THE PENGUIN: COMIC VILLAIN, OR ANTI-SEMITIC CARICATURE?

Many ask whether The Gentleman of crime has a sinister side.

By Mandy Wan: Literature Columnist


Oswald Cobblepot, better known as The Penguin, made his first appearance as the kingpin of Gotham in Detective Comics #58 (1941) and has since ascended to become one of the most legendary supervillains to ever grace our printed pages.

Like others in Batman’s infamous rogues gallery, the Penguin has also waddled his way onto the silver screen – most notably portrayed by Danny DeVito in ‘Batman Returns’ (1992). This production likewise saw the reveal of Michelle Pfeiffer’s iconic portrayal of Catwoman and exposed the world to the dark side of Gotham.

The premise of the film is that after a failed electoral campaign to be the mayor of Gotham City, Penguin formulates a plan to kill Gotham’s firstborn sons as revenge for his parents’ mistreatment of him as a child. The criminal mastermind is assisted by Max Shreck, a dishonest millionaire who aims to take control over Gotham. As always, it is up to Batman to stop these two from wreaking havoc upon the city. At the same time, the masked crusader meets Catwoman who harbours a personal vendetta against Shreck. 

Buried within the worldwide critical acclaim for the film was an article published by Columbia College seniors, Rebecca Roiphe and Daniel Cooper one month after release. The two critics accused the Penguin of being an antisemitic caricature and underlined the apparent numerous religious connotations of the tale. 

Firstly, the authors claimed that the primary antagonist was “a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face and lust for herring”. Indeed, for many centuries, Jews have been physically depicted as having large hooknoses with dark beady eyes. In particular, the infamous Jewish nose stereotype can be traced back to the 13th century and was later exaggerated by Nazi propaganda during the Second World War.

It must be noted that despite the pseudoscience of the 19th and 20th century that suggest otherwise, an elongated nose is not a characteristic specific to the Jewish. In particular, Harry Sharpio, one of the founders of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, stated that the “Jewish nose” is frequent amongst those from the Eastern Mediterranean (as quoted in The Myth of the Jewish Race by Raphael Patai and Jennifer Patai). Likewise, it can be seen in non-Jewish Europeans as well.



Roiphe and Cooper also alluded to the supposed significance of the naming of Penguin’s accomplice – specifically, it being a “Jewish-sounding name”. The fictional tycoon was named after the actor who brought Count Orlok to life in Nosferatu (1922) per an inside joke between the screenwriters. As ‘Batman Returns’ also takes place during Christmas, the film as a whole was thought to be a metaphor for the age-old Christian/Jewish conflict in which a pair of power-hungry Jews threaten the holiness of the sacred holiday for self-gain. 

Wesley Strick, one of the screenwriters for the film that finalised its premise, responded to the controversial article with dismay. Being a proud Jewish man himself, Strick dismissed the possibility of hateful messages being intentionally portrayed in his work. Regarding the naming of Max Shreck, he also suggests that by altering the pronunciation of ‘Batman’, it can appear to be a “Jewish sounding name” as well. Likewise, he confessed to not being aware of how DeVito’s rendition of Penguin would look before completing the script which rules out any deliberate endorsement of the aforementioned caricatures.



Ultimately, Strick likens the claims to the concept of the Rorschach test where subjects make inferences about what the combined shape of random inkblots resembles. In the case at hand, he claims Roiphe and Cooper appear to recognise antisemitic images where none actually exist.

It may very well just be a series of unfortunate coincidences in terms of character design and plot planning. For the future of the Penguin, we can only wait and see if Colin Farrell’s portrayal of the age-old supervillain in the upcoming Batman movie will be met with another wave of religious controversy. 


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Mackayan: comic villain or anti semitic caracature.