Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post by Sean Guynes-Vishniac may be coming just over a year after the release of Wonder Woman, but nevertheless it provides a crucial interrogation of how Gal Gadot’s Israeli identity and IDF experience are used to sell her authenticity in the role. The success of the film and the inevitability of a sequel means it is never too late to explore these questions.
Toward a Conversation
“Surely, this [is] good news for the Jews,” wrote Danielle Berrin of Jewish Journal several weeks after the 2013 announcement that Israeli actress Gal Gadot would be the new face of Wonder Woman. Responses to Gadot’s casting ran the gamut. Some were concerned with whether Gadot was tall, muscular, and, unsurprisingly, busty enough to be (their sexual-fantasy image of) Wonder Woman. Others were unsure who Gadot was or, if they knew, thought her acting in The Fast and the Furious franchise was flat at best and piss-poor at worst. Many Jewish commentators, however, celebrated. Berrin concluded, a bit ahistorically, that Wonder Woman “was conceived specifically to combat the world’s most unassailable evil: Nazism.” Gadot, as an Israeli Jew, would answer the clarion call of Jewish memory to fictively avenge the Holocaust, or something like that, since it was predicted that Wonder Woman would take place during WWII. This proved wrong, but Gadot’s Jewishness and particularly her Israeliness remained central to the conversation around the character and film. The staid Israeli paper Jerusalem Post even raved about Gadot’s casting in an opinion piece written by the paper’s editor, claiming Gadot would bring Israel goodwill on the global stage by “presenting a picture to the world of the beautiful, sexy Israeli.”
It’s difficult to watch Wonder Woman without the debate about Gadot’s identity in mind. As an American Jew, it’s nearly impossible. Gadot’s identity has a bearing on how American Jews, Israeli Jews, as well as Arabs and Arab Americans, and anyone else with a dog in the politics of the Israel-Palestine conflict, respond to Gadot as the iconic Western feminist female superhero and to Wonder Woman the movie. This is because there is something other than simple Jewish pride in the presence of an Israeli Jewish actress in a major superhero franchise role lurking in the casting of Gadot as Wonder Woman and in the discourse that is inevitably evoked by her presence there. That specter lurking, as I’ll show in this essay, is the specter of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. And Gadot, like many Israelis, did her mandatory service in the IDF.
This minor biographical detail matters not only because Israel is currently engaged in a campaign of colonial aggression against the Arab Palestinians, but also because Gadot’s Israeliness has been specifically constructed around her service in the IDF by the Israeli media and in promotional discussion of her role as Wonder Woman. The media-circulated suggestion, as a Glamour article put it, that Gadot is Wonder Woman in real life as a result of her having served in the IDF matters significantly because, through state policy and IDF action, Israel has maintained an occupation of Palestine for fifty years since the Six Day War of 1967. As numerous scholars and critics have argued, Israel is a colonial state, encouraging its settlers to expand into Palestinian territories and utilizing the IDF to maintain “security” in the region largely by policing and killing Palestinians. Until Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment rebrand her filmic figure with another star, Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, Princess Diana and the global actress-model, Amazon warrior and the former IDF soldier are discursively inseparable.
The Big Deal
One of the more thought-provoking responses to Wonder Woman in July 2017 was by literature scholar and queer theorist Ramzi Fawaz, whose recent book The New Mutants: Superheroes and the Radical Imagination of American Comics (NYU Press, 2016) won accolades across the humanities for bringing critical approaches from feminist and queer theory to postwar superhero comics. In his essay “Notes on Wonder Woman,” Fawaz explains that the academic response to Wonder Woman demonstrated, predictably, “an almost automatic need from my academic companions to qualify [their] love [for the film], to explain why the movie is retrograde, conservative, reductive, failed, limited, anti-feminist, basically THE OPPOSITE OF WHAT YOU ALL THOUGHT, SO HA!”
There was, indeed, much to this effect on both of our Facebook feeds from the academics we know, some mutual friends, as well as in the more critical online spaces. While many praised Wonder Woman for its successes as a piece of feminist or anti-war filmmaking, or as a subversion of the superhero film genre in many respects, others claimed the film isn’t much of a feminist fantasy at all or that it failed to be as feminist as it thought itself. Still others saw how Wonder Women perpetuated the erasure of black women on screen. There were also those who ignored politics in favor of talking about the film qua film, and its issues thereof. Some, understandably, found it difficult to see the film as anything other than a story about an IDF soldier saving the world. In fact, many critics on the Left who pointed out that, as Fawaz snarkily puts it, “Gal Gadot, the actress who plays Diana Prince, is a Zionist, so that must say something about the movie’s ideological bankruptcy” (emphasis in original).
Fawaz’s essay is an important one, ultimately; its purpose is to remind us, even if smugly, “If you honestly went into Wonder Woman expecting the movie to solve the problem of black representation in Hollywood cinema”—or any other serious political concern raised by critics of the film—“I’m not sure what to tell you.” Flippant though he is, Fawaz’s point is important for us to remember: the media we love to consume has its problems, but this does not mean that we cannot enjoy or take pleasure in it. And yet, for my taste, he puts too much emphasis on finding pleasure in the film. Not because I do not enjoy seriously problematic media myself (as a person who recently edited a book about Star Wars, I’d be a fool to claim otherwise), or because I imagine it is possible as a scholar-critic to ever deal with non-“problematic” texts. No, what bothers me is that the “pleasure” of this work of art is precisely what is at stake in the politics of those critiquing Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman on anti-Zionist grounds.
I agree with Fawaz—and in fact I see it as one of his most important if not controversial contributions to comics studies, and particularly to our understanding of the superhero figure—that there is pleasure in art, there is pleasure in the body, there is pleasure in the images of bodies that saturate our mediascape, often to detrimental psychosocial effects under heteropatriarchy. And there is also pleasure in the images of the bodies of the strong, beautiful women who are at the same time the visual and narrative objects of that art. This is especially the case in superhero comics, and nowhere more so than in a superhero film starring a glamorously beautiful model-actress who has, like many attractive female celebrities, a devoted fanbase of men (and women) invested in her appearance.
But pleasures are political, a lesson that Fawaz has stressed elsewhere, namely in relation to the superhero body in his book The New Mutants. And these pleasures—that is, the pleasure of seeing Diana/Gadot as Wonder Woman in a film that constantly references its protagonist’s beauty alongside her brawns, stressing the oddity of a woman both capable and attractive—in the specific context of Israel and Zionism, are tied up with nationalist and colonialist discourses written onto the body of the Israeli and especially the IDF soldier. As the comics artist and essayist Miriam Libicki argues in the title comics essay of her landmark collection, Toward a Hot Jew (Fantagraphics, 2016), the (image of the) body of the IDF soldier is bound up with the discourse of power and pleasure. In the Israeli imagination, as in the power discourses that circulate among anyone with social, cultural, or economic power over others, there is pleasure and no small amount of eroticism in seeing the powerful, attractive forms of the heroes who embody power over others—a pleasure that the most actively colonial aspects of the cultural discourses of Zionism in Israel have traded on since the 1960s by turning the IDF soldier into a national and, for American Jews, diasporic sex symbol.
Of course, I don’t think Wonder Woman is an ideologically bankrupt film, a conservative spankbank of righteous Zionist fury, or some other nonsense. As Fawaz points out, art is many things, a vector for multiple and moving cultural discourses, and can be contoured to many more given a particular critical-theoretical paradigm. I’m not interested in whether Gadot’s presence, through her identity, ideologically bankrupted Wonder Woman (or any film). Nor do I find it useful in any critical way to call Wonder Woman ideologically bankrupt; few scholars would insist that it is moral righteousness we seek in the art we criticize, that in fact the purpose of criticism is to provoke the “right” kind of art. What I’m actually interested in is the semiotic baggage Gadot carries with her. Slate even offered a useful primer on the issue, but as I want to tease out in this essay, the connections run deeper than simply that Gadot is Israeli and likely also a Zionist. In other words, above and beyond any personal/political beliefs Gadot maintains, it is ethically and productively critical that we attend to the construction of her Israeliness and to the conversation about the film by fans, scholars, film and media industry representatives, and state actors that forge the links between Gadot, Wonder Woman, Zionist nationalism, the figure of the Israeli body, and of course Wonder Woman as a long-standing icon among American superheroes—all of which coalesces, more or less, in the figure Libicki so aptly named the “Hot Jew.”
The IDF and the “Hot Jew”
The demonized figure of “the Jew” has historically been sexualized in order to evidence Jews’ categorical immorality. Industrial-capitalist anti-Semite par excellence, Henry Ford, noted in his fever dream of jazz’s Jewishness that it must be so, since “the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.” Ford claimed, among other things, that American Jews were responsible for booze, gambling, and corruption in America. Though his cultural iconicity gave him considerable clout, Ford was nothing new in the history of anti-Semitism. Jews have long been understood in relation to the peoples among whom they lived, typically in great disparity of numbers, as sexual(ized) threats or at least as deviants from the normative, the good, the moral, the pure, and, in toto, the Christian. While the discourse of Jewish sexual deviance is ancient, mass print and media culture helped to solidify and circulate new negative Jewish sexual stereotypes.
Stereotypes of domineering, vulgar, but frigid Jewish women and nebbish, but sexually freaky Jewish men circulated both as inside jokes among Jews and also as targeted anti-Semitic markers of a “real” difference between Jews and non-Jewish white people. This was most especially the case in the post-WWII period of (mostly Ashkenazi or Eastern European-descended) American Jews’ intensive Americanization and assimilation into mainstream culture, becoming (conditionally) white by forging a new relationship between Jewishness and whiteness that allowed some of the privileges of racial supremacy but maintained some essential difference—variously touted as cultural, ethnic, religious, racial, or pathological—between Jews and the other whites. As Miriam Libicki argues in “Toward a Hot Jew,” stereotypes of Jewish sexuality ultimately made Jews “in North American consciousness […] curiously unsexy, especially in Jewish eyes.”
But while American Jews wrestled with their Philip Roths and Jewish American Princesses (JAPs), in Israel things were different. Israeli Jews developed a new understanding of Jewish sexuality that decoupled it from deviance but attached it instead to colonial power discourse. Enter, “the Hot Jew.” Simply put, Libicki’s concept of the “Hot Jew” names a mutation in Jews’ sexual representation, one that, in the course of Israel’s military victory in the Six Day War and the following decades-long occupation of Palestinian land, coupled with strong nationalist support for the IDF, morphed the sexualized deviance of anti-Semitic Jewish stereotypes into a newfound and desirable sexiness. Jews got hot after 1967, specifically in the guise of the IDF soldier. And yet, despite this positive turn in the relationship between Jews and their representation as desirable sexual beings, the “Hot Jew” was made possible only through the alchemy of settler-colonialism masquerading as a religious and political “right” to Palestinian land—a right defended by the physical might and embodied, sexualized physicality of the IDF soldier.
The “Hot Jew” is a positive stereotype; it is a rescuing of Jewish sexual being from the ideological and physical violence of anti-Semitic stereotype and propaganda. But it’s also predicated on the sexy person being an oppressor, having achieved sexiness via violent oppression of brown people. It emerged in the images of triumphant IDF soldiers in the wake of a war against all odds, shown off, as Libicki sarcastically remarks, as “Strong yet humble, freed from oppressive religion yet full of identification with heritage, not to mention blonde!” The IDF soldier’s newfound status as “Hot Jew” was a revelation about the possibilities (and limitations) of Jewish sexiness, a revelation used in Israeli public relations campaigns meant for young American Jews “to cement sympathy with the Jewish State and plant the idea that Jews are kinda hot.” Libicki shows this to be more than just an academic discourse visible in state-run PR campaigns but evidences its existence in Israeli and American Jewish communities through first-hand accounts, personal correspondence, and interviews that she incorporates into her essay, juxtaposing these against muscular, virile portraits of IDF men and the sublime sexiness of IDF women—with guns!
The hotness of the “Hot Jew,” as Libicki shows, is predicated on the fetishization of the IDF soldier, of the figure’s power over others (the Palestinians), and of the Israeli military’s global might. And so “the image endures. The Israeli soldier is everywhere and sexier than ever,” easily commodified in the global heteropatriarchal traffic in images of women’s bodies.
Wonder Woman, “Hot Jew”
The connection between the IDF and Gadot, and the semiotic baggage it brings over into her tenure as the first live-action Wonder Woman star since Linda Carter in the 1970s, is not tangential, but is in fact central to reading and understanding Gadot’s brand as perhaps the quintessential “Hot Jew”—now available for global consumption in the guise of the West’s most famous feminist superhero. In fact, the IDF has always been part of Gadot’s celebrity brand; it is not just an accusation based on her IDF service. It is the sexy “did-you-know” background touted in much of the media about Gadot’s preparedness for the role.
After competing in beauty pageants, Gadot completed her mandatory service in the IDF. She describes it thus: “I wish no country had the need for an army. But in Israel serving is part of being an Israeli. You’ve got to give back to the state. You give two or three years, and it’s not about you. You give your freedom away. You learn discipline and respect.” After her service, during which time she was a fitness instructor for IDF soldiers, she starred in the 2007 Maxim photoshoot “The Chosen Ones: Israeli Defense Forces,” which featured sexualized photo spreads of four “drop-dead gorgeous” former IDF soldiers discussing the allure of military life and attesting that Israel has the sexiest soldiers. The feature was not accompanied by an explanatory article, but the women speak for themselves: one military intelligence agent describes her love of guns; another explains her job was top secret and involved using Arabic; a naval officer recounts, sweetly, meeting her husband in the service; and Gadot says she was beloved because she helped her fellow soldiers get fit. Sex, guns, romance, military secrets, and fit, tan (but not too dark), non-Arab Middle Eastern women: the hottest state-sanctioned militants around, and easily beloved by men the world over. What’s more, the Maxim feature was orchestrated by the Israeli government. For Israeli Consul General Arye Mekel, who organized it, exposure in Maxim showed that Israel was more than a war-ravaged nation. It was a fun place to vacation, a place where normal (if preternaturally attractive) people lived normal lives. You might meet IDF ladies there, and you’d be safe because they “can take apart an Uzi in seconds.”
Gadot’s Uzi-dismantling IDF experience carried over immediately into her acting career, which drew on both her military experience and her model status. Her breakout role was as Gisele Yashar in Fast & Furious (2009). There she played a Mossad agent, and continued to do so in Fast Five (2011) and Fast & Furious 6 (2013), with a brief cameo in Furious 7 (2015). This was not always the planned narrative trajectory for Gisele, who started out as a Mexican drug cartel leader’s right-hand but was turned by director Justin Lin into a Mossad agent once he learned about Gadot’s IDF experience. In Gadot’s words, Lin “really liked that I was in the Israeli military, and he wanted to use my knowledge of weapons.” A somewhat nonsensical explanation for a narrative shift in Gisele’s story by Fast Five, but one clearly motivated by the attribution of a certain kind of allure in the figure of the sexy female IDF soldier. Gadot’s connection to the IDF remains central to her brand—consciously, purposefully cultivated by her, the media, and state actors alike.
To bring the story back to Wonder Woman, Gadot’s identity as a former IDF soldier has never been far from the media conversation about her playing the Amazon warrior-princess. Entertainment Weekly called her the “bombshell-casting bombshell” and entertainment news sites reported excitedly that Gadot’s IDF experience helped her prepare for Wonder Woman. In both a cute attempt to give character recognition to the actress and as a symbol of the difficulty of distinguishing role and performer, self and celebrity in our hypermediated world, magazines and online news sources regularly conflate Gadot and Wonder Woman, presenting Gadot’s lifestyle, opinions, and body as those of “Wonder Woman.” The Jewish Telegraph Agency declared Gadot “Israel’s real-life Wonder Woman” and the UN, in a brief move ultimately cancelled after heavy criticism, named Wonder Woman an honorary ambassador for women’s rights. Though Gadot was not herself named, despite The Jerusalem Post reporting “Gal Gadot Removed as UN Role Model,” she was present at the appointment ceremony and the whole debacle was sponsored in a collaboration between the UN, Warner Brothers, and DC Comics to celebrate Wonder Woman’s 75th anniversary and to promote the Wonder Woman film. Other recent examples include magazine cover blurbs like “Gal Gadot Is Wonder Woman” and “Wonder Woman on Crushing Self-Doubt + Kicking Internet Troll Butt.” To be clear, the same is done to recognizable male characters and their actors, and that is the point: Gadot and her iconic superhero alter ego are, especially in the public eye and in the discourse built up around both actress and character, inseparable. Thus, from the point of view of criticism, the discourse stands as a powerful one that both fetishizes her IDF history, trading on the sexiness it merits through the habitual and ever-silent invocation of the “Hot Jew” as an archetype of Israeli Jewish exoticism and sexual desirability, and purposefully ignores (or plays up as badass patriotism and self-sacrifice) the colonial legacy and present of both the IDF and the corresponding “Hot Jew” archetype.
In the span of a few years, Gadot, an exemplar of the “Hot Jew,” quickly became the Hot Israeli in international media, second only in international recognizability, after Wonder Woman’s global box office success, to Bar Refaeli, an Israeli supermodel who since the late 2000s has regularly appeared on American and Western European magazines’ —the global arbiters of women’s beauty and body standards. The “Hot Jew,” as Gadot’s branding shows us, is to most non-Jews not “really” a Jew. In fact, only in Jewish media is Gadot identified as or valued on account of her Jewishness or her faith, though anti-Zionist critics of Gadot have made use of a Facebook picture post in which she is shown praying over shabbos candles for Israeli soldiers’ safety during the 2014 Gaza War with Hamas (complete with hashtags #weareright and #loveidf). Outside of Jewish media and the single post of hers regularly taken as evidence of her Zionism, Gadot is erased as a Jew and presented instead as merely “Hot” or “the Hot Israeli.”
This is the plasticity of both whiteness and the exotic sex-appeal of non-Arab, non-Muslim Israelis at work. The cool of Gadot’s IDF badassness, paired with the curve and cut of her fit body, and her awesome exploits as Mossad agent Gisele Yashar and Amazon Diana Prince rescue her from the dubious ethnicity and unsexy image of the Jew, rendering her simultaneously white and exotic in the form of the (de-Judaized) “Hot Jew.” To other Jews, of course, she still retains all of the saving grace from the ugliness of Jewish unsexiness that the IDF-bounded “Hot Jew” always has. This suggests that the “Hot Jew,” especially when cultivated as the de-Judaized Hot Israeli, is predicated precisely on the erasure of that which made Jews unsexy or sexually deviant for centuries—their Jewishness—in favor of erecting a new baseline for interpreting Jewish attractiveness: the IDF’s military might and heroic underdog story as the lone gun(wo)man against all the forces of the Arab Middle East.
It is not surprising, then, that Gadot has become a target of anti-Zionist criticism and of the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) movement. That is, after all, the whole purpose of this lengthy discussion, to explode the seemingly tangential and easily unseeable so-called Israel-Palestine “conflict” that might be more poignantly labelled the Israeli colonization of Palestine. As historian of the Occupation, Mark LeVine, notes about Gadot’s tenure as Wonder Woman and her branding as, essentially, the “real” Israeli Wonder Woman, “the producers and Gadot herself have intentionally morphed Gadot’s backstory with that of the character she’s playing,” emphasizing Gadot as a “wonder woman” on account of her combat training, often claiming that it prepared her for the role. Just as the media discourse marks no difference between the anti-war, feminist powerhouse of badassery that is Wonder Woman, and the former IDF soldier and actress-model, neither does Gadot nor the media discourse around her. And what is so disturbing about this is not the understandable conflation of actress and iconic character, a common enough phenomenon, but the conflation of an anti-fascist truth-seeking hero with the quintessential exemplar of the “Hot Jew” archetype and all of the complex, messy historical baggage it carries with it. So, then, any analysis of Gadot and her position as the Jewish people’s Wonder Woman in the early twenty-first century must refer to and wrestle with the complications/complicities of that semantic overlap.
For David Breakstone, Gadot brings the erotic to Zionism, combining “virginal” innocence with the “unsullied character” of fierce Jewish warriors of biblical and Israeli history. Writing for The Times of Israel, Breakstone gushes: “She is…the personification of all of our ‘tough girls’ whom [Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai’s tourists (in his poem by that name) ‘lust after’ on their visit to the Holy Land.” This is Wonder Woman as colonialist hottie, what Miriam Libicki at the end of her essay calls the “adorable oppressor for every situation.”
What cannot be denied, in the final analysis, is that Wonder Woman has become a Zionist symbol, or, at the very least has become a national symbol of the Israeli state (if, in this moment, they can be disassembled). So intertwined have Wonder Woman and the Israeli state become, that the 2017 Miss World and Miss Universe contestants from Israel, Rotem Rabi and Adar Gandelsman (both of whom emphasize IDF service in their official pageant videos), fashioned for the “national costume” portion of the pageants, the costumes were lighter and skimpier than Gadot’s, but essentially the same: skirt and bodice featuring the classic “W” shape, knee-high boots, bracers, a thick metal tiara, and a shield (with the Magen David emblazoned in the center). With this, the designer, declared Israel the nation “where a REAL Wonder Woman comes from!” So we find ourselves at the start of a new semantic loop in the transformation of an icon within the discourse of a (hyper)sexualized settler-colonial ideology, from Israeli national pageant star to IDF soldier to Wonder Woman, and back from Wonder Woman to Israeli national pageant star again.
Wonder Woman is, for worse, a sexualized, militarized propaganda figure standing for the maintenance of the Israel-Palestine status quo: Occupation by sexy soldiers. She is now perhaps best captured in the motto of the liberal-feminist Zionist organization Zioness: “Unabashedly Progressive. Unquestionably Zionist.” A bombshell of a feminist hero, yet unquestionably attached in image, brand, and history to the Occupation.
Sean Guynes-Vishniac is a PhD candidate in English at Michigan State University. He is editor of Punking Science Fiction (a special issue of Deletion, May 2018), co-editor of Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics (Ohio State UP, forthcoming) and Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (Amsterdam UP, 2017), editor of The SFRA Review, and book reviews editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He can be found online at www.seanguynes.com or on Twitter @guynesvishniac.