WHAT IS JEW-CODING?
Jew-coding is when characters in literature, movies, television, and other media are not explicitly stated as Jewish but possess enough “stereotypically (often negative) Jewish” characteristics to be subconsciously read as Jewish.
Common Jew-coding tropes reflect antisemitic stereotypes. For instance, characters can be depicted as rich, spoiled, loud, whiny, cheap and stingy, manipulative, or have “physical” Jewish stereotypical characteristics such as large noses. More often than not, Jew-coded characters don’t possess just one stereotypically Jewish characteristic, but rather, a combination of many Jewish stereotypes, leading to the impression that the character must be Jewish.
A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES
As mentioned earlier, a perfect example of Jew-coding is Rachel from Friends, who perfectly encompasses the “Jewish American Princess” stereotype. Though never stated as Jewish in the show, she is (at least initially) incredibly spoiled, materialistic, from Long Island, has a huge nose (then gets a nose job to boot), calls her grandmother “Bubbe,” is obsessed with dating doctors, has full access to her Daddy’s credit cards, is engaged to a wealthy (also Jew-coded) orthodontist, and has a very, very Jewish-sounding name. Unsurprisingly, she is not played by a Jewish actor (neither is Monica, who *is* explicitly stated as Jewish).
Another, much more sinister example? The goblins in Harry Potter. Said goblins are “good with money,” control the wizarding banking world, are incredibly intelligent “humanoids,” are ugly, and have huge hooked noses. Whether they were intentionally written as Jewish or not, their depiction is suspiciously stereotypically antisemitic. Some argue that they are based off of European folklore, which isn’t a much better argument, since European folklore is heavily Jew-coded and antisemitic.
One of the main issues with Jew-coding is that it tends to highlight negative Jewish stereotypes while downplaying Jewish culture and identity. Jewish characters in media are almost always depicted as secular Americans, Ashkenazi, and only Jewish enough that they remain palatable to the non-Jewish world. For example, we rarely see well-rounded and realistic Orthodox Jewish characters. Jewish characters (explicitly stated or Jew-coded) do not accurately reflect the diversity and complexities of the Jewish community. Nor are they usually depicted as anything other than “white.”
One obvious example? The characters in Seinfeld. Only Seinfeld himself is explicitly stated as Jewish, but Elaine, for instance, is depicted as neurotic enough that she can easily be read as Jewish. Even Seinfeld is whitewashed. In real life, Seinfeld is a Syrian Jew, but on television, he is not depicted as such.
IS JEW-CODING INHERENTLY “BAD”?
Not necessarily. Jews, like all other people, are multifaceted individuals with both positive or negative characteristics (and, of course, each Jewish individual is…well, an individual. Jews are not homogenous or all “the same”). The main issue with most Jew-coding is that it highlights the same antisemitic stereotypes and tropes while downplaying or whitewashing legitimate Jewishness. Often times, these characters are not played by Jews, which means that the actors are performing stereotypical Jewishness while not being Jewish themselves. Sometimes, the characters even wear prosthetics to look “stereotypically Jewish” (e.g. Jennifer Aniston wearing a prosthetic nose on Friends or Helen Mirren using prosthetics — including on her nose — to look like Golda Meir).
Of course, it’s certainly worth mentioning that many of these Jew-coded characters were created by Jews (including Rachel from Friends and the characters on Seinfeld). At the same time, it’s important to remember that these producers and writers are working in an environment where Jewishness is accepted so long as it is palatable to a non-Jewish audience. For more on this, I recommend my post THE (REAL) HISTORY OF JEWS IN HOLLYWOOD.
SO WHAT DO WE DO?
Whether you choose to engage in media that uses Jew-coding comes down to personal preference. Personally, I don’t think it’s necessarily “bad” to enjoy old movies, television shows, and more so long as we are aware of these insidious tropes and stereotypes. I do think it’s important to talk to our children about these issues in age-appropriate ways.
Moving forward in this day and age, however, I think it’s important to demand that Hollywood do better. With so many Jewish actors of diverse backgrounds, it’s frustrating that non-Jews continue to play “stereotypically Jewish” characters (e.g. Rachel Brosnahan playing Midge Maisel in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), even going so far as wearing “Jew-face” by using prosthetics (e.g. Helen Mirren as Golda Meir).
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