Andrea Marks-Joseph responds to the mainstream feminist movement’s reaction to the 2017 Wonder Woman film
I didn’t grow up reading comics. I saw Superman, Spiderman and Batman on kids’ backpacks and later in the popular action movies, but I don’t remember a single mention of Wonder Woman in my childhood. I wasn’t venturing through life without female action heroes. I had Tomb Raider, then Kim Possible and as I grew older, Sucker Punch. I watched them over and over again when I wanted to feel brave. I played the video games for hours just so I could hear their powerful shouts as they kicked through doors and punched the bad guys.
I understand the significance of a female superhero to young women. I wholeheartedly believe we need representation as action heroes, but that we should not get it at the cost of erasing an entire nation’s right to exist. My issue with Wonder Woman is that it is a commercial celebration of Gal Gadot, who proudly served two years in the Israel Defense Forces and continues to support the army’s violent efforts to take Palestine.
Whether it is called an occupation, siege, blockade, apartheid or tribal retribution, the fundamental truth remains: for five decades, Israeli forces have suppressed the civil and human rights of Gaza’s citizens. Gadot’s service in the Israeli Defense Forces overlaps with the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War, during which an exchange of fire lasted 34 days. The IDF fights to destroy the Palestinian population and puts them through a living hell. They enforce military roadblocks that humiliate and impoverish the Palestinian people. They’ve built separation walls and illegal settlements. They regularly instigate violence with their launch attacks on residential homes and the stripping of Palestine’s resources. Their troops routinely fire at unarmed Palestinians, often knowingly targeting children.
The star of the Wonder Woman film has been vocal about her support of the IDF, including through social media posts glorifying the attacks on Gaza. On top of that, Gadot’s service in the Israeli army has been a large focus of the press tour and marketing tactics for the film. It’s an additional blow that the film’s initial release dates fell within the week of the 50th anniversary of the occupation of Gaza during the Six-Day War. This film is the first big screen depiction of Wonder Woman in the character’s 70-year history, and the first in a parade of big budget superhero films to star a woman, and this is what we get: a publicity stunt that glorifies war crimes against Palestine. We deserve so much better. The release of this Wonder Woman film has been hailed as a triumph for women’s equality, but Gal Gadot’s support of the IDF and the media’s continued support of her on such a large scale seriously harms the feminist movement. You cannot represent women’s equality while you are complicit in the murder and oppression of thousands of women. The choice to see Wonder Woman in cinemas is an act of support for its blatant disregard for the lives of Palestinian women.
In its first weekend, Wonder Woman set a record for having the biggest ever opening for a female-directed film. Even more significant is the fact that this was achieved with an audience that was predominantly female. In one weekend, women came together to say: “We want to see ourselves on screen, and we want those films to be about more than women trying and failing to earn a man’s affection.” The box office records send the message loud and clear: We are not to be underestimated. But this financial success also reinforces the studio’s decisions to dismiss the voices calling for justice. We have rewarded the decision to give an international platform to a woman who publicly and proudly speaks of her role in a massacre that still rages on. The studio executives and marketing teams went so disgustingly far as to use Gadot’s two years of military combat experience (read: expertise in violent murder and oppression) as a marketing tool, and now we have given them reason to do it again and again.
In no way am I suggesting the blame lies solely with the millions of women who went to see the film this month, but I am stating that as feminist consumers in a capitalist society we cannot continue to simply rejoice at female representation. We must stay woke in all aspects of our lives. We have a responsibility to consider the costs of our lifestyle to women other than ourselves. We can use this box office hit as a reminder that we are more powerful than we remember. We can use this moment to enact real and valuable change for good.
A triumph for feminism is only a triumph for feminism when it includes all of us. As such, an attack on Palestinian women is an attack on us all. We have a saying here in South Africa: Wathint’ Abafazi, Wathint’ Imbokodo: when you strike a woman, you strike a rock. It holds special value to us as a reminder of the Women’s March in Pretoria in 1956, when over 20,000 women actively resisted the restrictive laws of apartheid. Their protest against the government’s decision that black women must carry passes became a significant turning point in the struggle against unjust apartheid laws and the emancipation of women.
My passion for this issue is fuelled by my experience as a South African woman of colour. I belong to a nation that’s still learning to accept my value and reluctantly carving out a space for me twenty three years after our apartheid ended. I watch in horror as I see images and hear the stories of the Palestinian people – horror at its heartbreaking injustice and resemblance to the oppression of my parents during apartheid. That’s how recently apartheid happened to us! My parents were the teenagers being taught to avoid the men with guns patrolling their streets, their families forced out of their homes in the middle of the night when the white men decided they wanted to live there.
Every South African of colour has an experience with the police that mirrors that of the IDF soldiers in the West Bank who look on with disinterest as Israeli settlers destroy Palestinian property or assault Palestinians. Only now it is the Palestinians who are trapped in a warzone that was once their home. It is their roads being arbitrarily divided up into ‘theirs’ and ‘not theirs’. It is they who must apply for passes to cross into areas they once travelled freely. I can only begin to imagine what it will take for the women of Palestine to recover from this wreckage. But they will not have the chance to rebuild if we keep denying their oppression is happening at all.
I grew up as my country began to untangle itself from the brutality of the apartheid my parents experienced. Even in the brave new Rainbow Nation, I was made to feel excluded and unwelcome in the daily grind of my own life, but I found community within the movies I loved. I have countless examples of the role that accurate and fair representation in television and film played in my life: in diagnosing my mental illnesses, discovering the ways I was reinforcing patriarchal ideas, learning how to be an informed consumer and finding pride in owning and expressing my blackness.
I understand the power in seeing yourself on a big screen, but I also understand the violence of seeing yourself disregarded on screen. I see it in the way black roles in TV are limited to a narrative that feeds the capitalist agenda. We rob stores, we only listen to rap music, we sell drugs, we are loud and aggressive. I see it when a TV show I love gives a character bipolar disorder as a means to bring chaos into the plot of the show or kill someone off. I see it now, in the Wonder Woman marketing strategies that say: “This woman has killed before; isn’t that great! Now watch her kill again in your local cinema.” A lot of this narrative lies within the poisonous pro-military attitude that feeds US culture.
It is also important to remember that the IDF gets most of its funding from the United States. US taxpayers are often, unknowingly, funding this immoral and inhumane war machine. But the United Kingdom is not divorced from this narrative. Your people inflicted this colonialism and violence on mine. You now have unfiltered access to these facts outside the narrative from your government. Your responsibility is to seek out the truth and use that knowledge as a force towards achieving justice and equality.
In following voices against the film online, I watched day by day as countries announced their condemnation of Wonder Woman and that the film would thus be banned from release. The Jordanian campaign said: “We remind the Jordanians of their obligation to boycott the film, and we refuse to be partners to the crimes of the Zionists and to increase their profits from this film. The Arab audience will not be involved in projects that represent Zionism and the Israeli army.” I would say this is a simple and clear statement of something that should be instinctive. This should especially be the case in my country, which is still navigating the devastation of our own apartheid. When you know better you do better. When you know your power, you take a stand.
But I heard nothing from my government. This was an opportunity to stand with Palestine, but instead we turned our backs. So I wrote to our Film and Publication Board and a leading broadcasting house, expressing my outrage that the South African government’s official stance is one against the occupation of Palestine, and yet it remains silent on the issue of this film. I demanded they provide a statement to justify what is a clear signal that they’ve chosen potential profits over a call for the end of devastation and violence.
True to the nature of bureaucracy, the only response I’ve received so far is a computer-generated email that I will, in due time, receive a full reply. I continue to contact them and they continue their silence. So, for now, that interaction is on hold. The response to my message on my Twitter account, however, was immediate and engaging. I received a stream of messages from girls (some of them in the UK) who saw the film and felt empowered by it, now realising they were complicit in elevating something horrific. These women, who had engaged in countless excited online conversations about the Wonder Woman film in the months leading up to the release, had not yet been confronted with the fact that Gadot’s casting stood directly against the ideology of Wonder Woman herself. She was parading as an image of hope for us, but it was false. My attempt to hold my government accountable had, by the power of the internet and young women, turned into several complex discussions on the role our daily lives can play in the feminist revolution.
Your nation just showed us the beautiful and brilliant change that can happen when the youth is informed and given a voice in their country. As I write this, my country celebrates a day in 1976 when young people reinvigorated a fight against the racial inequality their parents had been so brutalised by that they were beginning to give up. Now, I think of the Palestinian youth who will not have a say in who governs their country until they gain freedom from Israeli rule. I see the images of Gal Gadot glorified in the media for wielding the very same weapons she used against them – and not against them in an ideological sense, but in a very literal guns-bombs-and-night-raids one.
As women with a collective voice and lives that have an impact, we must take on this responsibility. Our interactions online, while diverse, may be slanted towards only one aspect of our disadvantaged society. Some things to consider include:
- Is the social media space you’ve curated for yourself as intersectional as you believe feminism should be?
- Are the voices on your timeline sharing engaging expressions of your views?
- Does the space bring you new and exciting things, be it in fashion or political essays or scientific evidence?
- Does your social media world include a healthy mix of voices in your own area and those with international perspectives abroad?
- And are you adding your voice to conversations calling for justice?
I was not adding my voice to conversations calling for justice. I was actively seeking out voices I identified with, liking and retweeting them, but had been silent on the nuances of my own conviction. Not until my rage spilled over in desperation for my government and media to be held accountable, did I consider my own complacency. In choosing to raise my voice, I discovered the unique perspective at the intersections of my identities. Each woman who wrote a response to me presented a different and complex interpretation of Wonder Woman‘s box office success. How much stronger and louder could the fight against Palestine’s occupation be if all of us raised our unique voices in support?
It was a long struggle for South Africa to achieve democracy and begin on the road to equality. It took protests and political bargaining; it took powerful countries to impose sanctions against us. It took journalists who risked their safety and their jobs to give a voice to reason. It took actors and poets flying across the world to tell our story so that they could return with typewritten agreements that their country’s farms, factories and sports teams would no longer financially support a government that is oppressing its people. There is no fair reason this film should have been allowed to exist and succeed in 2017. This erasure is inexcusable in a time when the world is at our fingertips.
When I consider the women who flocked to the cinemas this month, I can’t help thinking of the many teenagers whose parents are excited for them to see a female superhero in a Hollywood film. How many of them would support this film if it was their children who were killed when the IDF’s rockets hit Palestine? Would it matter to them that when women all over the world click ‘follow’ on Gal’s social media they may be absorbing casual posts that glorify a brutality from which we have barely begun to free ourselves?
If all the media your daughters are exposed to – including magazines that claim to stand for girl power – say Gal Gadot is brave and inspirational, why would they question the things she supports and the issues she raises? When we see a celebrity posting about a humanitarian cause or in support of their national teams, we applaud them for breaking from the societal myth that celebrity culture is self-serving superficiality. We should hold the women in our lives and the women we admire to a higher standard than just using their voice. They must use their voice to reach and respect all of us. They must use their voice in support of equality, to raise awareness of injustice, to encourage that we build each other up instead of tearing each other down. They must, at the very least, simply consider all people as equal and deserving of human rights.
In a time where feminism is a buzzword for mainstream media to twist into whichever shape can produce profits, we have a responsibility to create pockets of magic where young women can discover their power both physically and politically. We should be the reason people learn how being unashamedly themselves can prevent further harm and be a force for liberation. Our calls for female representation should intersect with our responsibilities to each other as feminists all over the world. A commitment to intersectional feminism is a responsibility to consider the rights of all women and how they might be impacted by products or experiences we create. We should see ourselves in stories of injustice against other women.
The Wonder Woman film phenomenon has caused so much damage but it can still serve as a moment to spark a political awakening. Whether we were ignorant or complacent, or felt that our recreational activities have no real impact, let this be an encouragement for us to see that opportunities to stand for social justice aren’t limited to national elections (no matter how many of them your politicians decide you need).
Image credit: Image taken from the film’s official Facebook page.
Image description: A white dark haired woman looks into the camera while reaching for a sword on her back. Her hair is long and she’s wearing a metal head band with a star on her forehead and other pieces of armour are visible on her forearms. It’s Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.