In late 2010, I received a Facebook message from a casting director asking me if I would be interested in appearing on a show about girls who grew up on Long Island and now lead fabulous lives. She said she had found me after searching through various LI high schools and towns and cross-referencing my career in the fashion industry -- decent reporting skills on her part, but the reality was that this agent actually knew nothing about me. Knowing all too well how I would ultimately be portrayed, regardless of my personality and priorities, I politely declined. The casting agent seemed disappointed and genuinely surprised by my dismissal; she immediately asked if I would be willing to refer her to some of my friends. I of course made zero introductions. They are my friends and even if they might have been receptive, tempted by the chance at five minutes of fame, I needed to spare them and our community the embarrassment.
When the Real Princesses of Long Island first aired I was horrified and angry. Angry at Andy Cohen, who dispels Mazals and seems to be proud of his faith, for perpetuating a despicable image of Jewish women, disappointed in the women and their parents who agreed to appear on the show, and slightly appalled at myself for watching. As I digested the first episode, I immediately remembered the casting opportunity I had turned town and was especially grateful to have done so. Princesses is simultaneously sexist and anti-Semitic.
The next morning I called Atlas Entertainment, who had initially approached me, to inquire. Was this the show they had contacted me about? The casting director I spoke to told me that they had been casting for a similar series a few years back, which was not nearly as salacious as this one and therefore didn't make it in the ratings. Their show also wasn't about a particular religious group. "Andy goes for the dramatic and the obscene so we'll see if this works for him," she said. And while it might be working for Cohen and Bravo, it certainly isn't working for me.
The stereotypes portrayed on Princesses are not even accurate. The show opens with the narrator stating "It was a typical week for us Jewish 20 something's living with our parents on Long Island." I grew up in a predominately Jewish community on the South Shore of Long Island and don't know a single young woman who lived at home with her parents after college without a job until she got married. Most of the ladies I know, pursued graduate degrees as lawyers, doctors, teachers, social workers, journalists, etc. Few rested on their laurels. The ladies I know hustled and achieved financial independence shortly after graduating from a slew of prestigious universities -- many of them putting themselves through college and graduate school on competitive scholarships and loans. To make this mass generalization that is asserted at the beginning of each episode, is to do a disservice to an entire geographical entity.
Furthermore, if these women were truly as coddled, wealthy, and overindulged as they pretend to be, why haven't their parents bankrolled luxury apartments for them in NYC? Living in the burbs, where most restaurants stop serving at 10:30 pm and movie theaters, diners, and parking lots are the big weekend draw, doesn't seem remotely appealing to those of us who strived to make it in the city and exhausted the suburban confines in high school.
Many argue that the show is no different from the stereotypes that abound on other "reality shows" and that may be true. But the danger in playing into the notion of a Jewish American Princess and asserting that these women reflect a portion of the NY population is the equivalent of other racist caricatures infiltrating popular culture and spreading racism and anti-Semitism. People living in cities like New York, Miami and LA might be amused by the characters because they know better, but for those individuals who have never been in contact with a Jew, this depiction is downright despicable. Comparisons to the vulgar representation of Italian-Americans on Jersey Shore are accurate, however most people in America have encountered an Italian who defied that stereotype on several occasions, while they may have never seen a single Jew.
Vulgar portrayals aside, the show also conveys inaccurate information and misinforms the viewer. On episode one, Erica Gimbel invites Chanel Omari who is kosher to her house. When Gimbel intelligently checks to make sure the meat her father is grilling is Kosher, her dad said they can just tell Omari it is and he mockingly says a blessing over the hot dogs and burgers. In order for meat to be Kosher it needs to be slaughtered in a particular way and under strict rabbinical supervision -- to claim that all is well and Omari doesn't have to know is to perpetuate a sense of dishonesty and disrespect. Most of my non-Jewish friends pay particular attention to my own dietary needs and always check with me to make sure that they have purchased and prepared things the proper way. For a Jewish family to act like they know what it's all about, and then essentially fraud their guest, is downright disgusting. Spreading that idea across the country is even worse. Perhaps the Gimbels did it for a laugh and meant no harm, but the fact that Bravo featured a sacrilegious scene can have detrimental effects.
The second episode included a botched Shabbat dinner, which if it was actually filmed on a Friday night, desecrated the Sabbath from the start. Driving, filming, talking on the phone and listening to music all violate Jewish law. As the yelling screaming, and Manischevitz chugging ensued, the true meaning of the occasion was lost on the attendees and the audience. And furthermore, the surface level jokes and clichéd references aren't even amusing -- "It's like shooting gefilte fish in a barrel," said Omari of meeting men in the Hamptons.
I am not judging the characters; I am merely questioning their judgment and ultimately Cohen's. My hope is that viewers are smart enough to recognize the salacious nature of the editing and purposeful exaggerations that make for compelling television.
Ratings these days seem more important than education, tolerance and respect. I fear the repercussions. I hope we have already seen the worst of it. But when I followed up with the production company to inquire, they informed me that Bravo is currently casting a show about rich Israelis in Beverly Hills. You can guess where that one is going...
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