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Breaking down the boycott on Wonder Woman

Lego Wonder Women. Image: Flickr/minddesk​

Wonder Woman, which just opened in theatres globally, is a big-budget, female-directed, female-hero movie. And the buzz around it has taken on distinctly political overtones, as people debate whether it is a feminist movie, and what to make of the fact that lead actor Gal Gadot, whose character is anti-war, is a Zionist Israeli who speaks fondly of the Israeli military, even cheering them on during the 2014 assault on Gaza. Lebanon, officially at war with Israel, has banned the movie, while in the West, the question seems to be "to boycott or not to boycott."

Any worthwhile discussion of the politics of the movie must pay attention to its multiple complexities, many of which are totally unintended. For starters, it seems that one is forever having to explain feminism: it's not about having a bigger piece of a toxic pie, it's about changing the ingredients of the pie.  

As such, one can question whether "succeeding" in Hollywood without challenging the integral misogyny of the Hollywood culture can qualify as feminism. Would Wonder Woman have been as "wonderful" were she also not a glamorous, attractive, tall, slender European young woman? Patty Jenkins, the director of Wonder Womanexplained that she cannot take on the aspirations of 50 per cent of the world's population, simply because she herself is a woman.

In fact, in a long interview with Hollywood Reporter, she does not once mention feminism or the shattering of stereotypes, and acknowledges she was selected to direct the movie because her vision was most compatible with that of Warner Brothers, who wanted a "post-feminist" movie.

One cannot help but wonder how one can be post-feminist in a still very patriarchal world, but that is not Warner Bros' concern. They just want a bigger share of the viewing market: "The big question mark hanging over Wonder Woman isn't whether a female director can make a successful superhero event movie; it's whether a female superhero can upend that long-standing formula and do something that the male ones haven't accomplished: expand the female base," wrote the Hollywood Reporter.

The success of this movie, then, is to be determined by its commercial success -- not quite a feminist calculation. 

White "woman of colour"?

An added wrinkle is presented by Gadot's ethnicity: she is of German, Polish, Austrian, and Czech ancestry, which makes her fully European, yet she is being hailed as a "woman of colour" because she is Israeli, with little appreciation for the fact that, as an Ashkenazi Jew, she belongs in the upper crust of Israeli society, with no experiential understanding of what it means to be a person of colour.  

Yes, there are Jews of colour, but Gadot herself is not one. She is the descendent of white settlers in the Middle East. Indeed, the celebration of Gadot as a "woman of colour" lead stands in sharp contrast to the hateful response to the choice of actors of colour for the recent Star Wars movies, and speaks volumes about the racism behind considering Gadot a welcome "non-white" lead.

Gadot herself downplays the importance of Jenkins being a woman, saying the director got the job not because she was a woman, but because "she was the right person."

Further, Gadot expressed mainstream misogynistic fears of feminism when she explained that she is grateful Jenkins chose not to portray Wonder Woman as a "ball buster" but rather as "charming and warm," an occasionally soft and naïve hero, relatable to boys, girls, men, and women.  

The complete misrepresentation of feminist women as "unrelatable" and "ball busters," the dismissal of the importance of a woman director, are indicators that Jenkins and Gadot were in no way interested in creating a feminist movie, but rather, that they wanted their turn at directing and acting in a big-budget production. Women who aspire to breaking the glass ceiling in an unjust society are actually being patriarchal, not feminists, because they are seeking the epitome of individual empowerment in an oppressive system.

To boycott, or not

More understandably, one is also always explaining the criteria of BDS, the Palestinian-led campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions on Israel until it stops violating international law and the human rights of the Palestinian people. And we cannot over-emphasise how important it is to apply these criteria very carefully, so as not to discriminate against individuals, rather than against an unjust system.

BDS being, above all, an anti-racist movement, one cannot, must not, discriminate against Israelis, simply because of an accident of birth. In this context, it must be stated that Lebanon's ban of the movie is unrelated to BDS, but stems from the fact that Lebanon is officially at war with Israel, which has repeatedly invaded, occupied, and bombed its northern neighbour. As some Lebanese pointed out, during the years Gadot served in the Israeli military (2005-07), Israel attacked Lebanon yet again, destroying its infrastructure in ways similar to its policy of regularly "mowing the lawn" in the Gaza Strip.

There are many factors to examine, then, when one decides whether to boycott or not to boycott Wonder Woman. First, and most importantly, according to the criteria of BDS, one does not boycott a movie because of Israeli actors. The boycott is against institutions, not individuals. Hollywood culture, and Warner Bros, are not Israeli institutions, even though many Hollywood films have a Zionist bias. 

Second, the fact that Gadot has served in the Israeli army should be a given, considering all Israelis have to serve, men for three years, women for two. There are few exceptions, based on mental illness, physical disability, or religious grounds (ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt). Clearly, Gadot is not exempt. She is also obviously not a conscientious objector. In fact, there is evidence on social media that she is an ardent Zionist, totally imbued with anti-Palestinian hatred, and a fan of the army ("You learn to discipline and respect," she claims, with no mention of the fact that it also brainwashes soldiers into racism and unquestioning murderous violence). 

Normalizing hatred

The absolute normalization of anti-Palestinian hatred, so that one is not held accountable for it, is key in determining whether one can support the movie or not. Consumers, cinema-goers and sports fans have certainly been critical of celebrities who have expressed egregiously racist views, or engaged in egregious practices, except when these were directed at Palestinians.

Mel Gibson was (rightly so) not given a free card for his anti-Semitic rants, yet actors such as Gadot, or Joe Mantegna, a U.S. citizen who raises funds for the Israeli Army, and Joan Rivers, who regularly went on horrific anti-Palestinian rants, remain blemishless. In contrast, a celebrity (or professor) who defends Palestinian rights is made to pay a heady price, often losing their very livelihood as they do so.

There are cases where the selection of an actor for a certain role is offensive. Blackface is never acceptable, and a blond Jesus is not only historically inaccurate, but also continues the erasure of Christianity's roots, transforming it into a "European" religion at odds with the Arab world. Casting Scarlett Johannson as Asian in Ghost in the Shell is also unacceptable yellowface.

However, in most cases, the actor must be separated from the character they are playing. Nevertheless, even as we distinguish between actor and character, one can criticise the actor for their personal politics. And it is time to let actors know we will hold them accountable for normalizing anti-Palestinian violence, regardless of their nationality.

Beyond the criteria for BDS, one is free to boycott products or individuals one disapproves of. Consumers do that every day, by choosing not to shop at certain stores, because of their labour practices, by choosing to be vegetarian because of the inhumane treatment of animals, or by choosing not to drive certain cars that are gas guzzlers, out of concern for the environment.  

Explaining the reasons for such choices is critically important. As such, one can explain that one does not wish to view Wonder Woman because the central character, a hero out to save the world, is played by a woman who cheers on genocide.

Nada Elia is a Diaspora Palestinian writer and political commentator, currently working on her second book, Who You Callin' "Demographic Threat?" Notes from the Global Intifada. A professor of Gender and Global Studies (retired), she is a member of the steering collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI)

This article originally appeared on Middle East Eye.

Image: Flickr/minddesk​

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