Within her first two minutes on screen it’s evident that Shoshanna Shapiro is a Jewish American Princess. From perfectly coiffed hair to a pink Juicy Couture tracksuit to her admission that her parents are paying $2,100 a month for her Nolita apartment, Shoshanna, one of the four protagonists on the HBO show “Girls” — which finished its first season June 17 — seems like the latest incarnation of a long running stereotype. She says “obvi” more often than the FCC should allow, and when she’s not complaining that her outfit is “at least six months old,” she’s lazing around her plush apartment. When she accidentally mistakes crack for weed in the season’s seventh episode (“Welcome To Bushwick a.k.a The Crackcident”), a mutual acquaintance, Ray, is annoyed at being left to watch over her. Though he’s only just met Shoshanna (and she’s ridiculously high), he can tell what kind of girl she is. “I’m not a f*cking JAP daycare,” he says. And can you blame him?
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Some critics have dismissed Shoshanna as a flat character, or “comically overbroad,” as Gawker’s John Cook wrote. Others go further, seeing something “malicious” in her portrayal. Compared to the other three leading characters on “Girls,” Shoshanna “seems to be sitting around, waiting for them to show up and use her as a punch line,” wrote Miriam Krule on Jewcy. Such criticism isn’t entirely fair, however. Along with other characters on recent TV shows, Shoshanna emerges as a more emotionally complex and empathetic character than her one-dimensional pop cultural forebears. Indeed, she marks a critical evolution of the JAP stereotype.
To understand the significance of Shoshanna, deftly portrayed by Zosia Mamet, it’s important to consider the history of the JAP character in books, TV and film. Marjorie Morgenstern of Herman Wouk’s 1955 novel “Marjorie Morningstar,” and Brenda Patimkin of Philip Roth’s 1959 novella “Goodbye, Columbus,” set the stereotype in postwar America, though neither book used the term “JAP” specifically. But both characters were depicted as materialistic, vapid and dependent on their fathers’ finances, qualities that became embedded in subsequent portrayals.
Over the next decade, the JAP image became so pervasive that in 1971 Julie Baumgold’s article, “The Persistence of the Jewish Princess,” appeared on the cover of New York magazine. Baumgold defined Jewish princesses by their sense of entitlement, their self-absorption, and overconfidence in their subpar beauty. “For one thing, she expects,” Baumgold wrote. “Clops and blows come from Above, but still she expects. It isn’t mere hope; it is her due.”
In addition to being spoiled daddy’s girls, JAPs were portrayed as obnoxious, loud and lacking sexual appeal. JAP jokes proliferated, reinforcing stereotypes about resistance to cooking and housekeeping, incessant whining and indifference to sex. Whatever once made these princesses desirable to Roth’s and Wouk’s male characters had by this point disappeared. Perhaps, overwhelmed and repulsed by their own overbearing mothers (as in Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”), Jewish men, and popular culture, viewed these women with sexual disdain.