I recently watched all of Rings of Power on Amazon and also watched The School for Good and Evil on Netflix and something stood out to me about both. Specifically, the Jewish representation in them. Sort of.
Please note that this blog post will have spoilers for both Rings of Power and for School for Good and Evil.
Now you might be thinking, “But Evelyn! There were no Jews in either of those – or any mention of religion from our world at all!”
Yes, you’re right. But in fantasy, a character doesn’t have to be Jewish to be Jewish, if you catch my meaning. Judaism isn’t only a religion, it’s a culture and an ethnicity for many people. I’ve discussed this previously in my other blog posts, but basically there is a way to code characters and cultures/ethnicities in fiction to model them after real world equivalents. Both Rings of Power and The School for Good and Evil do this. However, I think only Rings of Power is aware of it, and it shows in the execution.
I’m actually really in love with the way Rings of Power portrays their “Jews”. Namely, the dwarves. Now, before I get into why I love it, I have to get into a little history of the creation of dwarves. The dwarves of the universe of Tolkien are meant to be based off of two groups mixed together. The original mythology of dwarves comes from Norse mythology where they are mountain spirits and expert crafters. I’ve talked about colonialism before in Lord of the Rings and problematic issues, and the dwarves can touch on that too, as Tolkien did very much blend Jewish stereotypes and archetypes of fiction with the original Norse mythologies to create his own brand of fantasy creature that has now become the definitive representation of dwarves across all modern fantasy. The problematic aspect is the greed of the dwarves, but other than that… I actually really like Tolkien’s creation of the dwarves, which might surprise some people considering, yes, they do fall into the greedy Jewish trope.
See, Tolkien dwarves are blended with NORSE mythology and written at the time of the rise of Nazi Germany. The Hobbit, which is the Tolkien work most focused on dwarves, was published in 1937, during the Holocaust. Nazis loved the stereotypical Nordic look of blond and blue-eyed Caucasians, labeling them Aryans and literal perfection of humanity with the goal of eradicating anyone who wasn’t ethnically that. Just imagine how absolutely furious they would be to read a book that took Norse mythology and blended it with a Jewish aesthetic. I literally cackle at the thought of Nazis throwing a bigoted hissy fit over the realization. See, while Tolkien had problematic elements in his fiction and incorporated his own internalized biases into his work, he was genuinely progressive for the time and intended to do good. I do believe, based on quotes from the writer himself, that he wrote the dwarves the way he did to stick it to Nazis. And the Rings of Power series has taken it a step in a brilliant direction, following in the spirit of Tolkien’s intention to un-demonize a stigmatized group of people.
The biggest problem with the characterization of dwarves in Tolkien’s works is greed being their downfall. They’re described as hoarding gold which attracts a monstrous dragon that destroys their society, or they’re described as their greed being so great that they can’t stop digging for more which unleashes a balrog from the fiery depths and destroys their society. The first is represented in The Hobbit, both the book and film adaptation, and the second seems to be playing out in Amazon’s Rings of Power.
And it is written so, so perfectly to counter the greedy Jew stereotype. What they do is present that the dwarves wanted to dig further not out of greed, but out of self-sacrifice and friendship. The mithril that they intend to mine is desperately needed to save the lives of elves across all of Middle Earth, and Prince Durin of the dwarves is willing to do whatever he can to help his friend, an elf. This is not in the original text, and this addition is only a good thing. It’s what I wish other writers who’ve had material based off of negative stereotypes would do, to take a step back and think about how to improve their characters and world to step away from those harmful stereotypes. Not only does it reduce harm to real people, but it enriches the story.
Now, I do find the prosthetic noses to still be a little ridiculous on Tolkien dwarves. It’s established as the aesthetic, I know, but still. At least Rings of Power takes that stereotypical Jewish trait and gives it to generally noble characters. This is really great considering the long history of villains being associated with hooked and large noses. Heck, even the traditional witch archetype from way, way back beyond the Middle Ages is just an exaggerated Jewish stereotype to make sure that good Christian children see “evil” when they encounter one of those Jewish outsiders their society hated so much. Rings of Power takes that traditionally evil look and gifts it to characters striving to help their neighbors and uphold honor, which means a lot to me.
The same cannot be said for The School for Good and Evil on Netflix. I’m honestly just so upset with this one that it’s the reason I sat down to write this post.
In this new Netflix movie, one of the characters named Sophie accepts the evil gift of blood magic from the main antagonist and immediately begins to transform into a witch. Well, she begins to grow a large nose. They literally just put this actress into a prosthetic nose, slapped a single wart on her face, and called it evil. And in the transition she just looked… well, like a girl I might have seen walking down the hall at the Jewish school I went to for 1st-12th grade.
There are so many different ways to do an evil physical transition in fantasy. They even did one I like later in the movie, where the villain develops these glowing red cracks in his skin. But they decided that for Sophie, her transition to evil needed to include a scene where she has a prosthetic nose. I’m not even touching on the overt grotesque caricature she continues her transition into (wrinkled, hooked-nosed, traditional ‘hag’) because I honestly feel like this is so much worse. She just looks like a Jewish girl sitting next to me in math class who maybe didn’t get enough sleep last night. And that’s so damaging not just to the girls out there who have noses like that, but to the people around them who due to media will perpetuate conscious or unconscious biases against them.
It is also so insidious that she goes from beautiful blonde (dare I say, Germanic beauty?) to Jewish stereotype not just for being more ‘evil’, but for accepting specifically blood magic. Like, oh boy, how do I even begin to get into the history of Jews being wrongly accused of evil blood rituals and then brutally persecuted and murdered for it? To have a character start using blood magic and instantly turn into a Jewish-looking girl is such insanely bad writing drawing on centuries of harmful tropes that have caused actual bloodshed of real people. This isn’t about taking “offense” for the sake of being offended. This is about the potential for real, violent harm to come from the perpetuation of these stereotypes and tropes.
And, can we talk about noses being a common ethnic trait? Because, like, they are. Of course, not all Jews have prominent noses (and plenty of people who aren’t Jews have “Jewish” noses!). In fact, since I’m someone of Jewish heritage who doesn’t have a noteworthy nose, I don’t often feel comfortable broaching the subject since I’m afraid of not doing it justice. But many Jews (and others with Middle Eastern heritage) do indeed have this trait that is so often vilified and reviled as ugly. It’s not! Noses that aren’t petite, straight, and European looking aren’t inherently ugly. It’s just a trait. And deciding that it needs to be ugly is the same as saying that something like natural hair in people of African decent is inherently ugly. It’s not! It’s just a feature that exists in many people and both features have beauty in their own right.
I grew up around girls who looked like Sophie with her prosthetic nose and never saw it as ugly or evil because it was normal. There are gorgeous women (and others) out there who look like that and shouldn’t be told to feel ashamed of their faces by crap media like The School for Good and Evil. Netflix needs to do better.
If you can’t write a villain without relying on so-called ‘ugliness’, traditionally ethnic features, disability, or deformity to define them as villainous at first glance, then you shouldn’t be writing. Villainizing traits real people have villainizes real people who are just people. It would be one thing if both villains and heroes had these traits in the same piece of media, but that is very rarely the case. So writers, when you’re writing your next villain, just stop and think for five minutes about why they look the way they do and confront any accidental biases you have. Think beyond stereotypes and come up with original work. I promise, your writing will be better that way.
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