In 1971, the cover of New York Magazine heralded ‘The Persistence of the Jewish Princess’. Post-war America, and the class shake-up that went with it, had produced the stereotype that Jewish women all know and loathe: the girl whose standards are as high as her slicked back ponytail, who has a taste for the finer things in life, born with an entire drawer of silver cutlery in her mouth but with none of the class of her agnostic friends. The term ‘Jewish princess’ became, as Vox puts it, ‘a second-degree ethnic slur… one below the top-level pejorative, “Jew”.’
The Walt Disney Company (whose founder was accused of being anti-Semitic, a claim his friends and colleagues always denied) doesn’t quite see it that way. It declared with some fanfare yesterday that Disney’s first-ever Jewish princess will hit our screens this December. Jamie-Lynn Sigler, herself educated at a Hebrew school, will voice the character in a Hanukkah-themed episode of the series Elena of Avalor.
To my shame, the image that sprung to mind on hearing this news was that of a spoilt, bratty version of Cinderella. That reflex reaction shows just how deeply ingrained in our psyche the Jewish princess has become, and as such confers a certain amount of responsibility on Disney to ensure that what should be seen as a victory for diversity does not, inadvertently, breathe new life into an anti-Semitic trope.
Suffice to say this was a feature of my upbringing, and nobody was under any illusions that it might be a term of endearment. ‘JPs’ were the north-west London girls who owned matching Juicy velour tracksuits in every colour, took black cabs everywhere they went, and ate at Nobu more often than they braved Pret a Manger. There’s a lot of stereotyping in Jewish culture – as much from within the community as outside of it – but nobody wanted to be the JP (though a series of Instagram hashtags shows that some are quick to take ownership of the term).
'To my shame, the image that sprung to mind on hearing the Disney news was that of a spoilt, bratty version of Cinderella'
It was a trope that we would all run from and, as the only Jewish person at my school until sixth-form, I did everything I could to ensure I wouldn’t be branded. I lived in fear of being caught eyeing up a designer handbag or, in my late teens, failing to buy my round at the bar for fear of being called ‘stingy’. Far from being fussy, I felt I couldn’t even have tastes – because that might amount to materialism.
As with all disputed terminology, the impact is more important than the words themselves. And for that reason, one can only conclude that the Jewish princess is an outdated and unacceptable concept. It’s 2019. Women are as ambitious as men. We don’t shy away from earning money and we value our financial independence.
The best way to tackle the term is head-on, puncturing the stereotype with humour. The comedian Sarah Silverman has often adopted a so-called Jewish princess persona precisely so that she can lampoon it (as she asked in her memorable parody song, “What would Jesus do? / He’d say give the Jew girl toys.”)
As the journalist Jamie Lauren Keiles writes, “For its relative size, [the term Jewish princess] holds quite a lot: millennia of persecution, centuries of adaptation, the whole of the Western sexist tradition, and a landfill somewhere, filled with velour.” People know the JP, and employ the term for a reason. It’s not to make young Jewish girls feel good about themselves, but fearful that maybe, just maybe, they should rein themselves in.
It’s a bold move from Disney – and while it’s great to be seeing more diversity represented in their productions – we need to be careful from perpetuating an already much-recognised trope, of a spoilt, bratty Jewish princess. I wonder how they will make their princess Jewish, without causing an anti-Semitic backlash. Kudos for trying, I say.