There are moments in the course of human history when civilization suddenly casts off the shackles of convention, crosses some proverbial line, and boldly ventures further than it ever dared to go before. Columbus’s transatlantic voyage. Don Quixote. That time we sent three men to the moon in a rocketship.
Have we come to another one of these turning points?
I am referring, of course, to the Bravo reality series known as Princesses Long Island. Until recently, I was a Princesses virgin. I am a virgin no more. At the urging of my boss, who arrives in the office every Monday morning clucking about the latest exploits of Chanel, Amanda, Ashlee, Joey, Casey, and Erica—Bravo’s titular sextet of Jewish-American princesses (JAPs), all of whom still live with and off their parents while shouting (clearly unscripted) Yiddish puns like “intermenschion!” at each other and scouring the North Shore for a member of the tribe to marry—I have now watched every episode of Princesses, and I’m starting to wonder whether it’s the most offensive show ever to air on television.
I’m also starting to wonder whether that’s such a bad thing.
On paper, Princesses closely resembles the rest of its reality train-wreck brethren—if you delete one key detail. A gaggle of well-off women spend each episode drinking, fighting, and generally behaving like idiots. Rinse and repeat. It’s like Jersey Shore, or Real Housewives, or whatever new, increasingly self-aware spawn of The Real World is captivating viewers this season.
The detail I was referring to above—the detail that makes all the difference—is that the stars of Princesses are Jewish. They are not superficially Jewish, the way that much of the Jersey Shore gang was superficially Italian-American. And they are not implicitly Jewish, the way, say, Larry Bloom, Jason Biggs’s character on Orange Is the New Black, is.
Instead, the Princesses are deliberately, explicitly Jewish. Bravo chose them because they were Jewish. The network wanted to make a show about young Jewish women. And the women, who rarely go five minutes without saying something like “Shabbat Shalom, go f**k yourself,” have been happy to oblige, acting as outrageously “Jewish,” quote-unquote, as they possibly can.
It would require far more space than I have here to fully catalog the Princesses’ so-called Jewish behavior, which is near-constant and stretches over seven hour-long episodes (so far). I’ll simply transcribe the “This Season On…” teaser that was affixed to the end of the first episode.
Chanel bursts into the room. “Guess what I have?” she announces. “MANISCHEVIIIIITZ!”
Ashlee and Amanda sit at a table. There are empty glasses and a liquor bottle with a Hebrew label arrayed before them. Amanda is a wearing a pink yarmulke. “My verklemptness is making me schvitz,” Ashlee explains.
Erica and Joey enter what appears to be a strip club. “What do you have in there?” Erica asks a mostly naked man, referring to the contraption hanging around his waist, above his boxer briefs: a belt studded with small glasses. “Hummus,” he says. “Go dip,” says Ashlee’s dad. “I won’t tell your father.”
Ashlee, Joey, and Casey are riding in the backseat of a car. “Hasidic Jews…” Ashlee begins, twirling her fingers next to her temples. “How do they get their curls so perfect?”
Ashlee is at a nightclub. “Are you guys Jewish?” she asks one eligible bachelor. “No,” he says. “F**k no.”
The Princesses are having some drinks, per usual. “Hava nagila, hava…” one of them begins to chant.
And so on. You get the idea.
As far as I can tell, nothing quite like Princesses has ever appeared television before. Grouping people by geography and watching as they perform moronic acts (Jersey Shore) is one thing. Grouping them by geography and socioeconomic status (Real Housewives) is another. And grouping them by geography, socioeconomic status, and ethno-national background (Shahs of Sunset) is yet another. But the organizing principle of Princesses is a religion and the ethnicity that arose from it. When the Princesses behave in ways that seem to confirm the hoariest stereotypes of their tribe—when they are loud, or pushy, or money-obsessed—they aren’t just reflecting poorly on wealthy women or swarthy, scantily clad youngsters from the New York metro area. They’re reflecting poorly on an entire enthoreligious group—a group that was systematically persecuted for centuries, often because of those same stereotypes. This is why New York Rep. Steve Israel has spoken out again the show.
And yet, the more I watch Princesses, the more I think that such outrage is uncalled for. The Jersey Shore comparison is instructive. When Jersey Shore first materialized on MTV, various Italian-American groups cried foul and called for its cancellation. As an Italian-American who grew up in part on the Jersey Shore and whose parents still live there today, I was sympathetic. I remember telling people at the time that “everyone on that show is from New York.” I didn’t want the rest of the world to think that The Situation represented my roots, my people, or me. In any way.
But I quickly realized that no one really thought that—and if they did think that, they were too benighted to worry about. This was 2009, not 1909. Jersey Shore wasn’t a pernicious Hollywood depiction of Italian-Americans designed to reinforce stereotypes and inspire bigotry. It was a bunch of Italian-Americans (and not quite Italian-Americans) co-opting, owning, and in some sense mocking those stereotypes to entertain viewers. To get attention. To become famous. Not the grandest ambition, I’ll admit. Still, none of it would have worked—Snooki & Co. wouldn’t have even attempted it—in a culture that was really, truly anti-Italian-American in any significant way. We laughed at their absurdity. But only the most irrevocably bigoted among us assumed—in part because the cast was so absurd—that every Italian-American was Jersey Shore material.
Princesses is the same story. Sure, the subject is touchier. The bigotry is fresher. I felt even more offended at first. (My mother is Jewish.) But ultimately the fact that these women are so willing to play up “Jewish” stereotypes on television is an indication, I think, of how toothless such stereotypes have become. What other dynamic could produce an exchange like this one, from Episode 3?
The Princesses go to the Hamptons because, in Chanel’s words, they have “brunch to eat” and “men to meet.”
They spot a handsome Clark Kent lookalike at a garden party. “You Jewish?” Ashlee asks. He shakes his head.
“No?” she says. “That’s fine. You’ll convert.”
“I’ll convert!” he exclaims.
Ashlee turns to her comrades. “He has the smallest nose ever,” she says. “And he’ll be, like, the to-die-for son-in-law.”
Ashlee knows exactly what she’s doing here. Acting like a stereotypical JAP isn’t dangerous anymore. It’s ridiculous. It’s funny. Hating on someone like her is so 20th century. Even her self-hatred—“the smallest nose ever”—is satirical.
Or, as Ashlee puts it in the premiere: “everybody has a stereotype of a Long Island Jewish girl. People get so offended. I’m like, bring it. I’m Jewish. I’m American. And I’m a princess.”
Don’t get me wrong. There is still plenty of institutional racism in American society, and there is still plenty of bigotry toward Jews. Among the small segment of the population that is still dumb enough to be anti-Semitic, Princesses may even reinforce some silly stereotypes. But the vast majority of viewers will simply laugh off the gleefully offensive existence of a creature like Ashlee. As with Italian-Americans, and women, and gays, and rednecks—all of whom have had their own romps on shows like Princesses Long Island—it may be a sign of how far we’ve come as a culture that even the Jews are now fair game to make fools of themselves on reality TV.