The Case for More Jewish Villains

Real representation means Jewish characters of all kinds, including, yes, some straight-up evil ones.

“Miranda Priestly was born Miriam Princhek, in London’s East End. Hers was like all other orthodox Jewish families in the town, stunningly poor but devout.”

When the bright-eyed Jewish narrator of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada first Googles her boss-to-be, she discovers she’s a “Jewish peasant turned secular socialite” who “rose quickly, ruthlessly, through the ranks of the magazine world.” As anyone familiar with this story already knows, Miranda Priestly — portrayed in the film adaptation of the book by Meryl Streep — has nothing “peasant”-like about her.

A brutal and commanding force of fashion, Priestly is a character so memorable I can hear her after reading only the dismissive line, “That’s all.” She’s undoubtedly the story’s antagonist, but still, awkward tween-aged me would have loved to have something in common with anyone that put-together and powerful.

So how could I not know she was Jewish?!

It’s an easy answer: I never read the book. And in the movie, this never gets a nod.

I’ve been thinking about Miranda Priestly while ruminating on my new fashionable antagonistic fave: The Handler, the whip-smart red stiletto-wearing villain of Netflix’s Umbrella Academy She works for a secret commission that maintains the world’s timeline — and punctuates her snark with casual Yiddish — and that’s where the issues appear. Because while some find the Yiddish quirks indicating “maybe Jewish?” delightful, to others, combined with her job, they scream anti-Semitism.

I get the argument. But to be honest, just as I was pretty miffed to learn Miranda Priestly could have been Jewish in the movie, when Umbrella Academy’s showrunner Steve Black gave a statement on the controversy — which never explicitly denied the character’s Jewishness, but didn’t confirm it either — I was more than a little disappointed.

Since then, I’ve been wondering: Which of these is actually Bad For The Jews?

Putting the word “chutzpah” in the dialogue of a bold, badass woman — or removing all hint of Jewishness from the two Jewish main characters of a Jewish author’s story?

I know my answer. I want ALL the Jewish characters — and some of them should be villains. If they aren’t, it’s not really representation at all.

In recent years, more and more Jewish characters have appeared in mainstream pop culture — but few of them are antagonists, much less straight-up evil. You can find stereotypes of Jewishness in bad guys — JK Rowlings’ bank goblins, for example — but actually Jewish villains? That’s fairly rare. There’s Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (which, don’t get me wrong, is super anti-Semitic) and a few minor movie mobsters, but the options beyond that are fairly slim. Sure, characters like Harley Quinn and Dr. Manhattan may occasionally mention their one Jewish parent, but we don’t really have any heavy-hitters.

That is, except for one.

Magneto: IGN’s top comic book villain of all time.

A supervillain in the X-Men franchise, Magneto is a magnetic-field manipulating mutant with a Holocaust survival backstory. Fans of the character praise his sympathetic, even understandable motive: Having witnessed the depth of humanity’s cruelty towards minorities, Magneto aims to rule over them, ensuring protection for mutant-kind. What makes him a villain and not an anti-hero is that he takes it all too far. No matter what his reasons, he does horrible things in his quest for control.

Control is what motivates most villains, when you break it down. Whether it’s for revenge or respect, and whether through political, physical, or financial power, in the end, everyone wants to gain or maintain control.

The major criticism I see over potentially Jewish antagonists is the concern they reinforce existing anti-Semitic misbeliefs, attributing fictional evils to real Judaism. The problem is we are a people surrounded by conspiracy theories, most of which are also about gaining/maintaining control. We supposedly hoard money, control the media, and manipulate politics — and those are just the big ones.

If a Jewish villain can never intersect with these ideas, the possibilities are severely limited. Complete caricatures are offensive and of course ought be avoided. (While I didn’t agree with all of Arielle Kaplan’s assessment of the Harley Quinn series, the hook-nosed Penguin being made uncle to a bar mitzvah boy with a money-themed party did floor me in its blatant Not Okay-ness.) But to only make someone Jewish if their motivations couldn’t possibly link to a conspiracy? It’s a near impossible ask — not because writers aren’t creative enough, but because of how many kooky ideas are out there.

I can’t say for sure why Miranda Priestly was scrubbed of her Jewishness in the film. I have my suspicions, with all the potential think-pieces that come to mind: “The JAP Wears Prada: Streep Nothing but Stereotype;” “A Jewish Magazine Mogul? Prada in Bad Taste.” But if we put no stock in these harmful ideas and clichés — which we shouldn’t — there’s no reason she or The Handler being Jewish would be inherently anti-Semitic. We’re talking about fiction, both character and conspiracy. One fake thing simply cannot prove another.

If fiction is set in our world, diversity should exist — but stories have antagonists. It doesn’t make sense we’d never be among them. As suspect as I find a world of all cis-het Christian white dudes, it is problematic for any identity to always end up on the “good” side — or, like Magneto, be righteously motivated by identity-specific persecution. Having only virtuous Jewish characters reinforces the real-world “Perfect Victim” concept, where only law-abiding and even-tempered minorities get public support when wronged. And having Jewish villains motivated by a just cause, if overdone, diminishes atrocity into plot device. Either could look like a cover-up, suggesting conspiracy despite itself.

And — forgive me — I guess I just want some pure, delicious, non-ambiguous evil.

Towards the end of the movie of The Devil Wears Prada, Priestly is asked, “What if I don’t want to live the way you live?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she says. “Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.”

I want a badass bitch to be on Halloween without ever needing to take off my Hebrew necklace.

I want cosplayers to stay up late before conventions, practicing their Yiddish.

I want to point to The Handler, like I wish I could point to Miranda Priestly, and proudly declare her as definitely one of ours.

I want Jewish characters along every point of the morality spectrum: good, evil, and anywhere in between.

Header image design by Emily Burack. Screencaps via Devil Wears Prada, Umbrella Academy, and Marvel. Background via Getty Images.

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