Antisemitism in Children’s Media

Collage by Chiara Sitchin

Collage by Chiara Sitchin

I ask you to think: what does a cartoon villain look like? When in the realm of children’s TV, popular cartoons feature villains which look quite similar, and rest assured, this is not a coincidence. Phineas and Ferb’s Dr. Doofenshmirtz, Tangled’s Mother Gothel, the Smurfs‘ Gargamel, Peter Pan’s Captain Hook, and many more tend to share several features in common: they have dark hair and hooked noses and tend to be greedy and care about little more than their own personal gain, monetary or otherwise. Children’s TV programs have conditioned us to interpret these characteristics as evil and undesirable, so much so that any character with these looks is immediately imagined as a villain to the modern audience. What has been too quickly forgotten by our society, however, is that not too long ago these features were used in discriminatory caricatures of Jews, which aided in the creation of one of the darkest times in human history.

Stereotypes and caricatures of Jews have been around for a long, long time. Some of the earliest examples of antisemetic propaganda can be linked to 12th-century literature, where Jewish culture was often tied to satanism due to tropes of Blood Libel. The most impactful time for this time of prejudice, however, was unsurprisingly World War II. Antisemetic propaganda often features exaggerations of Askenazi features, with offensive caricatures including large noses, beady eyes, and curly hair. Moreover, propaganda often portrayed Jews to be greedy, dishonest, and sneaky or shady. This was often used as a tactic of brainwashing in nazi youth programs, and even in movies and outdoor signage. 

Antisemitism did not start, nor did it end, with the events of the Shoah (Hebrew word for “catastrophe”, often used to refer to the Holocaust). Nazi Germany created a belief system that led to the death of 6 million Jews, and that sort of hatred doesn’t appear out of the blue. Some of the first reported events of hatred towards Jews can be dated back to the third century B.C.E. with the ADL reporting over 17,000 tweets using variations of the phrase “Hitler was right” posted between May 7 and May 14 2021. In fact, the ADL recorded 251 antisemetic incidents (such as assault, vandalism, and harassment) across the USA from May 11th to the 31st, demonstrating an increase of 115% from the same time period in 2020.

Though the roots of antisemitism are extremely complex and deeply rooted in several aspects of society, television, and media. It is hard to pinpoint why exactly one may harness a hatred for jews, one thing is clear: almost every child grows up seeing villains portrayed as Jewish stereotypes. Though the examples of this unfortunate happening are countless, for the purpose of this article the focus will be on only a handful of characters that are familiar to most Graded students and faculty members.

Possibly the most startling Jewish-coded villain is Mother Gothel, of Disney’s Rapunzel retelling – Tangled. Though Disney has a long history of coded antisemtism, dating back to the company’s first animated movie (1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), Gothel’s case is definitely the most impactful. As seen in the Illustrated Archives, this villain was originally drawn as an elegant caucasian looking woman, only to be edited to look like a stereotypical Ashkenazi Jew, presumably as a means to appear more “evil”. Gothel is animated with a hooked nose, and coarse, black curly hair – all aspects commonly seen in antisemetic caricatures. Though these features on a villain alone are shocking enough, what is most terrifying about Gothel’s portrayal is the obvious use of Blood Libel tropes. This can be described as a false belief that Jews kidnap and murder young Christian children in order to perform religious rituals (often associated with Manischewitz wine and matzah). Sound familiar? That’s because it is thinly veiled in Gothel’s portrayal. In Tangled, the main character Rapunzel is portrayed as a young innocent white girl, who is kidnapped by the Jewish villain, who uses Rapunzel’s magical essence to make herself appear younger. What is the laziest attempt at villainizing Jews in this character, and possibly the most hurtful however, is that Gothel is a common jewish surname. 

Another children’s TV character that can clearly be seen as an example antisemtic attitudes is Rothbart, from Barbie’s Swan Lake. The movie is heavily influenced by the ballet of the same name, and somehow this version only intensified Tchaikovsky’s own prejudice. Rothbart and his daughter Odile are the movie’s villains, and they both have clear stereotypical Jewish features, including large, hooked noses and dark hair. One may dismiss this aspect as simply a coincidence, but similarly to Disney’s Gothel, Rothbart is another name of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. Rothbart’s villain origin story shows him being denied a position of power, which leads him to turn to dark magic. The use of this brand of magic itself is yet another antisemetic trope, referring to a misinterpretation of Kabbalah. Moreover, the rage Rothbart feels ties into the centuries-old stereotype that Jews are greedy and power-hungry. Similar to Gothel’s case, Barbie’s Swan Lake also utilizes examples of Blood Libel. Throughout the story, Rothbart and Odile use dark magic to transform young children into forest animals, an idea that relates to this trope’s concept of utilizing innocent Christian kids for personal gain. 

Furthermore, yet another use of coded antisemitism in children’s media can be found in the works of the queen of controversy herself, J.K. Rowling. The author has been under fire on multiple occasions for her portrayals of banker goblins in the wizarding world, who fall into several antisemetic tropes. This particular case is quite interesting as Rowling has often opposed the idea that she is antisemetic, refuting this with claims of ignorance. In fact, Rowling states that she originally came up with the idea of villains whose main goal is blood purity, only to coincidentally find out this is basic Nazi ideology, saying that: “I saw one in the Holocaust Museum in Washington when I had already devised the ‘pure-blood’, ‘half-blood’ and ‘muggle-born’ definitions and was chilled to see that the Nazis used precisely the same warped logic as the Death Eaters.” Regardless, Rowling’s goblins being short, conventionally unattractive, greedy, untrustworthy, stinky, dirty, and having big noses in combination with the way wizards treat them as subhuman is incredibly problematic. Though this antisemitism was possibly not intentional on Rowling’s part, it serves as an example of how deeply permeated these stereotypes are in the media. According to Yale professor Dan Kahan: “Rowling […] borrowed and pastiched from all sorts of fantasy and folklore while writing Harry Potter, so it’s likely that a lot of the goblins’ more [antisemitic] features are actually related to older fantasy fare surrounding bankers. It just so happens that those were probably inspired by anti-Jewish propaganda.” 

Overall, antisemitism is evidently ingrained into the media many young people have consumed throughout their childhood. Though prejudice always has several roots, it’s imperative to point out that most of Generation Z grew up seeing Jewish-coded villains on TV, undoubtedly causing them to associate Jewish features and names with wickedness. Representation is incredibly important in children’s media, and it is important that different cultures are depicted in a just manner. Fear breeds hatred, and it is something that all storytellers must keep in mind, especially when catering to young people. Moreover, for production companies so large and influential, ignorance cannot be an excuse. Information is always available as is the opportunity to change. The comfort of youth leads to a standstill on the prevention of hate such as antisemitism. It is with a reach outside one’s comfort zone, and an analysis of what “normal” things are actually problematic that real representation occurs. 


Wikipedia – Antisemitism, Wikipedia – Stereotypes, Wikipedia – Blood Libel, Eagle Era, ADL, Louis D. Brandeis Center, Tumblr, Summit News, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Hey Alma, The Scotsman, The Illustrated Archives, Pop Dust, U.S. Holocaust Museum