Yesterday was National Penguin Awareness Day. I completely missed it—but, in fairness, it wasn’t printed on any of my calendars. Nor did it occur to me that penguins were a species in particular need of additional awareness.
Still, I want to do my part to commemorate this holiday. Here’s a blast from the past: In 1992, the New York Times published a lengthy op-ed written by two college students titled “Batman and the Jewish Question.”
The authors argued that the villainous Penguin, as portrayed in the film Batman Returns, “is a Jew, down to his hooked nose, pale face and lust for herring…he is one of the oldest clichés: the Jew who is bitter, bent over and out for revenge.”
They further argued:
[Film] composer Danny Elfman’s use of leitmotifs, altered chords and chromatic progressions make indisputable the influence of Richard Wagner…The Penguin sails the sewers in a giant rubber duck, a parody of the Schwan der Shelde from Wagner’s Lohengrin Though Wagner was, of course, an anti-semite, the music—dark, passionate and mysterious—is not in itself anti-semitic. But in the context of this movie, with its Jew-Monster, Hitler’s appropriation of Wagner’s operas and the composer’s own politics re-emerge.
After I first read this article, I thought carefully about it. Then I thought about it some more. And then, I had a revelation: The villain has a hooked nose and eats herring because…. he’s a fucking penguin.
Look, I’m generally a fan of media studies, which reveal the fascinating political and racial undertones of film and television. But this is a classic case of academics trying a little too hard.
Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had a similar reaction. He wrote this letter to the New York Times:
We are bewildered that you gave a major portion of the July 2 Op-Ed page to “Batman and the Jewish Question,” a bizarre and ludicrous pseudo-analysis of the allegedly anti-Semitic implications of the blockbuster movie “Batman Returns” — produced by the lurid and overheated imaginations of two college students. One suspects that what began as a satire for the campus newspaper took itself too seriously somewhere along the way. Students are often earnest, but unaware of their own limitations. Yet for you to publish it is (or ought to be) an embarrassment.
It should be left to the movie’s creators, if they so desire, to rebut the article’s many fatuous and overreaching analyses. The point is that examples of real anti-Semitism are all too plentiful—rap and rock artists and other cultural figures with sizable followings among our youth scapegoat Jews in their music and public statements; a former neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan leader is nearly elected as a state governor; a member of Congress, fighting a tough primary battle, lists the Jewish-sounding names of contributors to his opponent’s campaign to the loud applause of his own supporters; reports of anti-Semitic assault and vandalism increase for years running, and an anti-Semitic killing takes place in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
We must not squander the precious currency of concern, as well as our limited resources, on nonsense like the authors’ convoluted misperceptions of biblical imagery or Wagnerian chords in the film score. One hopes the students will learn to recognize the difference.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a penguin is just a penguin.