Did the ‘Magic School Bus’ reboot make Ms. Frizzle less Jewish?

Ms. Frizzle

By Rachel Hale

This story originally appeared on Alma.com

From her corkscrew curls to eccentrically patterned dresses, Valerie Frizzle was the science teacher we always wished we had. Her role as the mystical, happy-go-lucky leader who took her class on field trips to the ocean floor and outer space made The Magic School Bus a hit classic of the ‘90s and beyond. But in the show’s 21st century reboot, the teacher’s curls look smoother, the slope of her nose straighter, and her iconic outfits a few sizes tighter. To many of us, she looks, well, less Jewish.

While the reboot first came out under the name The Magic School Bus Rides Again in 2017 on Netflix, complete with modern animated characters and an electric theme song rendition by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Ms. Frizzle controversy started gaining renewed traction this month, with many fans taking to the internet to express their outrage over the makeover-gone-wrong.

One user wrote on Twitter, “Netflix really was like ‘Ms. Frizzle but not Jewish,’” with another reminiscing that “when i was your age, Ms. Frizzle was a Jewish lesbian.”

The cult classic’s renewed attention appears to stem from user @crocfanpage’s tweet of a side-by-side image of the original Ms. Frizzle next to the reboot’s design of her sister Fiona Frizzle, with the writing “idk how to explain it but the new ms frizzle is homophobic.”

Although the tweet was clearly meant in a humorous way, as the original Frizzle is voiced by lesbian Lily Tomlin and sister Fiona Frizzle is voiced by Kate McKinnon, Saturday Night Live’s first out cast member, it sparked many others to critique the reboot. I have to agree with these criticisms — Ms. Frizzle is one of few characters I can think of that portrayed stereotypically Jewish features in a positive light. While it turns out many fans’ anger is slightly misplaced, as most of the side-by-side comparisons trending actually feature the Frizz’s younger sister Fiona, who takes over the fourth grade science class as Frizzle earns her doctorate and embarks on her own travels, there’s still lots for fans to be justifiably upset about.

For starters, the show has visibly toned down its diversity. Assertive and skeptical Keesha Franklin and the artistic and laid-back Tim Wright, two dark-skinned characters, have significantly lighter skin tones in the reboot, and Wanda Li, the adventurous and boisterous problem solver of the class, appears with many of her Asian features dimmed down. Beyond whitewashing characters, Ralphie Tennelli, the outgoing sports fan who occasionally falls asleep in class, is noticeably thinner in the reboot and devoid of his classic “R” initialed lime green T-shirt. Others like Arnold Perlstein, the beloved allergy-plagued student who was perpetually wary of his class’ field trips, were also wronged by the sleek modern animation style, appearing with a calmer version of his trademark ginger curls and freckles.

And while many of the images trending online may feature her sister, the Frizz herself still appears less whimsical in the reboot, with more softened, Anglo-Saxon features and lacking her seashell-printed bodysuit or solar-system adorned dress. Perhaps part of the reason many in the Jewish community embraced the quirky science teacher is because of the important representation she brought to our screens in an industry that doesn’t always paint Jews so kindly — look no further than J.K. Rowling’s money-hoarding, hooked-nosed goblins in Harry Potter or Roald Dahl’s child-hunting witches in The Witches if you need a reminder. While many characters like these have their roots in early folklore and may not have intentionally been made to be antisemitic, they still propel an age-old image that depicts Jews as being greedy and controlling and perpetuate a false idea that all Jews look a certain way. Ms. Frizzle, on the other hand, stood for all things good: adventure, a love of learning, and compassion.

As one fan put it on Twitter, “The change is very sinister to me. characters with hair and noses like the original Ms. Frizzle are conspicuously rare given how much of the world looks like that. That those were the features they removed, and what they replaced them with, is so devoid of texture and good taste.”

At its core, the failure of The Magic School Bus Rides Again isn’t its storyline or even its lackluster animation (though there is so much missed potential to explore Ralphie’s white blood cells or Arnold’s seaweedies-infused orange skin with modern CGI elements). Rather, its downfall is an erasure of the diversity and individuality that made its characters so vivid — and taught children that learning isn’t just about memorizing the order of the water cycle, but about appreciating our peers along the way. With such a loyal fanbase, The Magic School Bus Rides Again was undoubtedly up against high standards, but it missed the chance to live up to its potential the moment it gave Ms. Frizzle a nose job.