No One Told Me Hoggle Was Mishpacha in ‘Labyrinth’ (1986)

I’m aware that my first-time-watching “Labyrinth” reaction was supposed to be, “Wow, that David Bowie sure is sexy playing the human-esque king in a fantasy land of goblins.” That’s not NOT how I reacted — it just wasn’t my first reaction, which was strange, because I was so expecting that David Bowie would be the main thing I took away from this strange, silly, creative, somewhat groundbreaking movie. And — don’t get me wrong — he was great. I loved the music. I loved the merriment. No one can rock tights quite like that, or invent scene kid hair quite like that. 

But, like, can we talk about Hoggle for the hottest of seconds? 

For context, I watched this movie with two of my best friends: one of whom is a pious worshipper of “Labyrinth” and a lapsed Catholic, the other of whom is a Jew (like me) who had never seen it before (also like me). 

“But Sarah, why does it matter that you’re Jewish and your friend’s Catholic in the context of watching ‘Labyrinth’? That doesn’t make sense,” you’re saying to me through the computer screen.

My Jewish friend and I spent 90% of the movie riffing on Hoggle: on his big, hooked nose, his penchant for jewels and jewelry-trading, his stumpy little legs, his cowardly heart, and the yarmulke he seems to be wearing at all times. For all intents and purposes, Hoggle is mishpacha! Pretty much all cinematic goblins and dwarves are mishpacha, but Hoggle felt particularly like family.

If you’re wondering what the hell I’m talking about, that’s probably super normal! That, or you haven’t been paying close attention to all the nightmarish recent discourse surrounding J.K. Rowling and the inferior race of banking goblins with names like “Griphook” she created for her Harry Potter series. 

Rowling came under fire for her rampant transphobia, but fans also pointed out the antisemitic tropes she employed across seven books and one million movies, and several theme parks to embody the Gringotts goblins. Including goblins in your fantasy work doesn’t make you an antisemite, but it would be really difficult to deny that many of the negative traits stereotypically bestowed on real Jewish people are traits shared by fictional goblins. Rowling’s goblins even have a Star of David on the floor of their bank in the films. 

We can laugh about Hoggle because he’s ridiculous, and we can forgive the movie because it’s so entertaining, but I think it’s worth discussing the way “Labyrinth” teeters on the line of telling an explicit blood libel story with Jewish-coded goblin characters at the center of the conflict. 

Blood libel is an extremely old conspiracy theory — one of the oldest. It’s the belief that Jews kidnap and ritually sacrifice Christian children around Passover, stealing their blood to make matzo. Passover typically falls around the same time of the year as Easter, and people who believe in the blood libel typically get double-mad at us for allegedly eating their children (we don’t) and allegedly killing Jesus (we didn’t). The theory is a total fabrication that consistently makes Passover the most dangerous time of the year to be Jewish.

Once you start seeing Jewish goblins and the blood libel in movies and television and books, you don’t stop seeing it. It goes so deep. Think about the Ferengi on Star Trek, or just think about nursery rhymes from when you were a kid — Rumplestiltsken’s got this broadly Eastern European name, right? And he’s a goblin who speaks in riddles that wants to steal a nice, blonde, white lady’s baby. You do the math. 

“Labyrinth” is a fantasy story where a teenage girl’s baby brother gets kidnapped by a horde of goblins, one of whom happens to be very hot. No one’s bleeding him, or even mistreating him — Jareth is super nice to the baby, even if he throws him a little too high in the air a couple of times. But it’s a matter of intent versus impact. For most viewers, the Jewish association wouldn’t even register — my Catholic friend said they’d never watched the movie with someone who’d pointed out Hoggle’s bizarro Jewishness. But it registered for me and my Jewish friend, and I can’t imagine we’re the only ones who have noticed.

I should clarify that I don’t think Hoggle is mishpacha because he reflects the way I see Jewish people — I think Hoggle is mishpacha by negative association. It’s like that “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” when Josh is away at priest school, doing a tap dance with the Holy Ghost, and he’s like “Is that what you look like?” and the Holy Ghost is like, “It’s what YOU think I look like!” Hoggle is Jewish to me because of the myriad Jewish and Jewish-coded characters we’ve settled for in the past, created by non-Jews or Jews who thought that’s how they needed to present themselves to get in the room to begin with. I talked about this a little bit when I wrote about “9 to 5” — “representation” is not always ethical or positive for the group represented. To paraphrase a tweet that I love, if Jews control the media, then why does a goy play Mrs. Maisel? 

I really did like this movie, and I don’t even have a “but.” The Henson puppets are perfect and imaginative (the helping hands!!!), the music is great, and I laughed a lot. It’s a great thing to watch with people you love. I just wish I’d been able to focus more on what everyone loves about Bowie instead of worrying about whether or not my brother Hoggle ever ruined some Jewish kid’s life.

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