Apparent strides forward in on-screen representation have suffered a number of contextual setbacks in recent years. Sherlock writer Stephen Moffat, for instance, was initially praised for making Moriarty an LGBT character on his show, only for us to discover that the character’s sexuality is simply a tool to get across how “psycho” and “unpredictable” he is. Hardly a role model for young LGBT people. Marvel’s Black Widow, too, was hailed as a strong, independent quasi-superhero on our screens, only for her entire backstory to be condensed down into a “I got sterilised and now I’m worthless” trope during Age of Ultron.
The release of Wonder Woman finally offers a lead role to a female protagonist, but it too may prove to be no exception.
The eponymous superhero of this movie is played by Gal Gadot, an Israeli-born former Miss Israel who previously starred in the Fast & Furious movies. Like all Israelis, Gadot served two years in the Israeli Defense Forces in line with the country’s mandatory conscription laws, an experience she says taught her “discipline and respect”. During this time she was a combat trainer, and after leaving, she studied law before finally going into the film industry.
The IDF in which Gadot served has a longstanding record of war crimes accusations against it. During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the IDF launched an attack on the Gaza Strip so brutal that it killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians (500 of whom were children), resulting in almost universal condemnation from the rest of the world.
The worst of the atrocities came in July, when the IDF killed several Palestinian children in two separate incidents. The first, on the 9th, occurred when the IDF fired a missile on nine Palestinian youths as they watched the World Cup. The other occurred a week later, when an IDF naval vessel opened fire on four Gazan children while they played football on the beach. All were killed.
Just over a week after these atrocities, Gal Gadot announced on Instagram that she supported “all the boys and girls who are risking their lives protecting my country against the horrific acts conducted by Hamas”, along with the hashtag #LoveIDF.
This has subsequently sparked a backlash. Just before Wonder Woman was supposed to screen in Beirut, the Lebanese authorities banned all screenings of the film as part of an ongoing cultural boycott of Israeli products, both literal and artistic, and in opposition to Gadot’s service in the IDF.
To be clear, governments have no business in policing what films their citizens can and cannot see. The same Lebanese authorities responsible for this ban have also conducted similar acts of censorship on films that deal with religious topics, and films that explore sexuality. They are certainly no friends of mine.
The question here, then, is not whether the actions of the Lebanese authorities are justified, for they clearly aren’t. The question is whether it is right to boycott a film based on the actions and/or statements of its actors. While this seems like an obviously justified thing to do, some are convinced that this boycott is anti-Semitic in origin:
“Gal Gadot was a fitness trainer in the IDF, which, if you recall drafts every Israeli teen. It was not her choice, and she was in just about the least harmful position one could possibly be in, given the mandatory induction of all youth in Israel. If you boycott Wonder Woman just because Gadot was in the IDF/is Israeli, then you are being anti-Semitic” – a commentator on Tumblr
Obviously, boycotting a film purely because of somebody’s nationality or ethno-religious background is wrong. If anybody out there seeks to boycott Wonder Woman because Gal Gadot is Jewish, they are behaving reprehensibly. If that is the motivation of the Lebanese authorities, then shame on them as well. Jewish people are not de facto responsible for the actions of the Israeli government, let alone its military forces.
Admittedly, the line is blurred somewhat when it comes to conscripted service. It’s not as though Gadot walked into an IDF building one day and said “sign me up!” There are harsh penalties for conscientious objectors in Israel, and the government only acts leniently on those who insist that their religious studies preclude serving. It is not for me in a safe and faraway position to say whether one should always refuse conscription, though I suspect that were I an Israeli confronted with the choice, and witnessing the crimes of the IDF, I would refuse to serve. Spending time in prison is surely a fair price to pay for not assisting an army that fires missiles at children.
Of bigger concern is Gadot’s conduct since leaving the IDF, which has been reprehensible and callous. Were we faced with a film where the lead actor pledged support for the Chinese, Russian, Australian, or Filipino army, I would be arguing in favour of a boycott there too. People have the right to boycott things if they feel that a person involved in its making has done or said something heinous. Gadot has associated herself with an army that has a track record that should offend our every sensibility, and as such, boycott away.
That is, or at least should be, the basis of this boycott. Not her nationality, not her Jewishness, perhaps not even her refusal to be a conscientious objector. No, none of this really matters. What matters is her unapologetic and enthusiastic support for a terrorist army.
For the record, I’d be more than happy with an Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman. I’d just prefer one that doesn’t celebrate war crimes on Instagram.