestion that she pleasure another, either through his mouth or through hers.
As Zappa sings in “Sheik Yerbouti” (an orientalizing of the slang “shake your booty”): “I want a hairy little Jewish princess/With a brand new nose, who knows where it goes/ . . . I want a darling little Jewish princess/Who don’t shit about cooking and is arrogant looking.” The JAP has always stood in the way of Jewish-American male desire, a New World Dora out of Freud’s imagination: the girl who denies the male sexual fantasy and refuses to collude with a sexual economy that is completely phallocentric. Like the agonistic Dora, the JAP is finally dismissed in her self-assertions as a “daddy’s girl”; she is never allowed her own will.
That, of course, is not how Jewish men have seen it. Roth’s empowered, powerful Brenda Patimkin embodies all that is the JAP in a standard Jewish male reading: nouveau riche, cosmetically altered (her nose “bobbed”; the story predates the breast reduction craze among JAP’s in the late 1970s and early 1980s), and alluringly goyische (a Jewish shiksa). In this, the JAP represents a stage in the assimilation of the Jewish community in America. Women always could traverse ethnic boundaries in America more easily than men. As floating signifiers dependent on physical attraction and sexual allure, women in the American experience (from Pocahantas, to the African-American slave women in the manor house, to Brenda Patimkin herself) entered that uniquely American process of transformation and transgression earlier and more quickly than their men (because their selves and their bodies were more appropriable). For Roth’s Neil Klugman, the climb up the hill in New Jersey from Newark to Short Hills, where the Patimkins lived a sort of converso life among the goyim of the wealthy suburb, represented the physical and metaphoric climb into Americanness itself. That is why the JAP’s refusals—of food and sex—stung so harshly.
So, has the JAP simply faded into the (white) American soup of assimilation? The trajectory of Jewish-American social standing since the second world war would seem to place the JAP as a way-station on the road to hegemonic American social embrace. The JAP, then, was the avant garde of a movement that began in the 1950s and came to completion, as some have recently argued, in the 1980s, when the American Jew lost all marks of otherness and melded into white society.
But the assimilationist theory sells the JAP short, as she always has been when defined solely in male terms. The assimilationist theory does not explain, for instance, the recent resurgence of Jewish America and the JAP’s role as—perhaps—harbinger of a new American Jewish gestalt. From the U.S. Census Bureau, we know that today more Jews in America attend synagogue regularly than fifty years ago. Anecdotally, the signs of American Jewish secular resurgence are ubiquitous: the “Jewcy” hipster movement, the magazine Heeb, the comedy of Sarah Silverman and The Hebrew Hammer, Adam Sandler’s Hanukah Song trilogy, the explosion of Jewish music in popular and sacred form. Is this part of assimilation, of Jews swept up in broader religious trends in America? Maybe. Or does it define a particular Jewish identity?
Now that differentiation no longer defines Jewishness, can one express Americanness through Jewish identity? Is not that the definition of the JAP: the original material girl who showed Madonna the ropes and who could—unwittingly and involuntarily—critique feminist independence with a crypto-postfeminist credo years, even decades, before Camille Paglia and reality TV cashed in on America’s obsession with the body, plastic surgery, and the sexual economy of fashion? Was it not the JAP who was the first—a true pioneer!—to proclaim content a dead notion and to celebrate cosmetic alterations of the self, years before Robert Venturi and Phillip Glass? Is the legacy of the JAP not precisely the postmodern condition? We only joke about her because we’re jealous: first, she’s a powerful woman (and girls cannot be taken seriously) and, second, because she found the postmodern path so early, before anyone else could see it coming.