“Barbie of Swan Lake” is more problematic than you may think
By Alex Diaz
Starting in 2001, the franchise, Barbie, released its first ever movie, Barbie in the Nutcracker. Its initial success led to many more movies being released starring the main character of Barbie in different adventures in different worlds. Many children grew to idolize this popular franchise, and to many, it still holds much sentimental value. However, despite the movies being aimed and marketed for children, many early Barbie movies contain anti-Semitic material within them.
Barbie of Swan Lake (2003) follows the main protagonist, Odette, as she learns of an enchanted forest and builds up her own confidence to take down the main antagonists. The movie is based off of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake (1875-1876). Barbie of Swan Lake teaches children about bravery while also holding a fairy tale-like feel to it. However, this movie contains heavy amounts of Jewish stereotypes with its villains, Rothbart and Odile.
To start, Rothbart is a name of Ashkenazi Jewish origin. This in itself would not be problematic had Mattel not included many harmful Jewish stereotypes associated with Rothbart within its movie. However, this was not the case. We see that Rothbart and his daughter, Odile, are coded to be Jewish. With the addition of many Jewish stereotypes, the main villains are extremely problematic and harmful as these stereotypes add to anti-Semitism in modern media.
Later on, between the timestamps 15:30-16:13, the viewers learn of Rothbart’s villain origin story. We learn that, after not being given a position of power, Rothbart turns to dark magic and begins to lash out in a rage. His story is laced in heavy references to anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as protraying him as greedy and power hungry. These were common traits used to portray Jewish people, especially prevalent during the time of Nazi Germany.
Additionally, the creators show Rothbart and Odile performing dark magic on the children of the forest. This resembles the accusation known as blood libel. Blood libel refers to the false allegations that the Jewish population killed Christian children and used their blood for ritualistic purposes. In the movie, we see that Rothbart used dark magic to turn children into woodland animals to turn into servants for himself and his daughter. By showing that Rothbart not only performs dark magic, but also uses it on children, Mattel has fallen into another stereotype that was used to dehumanize the Jewish population.
A couple minutes later at 18:34, Rothbart and Odile first appear. Using their dark magic, they are able to shapeshift in and out of their human forms and take the appearance of a vulture-like bird. One of the most notable features of Rothbart is his cartoonishly large nose. One of the main ways anti-Semitic propaganda portrayed Jews was as birds, used in order to dehumanize Jewish ethinic features and further ostrasize the group. Towards the end of the movie, Odile is meant to represent the evil version of Odette and is known as the Black Swan. Odile is meant to turn into a more desirable appearance to trick the love interest into falling for her. By coding Rothbart and Odile as Jewish while also depicting them as birds that perform dark magic showcases the heavy amounts of anti-Semitism prevalent in the movie.
Mattel also gives its protagonists blonde hair and blue eyes. While this is common among all of its movies starring Barbie, it’s extremely harmful in the context of this movie. Mattel gives its protagonists blonde hair and blue eyes which are used as a visual representation of purity and compassion. On the other hand, Mattel gives Rothbart and Odile predominantly Jewish ethnic features, and are meant to represent greediness and villainy. This is extremely harmful, especially when presented to the intended audience of children. It can instill the idea in children that those with Jewish ethnic features are “villains.”
Using Jewish ethnic features and stereotypes as a representation for villanily is not exclusive to just Mattel. This behavior is also found in many more companies targeted for child audiences such as Disney. Repeating this trope over and over, not only furthers the use of anti-Smeitism in the Barbie franchise, but also in mainstream entertainment for children, can ingrain anti-Semitic attidues into children.
Mattel isn’t completely to blame for this however. The original source material, Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky contained many of the aforementioned stereotypes against Jewish people. At the time, it was unfortunately common tosee segregation and hatred towards Jewish people. In fact, Tchaikovsky himself was known to be anti-Semitic. It was an unfortunate truth that many people of the time harbored resentment towards the Jewish population.
“Tchaikovsky was a man of the 19th century, when the intelligentsia in Russia and other European countries was anti-Semitic almost by reflex,” said Hershey Felder, a descendant of a survior of Auschwitz.
Unfortunately, many classical pieces of literature come from anti-Semitic views. In fact, Barbie of Swan Lake is not the only movie in the franchise that has Jew coded villains. Barbie as Rapunzel (2002) and Barbie as the Princess and the Pauper (2004) also comes from anti-Semitic source material and has villains that perpetuate harmful stereotypes against Jewish people. Mattel is far from the only company to have villains that depict anti-Semtic tropes. Disney, the Grimm Brothers, as well as many more classic fairy tales often stem from anti-Semitism.
While it isn’t entirely Mattel’s fault for this, it is their job to research their sources to make sure it doesn’t spread harmful ideas to children. Recognizing anti-Semitic stereotypes given to villains is the first way to stop the cycle of anti-Semitism in modern media.
It’s alright to enjoy these movies and fairy tales, however it’s important to recognize the harm that it can spread. Anti-Semitism is deeply ingrained in our society with 11% of American adults still holding anti-Semitic views. Every one of us needs to be conscious of the media we consume and how it can spread harmful stereotypes, so that eventually, mainstream media will no longer spread hate.
Featured Image (At the top of this page): Barbie of Swan Lake’s protagonist, Odette, shown dancing. (PHOTO CREDIT: Barbie of Swan Lake)