Negotiating Jewish Female Identity in Artist Chloe Wise’s Bread Bags Series
By Sarah Kurzweil.
Growing up in an affluent New York City suburb with a large Jewish population, I heard the term Jewish American Princess make its way into conversations quite frequently. In the past few years—and especially in light of rising expressions of antisemitism in the United States—I have considered how stereotypes such as the Jewish American Princess shaped my understanding of my Jewish female identity from a young age. Recently, I noticed how strongly the Jewish American Princess stereotype has conditioned me to connect Jewish American women with materialism when I examined artist Chloe Wise’s Bread Bags series. For those already familiar with the Jewish American Princess, Wise at first seems to advance the linkage between Jewish women and materialism; however, a thorough analysis of Bread Bags offers the opportunity to deconstruct the Jewish American Princess stereotype.
In the Bread Bags series, through works including Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl and Bagel No. 5, Wise merges counterfeit designer hardware with structures resembling breads such as challah and bagels. With the addition of Prada and Chanel logos—regarded, however arbitrarily, as markers of value and status—fake breads suddenly become desirable consumer goods.1 In Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl and Bagel No. 5, mixing Jewishness and handbags does more than suggest Wise’s deeply engrained consciousness of the Jewish American Princess, a mindless consumer who exists only within the domestic realm. Wise conveys an awareness of the Jewish American Princess stereotype in works such as L’Après-Midi Avec La Grande Jap, but because she does not directly comment on the stereotype in Bread Bags, she subversively positions herself as a comedic social critic who supports herself financially.2
Described as a white, selfish, spoiled, sexually frigid girl who refuses to work, the Jewish American Princess depends on her father or husband to fund her relentless consumption; the Jewish men on whom she depends do not receive love or care in return. Obsessed with her appearance, the Jewish American Princess shops according to trends and labels and maintains particular grooming habits. Anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell has traced the stereotype’s origins to the post-World War II era, when American Jews enjoyed upward social mobility and Jewish men such as Philip Roth and Herman Wouk wrote fiction featuring Jewish female characters assimilating to dominant culture. The Jewish American Princess thus emerged at the intersection of antisemitism and Jewish men’s sexism. Scholars such as Michele Byers and Jennifer Caplan have explored the stereotype’s contemporary manifestations: Byers argues that today’s Jewish American Princess desires “an assimilation into American culture that she can never fully accomplish,” and Caplan critiques the way in which the stereotype “reduces ‘Jewish’ to something that refers only to Eastern European history, culture, archetypes and immigration patterns.”3 Considered together, these scholars expose the Jewish American Princess as a socially constructed perception of American Jewish women. This socially constructed nature permits Wise to forge her own subtly subversive depiction of the Jewish American Princess.
Wise’s most clear engagement with this stereotype surfaces when she explains that luxury bags “connoted status in the early 2000s—which was the bat mitzvah era of my life (very important for a coming-of-age Jewess!).” Although Wise does not directly comment on the Jewish American Princess stereotype, she criticizes gender norms that cast women as dependent on men for affluence. Designer logos contrast with the simplicity and cheapness of the ingredients needed to bake breads—a domestic task traditionally assigned to women. More figuratively, bread indicates money: to Wise, “Bread is a symbol for status and wealth (think ‘the breadwinner’ or the use of the term ‘dough’).” Wise’s combination of bread and designer logos consequently questions who society sees as the breadwinner and who society sees as not only the bread maker but also as the conspicuous consumer reliant on men.
Wise further attributes disparaging ideas of women as conspicuous consumers to brands’ marketing efforts. Wise identifies “a sinfulness to breakfast and dessert food that links to the fetishization of the female body in advertising and in real life. Any menu that has desserts on it is labelled ‘naughty’ or ‘decadent.’” To destabilize the gendered power of fashion houses such as Chanel, which use advertisements to lure women to a greater extent than men, Wise satirically fuses the refined aesthetics of luxury handbags with breads perceived as non-nutritious.
Through challah and bagel structures, Wise implicates Jewish women in her commentary on gender and wealth but demonstrates that Jewish women can act on consumeristic tendencies without succumbing to antisemitism or sexism. Admittedly, Wise participates in consumerism, but because she exerts herself professionally, she inherently challenges the Jewish American Princess stereotype. In the satirical advertisements Wise launched for the Bread Bags, she labels a model wearing Ain’t No Challah Back(pack) Girl as “effortlessly sexual,” breaking from historical descriptions of the Jewish American Princess as sexually rigid. Moreover, Wise actively calls attention to Judaism rather than turning to consumerism to disguise her female Jewish identity—the height of which Byers observes in her subjects who get nose jobs to remove a stereotypical Jewish marker.
Despite the obvious presentation of challah and bagels, because Wise alludes to but does not actually reference the Jewish American Princess in this series, and because some Bread Bags sculptures do not relate to Jewish foods, Wise also faults non-Jews for pursuing material excess. One-third of the bags in the satirical series feature food associated with Jewishness, but pancakes, baguettes and waffles serve as vehicles for interrogating consumerism as well. By finding a balance between proudly displaying Jewishness and refusing to single out Jewish women, Wise successfully critiques rather than enforces the Jewish American Princess stereotype.
Unwilling to interpret Jewish women as inherently flawed by materialism, Wise shows that the contemporary Jewish American Princess continues to be sustained by larger forces of capitalism that seduce consumers with excess and commodify bodies—especially female bodies. Through Wise’s lens, Jewish female identity extends far beyond superficiality, as she affirms her own commitment to her career and to astute social critique. Even when Jewish American women do choose to indulge in material goods, Wise cautions against jumping to unjustly narrow conclusions about their identity—a lesson applicable to a variety of other antisemitic stereotypes as well.
Wise encourages me to question the connotations that have been at play throughout previous experiences in which I have heard or said the term Jewish American Princess to describe people and places. Although I do not think that in the twenty-first century the Jewish American Princess is always used in an intentionally sexist or antisemitic manner—as confirmed by Bread Bags—analyzing Wise’s work has led me to recognize the difficulty of freeing the stereotype from its troublesome past. When used without any awareness of its historic meanings, the term can easily abandon its subversive potential to once again become a tool that limits Jewish femininity to wealth, whiteness and materialism and turns Jewish women into capitalism’s villains.
Sarah Kurzweil is in her final year of studies at Georgetown University, where she is earning bachelor’s degrees in art history and French. Next year, she plans to continue her art history research at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London and hopes to pursue a career that merges her interests in writing and art.
- Wise amassed a considerable amount of attention on Instagram and in popular culture magazines after a photo of actor and model Bobbi Salvör Menuez satirically wearing Bagel No. 5 at a Chanel party circulated the internet in 2015. Bread Bags has since been exhibited for the public and purchased as art at galleries such as Galerie Division. Over the years, Wise has continued to explore themes of consumerism, gender, food and self-care and has participated in multiple solo exhibitions at Almine Rech Gallery. In 2020, she achieved her first museum exhibition, held at the HEART Herning Museum of Contemporary Art in Denmark.
- In L’Apres Midi Avec La Grande Jap—wherein Jap abbreviates the Jewish American Princess—Wise references French painter Georges Seurat’s Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte. Humorously comparing her painting to Seurat’s, Wise explains, “It’s just a picnic painting among picnic paintings. This one features must-haves for a Jappy picnic.”
- Michele Byers, “The Pariah Princess: Agency, Representation, and Neoliberal Jewish Girlhood,” Girlhood Studies 2, no. 2 (December 1, 2009): 33, https://doi.org/10.3167/ghs.2009.020204; Jennifer Caplan, “Rachel Bloom’s Gaping MAAW: Jewish Women, Stereotypes, and the Boundary Bending of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 19, no. 1 (January 2, 2020): 94, https://doi.org/10.1080/14725886.2019.1703629.