The casting of Gal Gadot to play Cleopatra has led to a backlash, but much of the outrage misses the point.
Cleopatra, the ancient Egyptian Queen, and one of the few women remembered from the region's history will be played by Israeli actress, Gal Gadot. Arguments of cultural appropriation, stealing Arab film roles, land, and culture, have already been made on social media.
In retaliation, many have claimed Cleopatra’s Macedonian/Greek heritage is justification and actually, more accurately represented by Gal Gadot.
Regardless of this tedious conversation, it is, as it generally is, justified to call this out as whitewashing, as regardless of her origins, Cleopatra was Queen of modern day Egypt. And modern day Egypt has a population of 100 million people - and thousands of capable actresses.
Cleopatra’s origins from her paternal side are Greek, she is thought to have Berber, Syrian, and other ancestry from the general region. There are a number of English-speaking Greek actresses and anything closer to home would have been more appropriate. Gal Gadot is Israeli, an Ashkenazi Jew, meaning her origins are likely European. In an interview, she herself explains she has Austrian, German, Polish, and Czech ancestry.
But the issue here is not ethnically-accurate casting; we’ve spent decades watching movies where every main character is American and white regardless of the film’s geographic setting - take for one of many examples, Tom Cruise in the Last Samurai; cinematic magic.
Hollywood has created the myth of Argraba that hangs over the Middle East and South Asia, even the previous Cleopatra was played by Elizabeth Taylor. Inaccurate representation is a long-standing issue with, generally, all ethnicities, despite recent efforts to rectify this.
What is of deeper concern is that two lead female roles have been handed to a former Israeli Defence Forces soldier, specifically, a combat trainer, quite literally responsible for the continuous oppression and colonisation of Palestine in a highly proactive way. This is not only propaganda for Israel and perpetuates the erasure of the Palestinian people, for example, her high profile interviews citing her very Jewish-Israeli upbringing (something largely appropriated from the indigenous people). Particularly when you consider that the Israeli state has appropriated everything from music to hummus from the Palestinian people.
In an interview where she was asked to say two Arabic words she used ‘Yalla’ and ‘Sababa’ both Arabic words and referenced her favourite Israeli breakfast as Shakshuka (of Arab-Levantine origin). It is harmful to women, particularly modern-day Arab women when she is actively hijacking their culture, for starters.
The former Miss Israel, teamed up with Wonder Woman director, Patty Jenkins, her husband, Yaron Varsano (and their jointly held production company Pilot Wave), and the scriptwriter, Laeta Kalogridis, the ‘A-team’ as she calls it.
Looking past the clear nepotism in her casting her for the role, her values as an individual are a poor portrayal of women from or in the region, and women in general. Just as she, because of her individual politics, has shown she is anything but a real Wonder Woman, she should not be allowed to represent symbols of power factual or fictional.
Cleopatra's legacy was not her ethnicity, it is the magical, surreal, and forceful idea of female power, arguably, the same power behind the myth of wonder Wonder Woman. It is therefore critical to cast an individual who can hold to these standards of being role models.
However, instead, for coming generations, we have an individual who in addition to perpetuating violence herself - that has been judged as brutal and inhumane by the international community - also purposefully convoluted violence and sexuality in order to find her way into Hollywood. For this example to be a role model for young girls everywhere, is toxic - especially for these iconic roles.
Furthermore, casting her in these huge roles despite her mediocre performances, Paramount somehow selected her over Angelina Jolie, serves as a huge win for Israeli propaganda.
Two major female leads will forever be remembered as played by an Israeli actress creating a false correlation between the Zionist project and strong women. And in a region where people have falsely deemed women oppressed beyond salvation - enter a very bland Gal Gadot to show the world that Israel is the exception.
Gadot rose to fame through a spread in Maxim Magazine, who, in their own words are, “Catering to the modern man with content that promises to seduce, entertain and continuously surprise readers.”
The spread issued in 2007 was part of a campaign that Israel was criticised for, for sexualising its military, and particularly female soldiers. The magazine quotes her - "'I taught gymnastics and calisthenics,' says this flawless former Miss Israel. 'The soldiers loved me because I made them fit'."
The subhead of the spread read: “They’re drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds. Are the women of the Israeli Defense Forces the world’s sexiest soldiers?” She was a conscious participant in perpetuating the belief that the treatment of Palestinians is justified - even sexy.
She even hailed the military claiming her background helped land her first high-profile role in the Fast & Furious franchise, saying the director found her knowledge of weapons useful. She once again did a spread for Maxim Magazine after the film.
As a self-proclaimed feminist, she said in an interview with Glamour magazine, “There are such misconceptions as to what a feminist is. Feminism is about equality. I want all people to have the same opportunities and to get the same salaries for the same jobs. I realize I'm doing what I want to do because of the women before me who laid the groundwork. Without them I wouldn't be an educated working mother who is following her dreams; I wouldn't be here.”
She conveniently leaves out generations of women before and after her suffering at the hands of her government, military and her personal actions and advocacy.
While you cannot hold an individual responsible for the actions of their government, in a time where prominent actors such as Nathalie Portman and Seth Rogan speak out against the injustice by the Israeli government, she could take a similar stance and it would be acceptable. However, her stance is made clear, repetitively through almost all public appearances, she is just another cog in the Hasbara machine.
There are many more capable, respectable, and appropriate actresses that could have taken this role, whether from Greece or Egypt. Women who represent ethical values that take on occupation and colonisation - but if we must be technical, in the age of politically correct casting, Cleopatra was not Israeli, and Gal Gadot is no queen.
Nadine Sayegh is a multidisciplinary writer and researcher covering the Arab world. She has covered topics including gender in the region, countering violent extremism, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, amongst other social and political issues.
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