We are pleased to make available a preview of our Third Space essay on the 2017 film, Wonder Woman [1] . This essay will be published in Volume 14:2 of JMEWS, a themed issue on decolonizing sex and sexuality. It has not yet undergone copy editing by Duke University Press.


Wonder Woman: Goddess of Fictional and Actual Wars

Salam Al-Mahadin 

Salam Al-Mahadin is Professor of Translation and Cultural Studies in the English Department at Al-Ahliyya Amman University in Jordan. Contact: sumi70jo@yahoo.co.uk.

Wonder Woman (2017), a US film based on a DC Comics superhero, was released to rave reviews in the U.S. even as it was mired in controversy related to its Israeli female lead, Gal Gadot. Heated debates transpired over whether Gadot was a feminist icon (Gibson 2017; Macnab 2017; Williams 2017), her pay compared to male counterparts (Whitten 2017), her status as a former Israeli soldier (Barrows-Friedman 2017; Dabashi 2017), and whether, as an Ashkenazi Jew, she is white (Heckle 2017). In my Jordanian socio-political and cultural landscape, Gadot was widely seen as first and foremost an Israeli soldier and citizen who had served during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and had used social media to express her support for the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza that killed hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children.

This essay challenges a liberal feminist identity politics that frames Gadot as encompassing a constellation of subject positions, the most important of which is her militant “kick-ass” womanhood. This reading precludes a more intersectional radical critique of the person and the film that examines her status as an enthusiastic Israeli soldier and citizen and the film’s valorization of U.S. imperial militarism.

Wonder Woman tells the story of Diana, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta. Diana was raised on Themysciara, the secret island home of a super race of Amazonian warrior women created by Zeus to protect humanity. Diana’s extensive military training renders her unconquerable. An accident leaves the island exposed to WWI warring factions. Diana rescues a U.S. pilot (Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine) and they kill the invading Germans in the battle that ensues. Diana leaves the island with Steve to save the real world. After a brief stint in London where she meets members of the Supreme War Council negotiating an armistice with the Germans, Diana discovers a German plan to release mustard gas despite the negotiations. Steve and Diana end up on the Western Front in Belgium, where she rescues a village and saves the world from release of the gas. She is surprised when this does not stop the war. Ares (the god of war, disguised as a British army chief) later tells her that human kind is inherently violent and tries to persuade her to join him in erasing the human race to restore paradise on earth. Steve is killed while detonating the bomber carrying the gas. The film ends as it began, with scenes of Diana living as a civilian under her assumed name of Diana Prince.

Wonder Woman was released with a promotional frenzy surrounding its female star, Gadot, who was instantly catapulted to fame. Accounts of Gadot often conflate the valorized Wonder Woman character she played and her real life positionality. The film plugged Gadot, as actor and character, into the paradoxes of identity politics. Western critics and feminists largely met the film with effusive praise, hailing the actor/Wonder Woman character as a feminist icon (Steinberg 2017; Gibson 2017). As Williams (2017) argues in The Guardian, “women safeguarding the world from male violence not with nurture but with better violence, is a feminist act,” adding that  Gadot’s costume, beauty and sexual appeal are forms of subservient feminism that force the male viewer to confront his objectification of women. Hillary Clinton and others praised the film as expressing progressive gender politics (Clinton 2017; Macnab 2017). Others argued, with a hint of BDSM overtones, that the film is “a thrillingly staged knockout blow for feminism” (Collins 2017; Mendelson 2017). Gadot’s Polish, Austrian, German and Czech ancestry was even used to claim her as a woman of color in a celebratory article expounding on the film’s “breakthroughs” (Sommer 2017).

Most reviews focused on Wonder Woman as funny, naïve, and bemused, celebrating these qualities the same way the woman-as-little-girl trope can be part of androcentric fantasies. Reviewers apologetically presented and then brushed aside as inconsequential the film’s imperfections. Some considered it sacrilegious to say the film was not “a glorious feminist triumph” (Freeman 2017). In the midst of this din, the film production company banned Gadot from commenting on any of these issues (Noy 2017). Given low expectations, any major blockbuster with a woman hero is welcomed with optimism and delight. Most mainstream liberal commentators focused on Gadot as a woman who broke hitherto uncharted terrains as a superheroine, implying this achievement supersedes any criticisms of her.

Some critics nevertheless found the film disappointing. Josephine Livingstone (2017) writes, “debating the ‘feminist’ stakes of a movie about American military ideology is a laughable prospect.” She calls the film “a classical comic book interpretation of history,” with an “absurd and comfortingly familiar” plot (Livingstone 2017). Gadot’s youth, beauty, and skimpy clothing, not to mention the hackneyed dialogue, prompted several commentators to bemoan the absence of strong women leads who do not cater to teenage male fantasies of the “hot-looking, kick-butt” heroine (Beale 2017) or the “weaponised smurfette” (Rose 2017). Some pointed to Gadot as an active participant in an Israeli killing machine (NPOC 2017).

Indeed, Gadot is not simply an actor in a Hollywood superheroine film. Born in Petah Tikva, Israel in 1985, Gadot was crowned Miss Israel in 2004. She then served as a combat trainer for two years in the Israeli Defence Forces. Her service overlapped with the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006, during which more than 1,100 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed, thousands were injured, and an estimated one million people were displaced (Human Rights Watch 2007).  In 2014, she posted a message on her Facebook page expressing her full support for the Israeli war on Gaza. Under a photo of herself and her daughter praying, she wrote: “I am sending my love and prayers to my fellow Israeli citizens especially to all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas, who are hiding like cowards behind women and children…We shall overcome!!! Shabbat Shalom! #weareright #freegazafromhamas #stopterror #coexistance #loveidf” (Gadot 2014). In promotional interviews around Wonder Woman, Gadot frequently touted her army service as very helpful in preparing for her role (Graham 2017).

In the film’s reception in the Arab world, there were no indeterminate identitarian approaches to Gal Gadot’s mercurial “subject positions.” She was understood as an enthusiastic soldier in an occupation army, which transcended the supposed feminism of her superheroine character. It was impossible to separate the actor from the film. Dabashi (2017) sums up the dominant response when he describes Gadot/Wonder Woman as “a fanatical warrior in the cause of the Zionist theft of Palestine and the uninhibited slaughter of Palestinians.” South Lebanon suffered under Israeli occupation for close to 20 years and experienced multiple invasions thereafter. Seeing a “former Israeli soldier” celebrated as a breakthrough icon feminist fighter did not fly in the Arab world, where politicians and activists rather than film critics spearheaded discussion of the film. Several Jordanian MPs urged the government to ban it, describing the film as an attempt to “politically and culturally penetrate Jordanian markets” with an actor who had “expressed her hatred and loathing of Arabs and Muslims” (Shaabnews 2017). The government could find no legal justification to ban the film so it licensed it for screening. The Secretary-General of the Arab Writers Union, Habib Sayegh, sent an open letter to Arab ministers of information urging them to ban the film because Gadot served in and supported an army that terrorized the people of Gaza and committed war crimes (Sayidaty 2017).

Rania Masri, spokesperson for the boycott campaign, made the social media case on a legal rather than political basis (Barrows-Friedman 2017). A 1955 Lebanese law bans any kind of cooperation with an Israeli individual or institution, she argued. Indeed, the film was banned by Lebanon (Holpuch 2017) and Tunisia for violating laws that prohibit dealing with Israel or Israeli individuals, and by Qatar for featuring an Israeli soldier (Williams 2017). A petition to boycott the film in Algeria succeeded in getting it pulled from a local festival (Keslassy 2017). This juridical approach was effective despite cultural theory’s rejection of fixing power in law.

Wonder Woman was the worst performing superhero film in overseas markets in a decade. It grossed less than half of total earnings in an industry where foreign markets usually account for at least two-thirds of total theater receipts (Cain 2017).

Using an ethical-aesthetic approach, Felix Guattari argues that an artistic production “detaches itself from… connotations that are as much cognitive as aesthetic,” enabling the consumer to become “a co-creator” of the artistic work (1995, 14). We should explode legal edifices, over-coded binary contexts, and capitalistic signifers to open ourselves to infinite possibilities in art. This argument ties in neatly with Foucault’s conception of power as being everywhere and nowhere (Foucault 1990; 2003; 2004). For Foucault, the most urgent ethical task is to unmask the epistemic convergences that produce subjectivity. By dismantling the understanding of power as merely negative and repressive, Foucault, who failed to provide any normative framework for a subject with moral and political agency (McLaren 1997), condemns society to an inescapable tangle of power relations. If power is everywhere, there seemed no point in resisting it.

While relational aesthetics allows a multiplicity of subjectivities to be realized and discerned in a work of art, the work is assumed to exist on a plane of immanence that simultaneously makes it very difficult to hierarchize ethical concerns. Does Gadot being perceived as a feminist icon in the film Wonder Woman trump her being a soldier in and an ardent supporter of the Israeli army? While her feminist status is contestable, her service in and passionate support for the Israeli army is not. Thinkers such as Irene Thery (2007) demand we shift our attention to the relationally of gender and race in particular historical and social contexts. Gender should be analysed within a wider web of power constructs where perhaps being a soldier in a military at war with a colonized people is the more pressing consideration.

[1] Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins; screenplay by Allan Heinberg, story by Zack Snyder. Los Angeles: Warner Bros. Pictures 2017.


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