I thought we’d seen the last of Gal Gadot in 2020 after she orchestrated a cringeworthy celebrity sing-along to the John Lennon’s “Imagine” to send out positive vibes in a pandemic (no, it didn’t transcend!), but I was wrong.
News broke on 11 October that the Israeli actress will reunite with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins for a big-budget period film on the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. She will be co-producing the film through her production company Pilot Wave Motion Pictures for Paramount Pictures studio. According to Gadot, the film will be distinct from previous biopics on the Egyptian queen because the story will be told, “for the first time through women’s eyes, both behind and in front of the camera.” So far, this looks like a pretty standard Hollywood blockbuster, starring Gadot as Cleopatra, and likely capitalizing on a watered-down female empowerment narrative.
Following the announcement, social media quickly organized across the usual fault lines, mainly discussing whether the casting is racially accurate or simply racist. Let’s look at history, shall we? Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra VII was of Greco-Macedonian origin, which would make her white in the way that southern Europeans are. She was a descendant of Ptolemy I Soter who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty which controlled Egypt until the Romans took over after her death in 30 BCE. Therefore Cleopatra was Egyptian because she was born in Egypt, and unlike her predecessors she was actually versed in the Egyptian language (her native language was in fact Koine Greek, she also spoke Latin, Arabic, Aramaic, Ethiopian, Syriac, Parthian, Median) and styled herself as Egyptian mythological goddesses. Because history hasn’t bothered to record her mother’s identity, which remains unknown, historians and history lovers have spurred speculations that she might’ve been at least part-Egyptian, especially indigenous Black. Although it should be pointed out that the Ptolemaic dynasty largely practiced incest – it would be pretty safe to assume her parents (and grandparents) were siblings, just like Cleopatra herself married her two brothers.
Given the historical whitewashed casting of Cleopatra in Hollywood, this new project was welcomed for leading with diversity in representation. Some applauded the women-led team and the fact that, for the first time, a Middle Eastern actress will play Cleopatra. These supporters challenged critics who saw it as a missed opportunity for greater modern-day North African representation on-screen, arguing that such racializations are ahistorical. Some have also advocated for Black actors to portray the last Egyptian queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Strangely, some historians saw the controversy around Angelina Jolie’s potential casting as Cleopatra years ago as futile because ultimately, it was Cleopatra’s achievements and not her race that made her compelling. By this logic, a Black actress can definitely play the role – in fact, given the industry’s dismal track record on diversity and the needs of the hour, this would’ve been an opportunity for representation. This isn’t a novelty either – veteran actresses like Sophie Okonedo and Josette Simon have already played the queen in theatrical adaptations of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
On the other hand, in defending Gadot as Cleopatra, some have hailed it as a representation for women of color in general. This conveniently ignores the politics around racial identities, particularly in Israel. Race is not a biologically determined reality. Rather, it is a complex of historical socio-political and cultural factors which have resulted in modern-day power relations. Jewish writers and critics of color have argued that framing Gadot, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, as a woman of color, erroneously conflates ethnicity with nationality and erases the reality of racial hierarchies (which privileges Ashkenazi Jews), the plight of racial minorities in Israel. Who and what will be represented in the Cleopatra, then? Certainly not women of color who experience racial discrimination.
But I’m more alarmed by the false narratives of female empowerment. What exactly is female empowerment when it’s peddled by someone who is infamous for having proudly served in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and publicly supported Israel’s relentless crackdowns on Gaza in 2014, which killed around 2,251 people and displaced many more, most of whom were civilians?
Gadot’s brand of female empowerment, which is inseparable from her Zionism, has historically been along the lines of advocating for greater female representation in institutions of oppression, instead of actually calling on dismantling these institutions which are a threat to any meaningful form of female empowerment. She has previously participated in state-sponsored propaganda which sexualized women in the army to boost tourism and IDF’s image abroad.
Beyond just a diversity tactic, female empowerment is about access to healthcare, education, right to life and justice, freedom of speech, freedom from war, and so on. In her refusal to discuss her complicity in normalizing the Israeli occupation of Palestine, she stands for none of these, and has been criticized by activists since the time she was cast in Wonder Woman for her own cognitive dissonance because of her privilege within Israeli society.
For a South Asian woman like me who has grown up on a steady diet of South Asian pop culture, these patterns of dangerous misuse of privilege are all too familiar. Remember the self-styled champion of female empowerment Priyanka Chopra and her proud defense of the hyper-militarization of India’s borders and her close ties to the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist government, which reflects how Bollywood’s commercial interests are tied up with the state? Priyanka claims to speak for brown women like me when she claims to champion diversity. In reality, she represents only a very specific privileged subset of Indian women whose views are dangerously universalized. It is the same with Gadot.
Both actresses come from extremely privileged positions in their respective countries and peddle narratives about female empowerment and diversity because these are profitable. At the same time, they benefit from associations with settler-colonial states with ethno-nationalist aspirations, built on the backs of ethnic and religious minorities. Hindutva Feminism and Zionist Feminism (oxymorons, really) are perhaps close cousins, and both run contrary to any meaningful liberation of all women.
Whatever you think of her being cast as Cleopatra, never forget that Gal Gadot proudly served (and continues to support) a colonial army notorious for maiming and murdering civilians.
— Steven Salaita (@stevesalaita) October 11, 2020
Beyond diversity and female empowerment, a bigger landmine is that Gadot is set to steer a project about ancient Egyptian history. This has to be contextualized within the on-going Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s continuing settler-colonial occupation of Palestine which has divided nation-states in the region for decades. The fact that such a project is coming to life in the 2020s might reflect and complement the shifts in power relations in the region which undermine the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that sought to normalize diplomatic ties with Israel in the region in exchange for its recognition of Palestinian statehood and an end to its occupation of Palestine.
This seems a distant dream in 2020, after Donald Trump’s unprecedented peace plan that brokered diplomatic ties between several Arab states and Israel, which in turn is an attempt to step up proxy war against Iran in the region which also means strengthening American interests in the region. Not to mention the impending illegal annexation of the West Bank by Israel, along with the international community’s exasperating inability to address Israel’s war crimes. Palestinians are deeply disappointed by these developments as they indicate a greater loss of regional support for their demands to end the occupation, and the new Cleopatra only seems to add insult to injury.
I’m not a huge fan of using individuals as metaphors for complex systems, but the critique against Gadot isn’t just another ad hominem challenge. Her support for systems of oppression and what she’s publicly claimed to stand for make this endeavor appropriative and ultimately furthering Orientalist projections of the Middle Eastern. There’s also a double standard at play where, most often, vocal Muslim personalities are made to give up job opportunities for expressing sympathy with the Palestinian cause and criticizing Israeli aggression.
At the end of the day, this big-budget film is going to get made. It will maybe make a lot of money, and critics will go on and on about Gadot’s ability to express a sum total of three and a half expressions. But we shouldn’t be distracted by diversity this and female empowerment that, and fully grapple with the sociopolitical implications of such a cultural product of our times.