Intersectional Feminism: Wonder Woman, Palestinians, Wakanda and Zionism
(Keep reading past intro)
Though I’m not by any means an expert or anything, I was a historical consultant for one of the better documentaries out there on Wonder Woman, released long before there was even the hint of any hope for a Wonder Woman film—a role I began in 2008 for a film released in 2012. That’s not to validate the opinion that follows here, just to convey the fact that I’ve been thinking about Wonder Woman for quite some time. In fact, even much longer than that. The first “comic trade paperback” I ever read was probably the first publication that could rightly be called such–Gloria Steinem’s collected Golden Age Wonder Woman stories published in a bound volume of comic book-sized dimensions in the 1970s. Steinem considered the 40’s to be the most feminist Wonder Woman iteration, when the comic was still authored by creator, William Moulton Marston.
Marston was an unapologetic visionary quack of the period. He had an open marriage with two women who co-parented his children, he invented a version of the lie detector, he was a not-very closeted bondage fan, he probably believed in Orgones. But Marston also wanted to create an antidote to violent, misogynist superheroes, and I think most people would think he was at least mildly successful in creating Wonder Woman, who used violence sparingly and brought a message of love and harmony to “man’s world”. Yes, there was Etta Candy and questionable spankings, there was unfortunate objectification and stereotyping. But Marston’s vision for Wonder Woman was wonderfully surreal, fun, and proto-feminist.
I remember being a 9 year old boy at the library getting lost in Marston’s absurdist larger than life narraratives and villains, many of whom were misogynist archetypes put in Princess Diana’s way for rhetorical slaying purposes [Dr. Psycho, being my favorite]. I loved Wonder Woman: the way she was drawn at that time, all sinew and modest star-spangled skirt and her just out of the salon coiffure of curly hair that reminded me of my sister. Her reasonable attitude that men were cool as long as they admitted she was their superior. Like many boys, I imagine, and girls, I enjoyed watching the extremely honky Steve Trevor being regularly humbled by her. My favorite Wonder Woman scene of all time, in fact, is the image of Steve Trevor happily breaking a magical device that had imbued him temporarily with superhuman strength surpassing even Diana’s after she flatly told him they could never be together if he was physically stronger than her.
I could go on and on about Wonder Woman, and her many evo and devolutions, the loss of her powers and ambition, the permanent straightening of her curly coiffure. One day I’m going to write the definitive argument that Nuyorican writer/artist George Perez is the only author since Marston who brought the character to life as a feminist icon and underdog with a personal life that revolved around other women, not just Steve Trevor and the sausage factory at the Justice League Satellite. And definitely, Perez knew like I knew that Wonder Woman was a person of color, no matter what Marston imagined. But that’s not what the following piece is about, as you may have guessed.
I was not one of the people excited to see Wonder Woman brought to the screen. By 2017, the film franchises have made gross joke out of the super heroes they reify in film, so that my common reaction to almost any such announcement is discomfort and boredom. But I did look forward to a mildly entertaining film series. I also understood the cultural impact of having a female super hero burst through the celluloid ceiling after many years sucked into the maw of conventional wisdom about what kind of movies people [a term which for these purposes excludes women and people of color] will watch. Then Gal Gadot was cast in the role.
I have seen very little written about the casting of an avowed Zionist as Wonder Woman, until recently, and even now, there’s precious little commentary about it. I’m saddened to see a narrative franchise I’ve loved from childhood sullied by direct immersion in anti-Palestinian bloodlust, yeah. But this isn’t my first rodeo by a longshot. I’ve lost track of how many times a narrative I’ve enjoyed has found a way to needlessly insert Israel into the mix, and further trumpet the nation’s skill at subjugating Palestinian trolls and goblins. There is often very little narrative logic to including Israelis in a movie or text, it just seems to be something exotic and hyper-martial to add to a story when a writer is in a slump.
The Big Bad Wolf asks Gepetto if he’s heard of Israel. No, I’m not making it up.
The most memorable instance of this dynamic for me, the world-class championship winner of sticking in Israel when there is no conceivable plot necessity was in the comic Fables, about fairy tale characters come to life and living in Manhattan. The absurd way Israel’s excellence at killing Palestinians was woven into a substantive part of that narrative has always astounded me.
But let’s be honest. That speaks more to the dominance of the Zionist narrative in American culture. It’s a barometer of the “good” struggle, machismo, moral certitude and smarmy sentimentality. Israel as the Superman-like Solomon, dispensing unerring just terror from above, is part of the mainstream American ideology in this godforsaken nation of bigots, and I have given up fighting that on a day to day level for sanity’s sake.
So, no, my problem really isn’t just that Gadot is an Israeli, an IDF veteran and an enthusiastic cheerleader for Israel’s habit of “cutting the grass” in Palestine by murdering children and destroying entire cities with missiles. Just like the surprising number of all types of films and texts that portray killing Palestinians as a happy and wonderful thing—things that I often overlook in movies—many of my favorite films are helmed by or star people with horrendous qualities and ideology. I don’t mind Sylvester Stallone for example, or Mel Gibson, and I will literally watch any movie with Tom Cruise in it. The presence of Scarlet Johanson has never prevented me from watching, and being disappointed by, an Avengers movie.
What has bothered me, however, is the uncritical acceptance of the person of Gadot as a feminist icon on the left. My Twitter timeline, for example, is a awash in woke folks experiencing memetic orgasms over Gadot, photos of queer and women cosplay inspired by her characterization in the film, hilarity ensuing over fanboy backlash at women’s only screenings. The almost unified left-wing disinterest in Gadot’s anti-Palestinian warmongering has been a source of frustration obviously. But it’s also been a continuation for me of a disappointing trend that began with the celebration of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ taking over the Black Panther comic.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m uncomfortable even suggesting that women—and especially Black women and men—should have to interrogate their heroes in those rare moments when a Black or female superhero makes it on to screen. I am not trying to establish a checklist that has to be satisfied before you can enjoy a race or gender champion brought to the silver screen. But I think a larger question centers around Zionism’s compatibility with both feminism and Black empowerment. This is a question that is, unfortunately, much more frequently brought up by Zionists who also identify as leftists, who seek to marginalize Pro-Palestinian positions as the square peg in a discourse of liberation.
Recent controversies and articles around the anti-Trump women’s march and the constant criticism of pro-Palestinian positions taken in the course of Black Lives Matters actions stand out as typical of this dynamic. Zionists go on the offensive, asking if its really okay to include Palestinians as members of the fraternity of the colonized and oppressed, since they are all, you know, awful. And, unfortunately, it’s the mainstream left that often leave the opposite argument unspoken, and Zionism’s toxic ideology unexamined when it comes into play over Black and gender discourses and activism. Gadot and Coates are perfect examples in that latter group of Zionist support in the terrain of ideological heavy-lifting comic book characters.
In both cases, Gadot and Coates have been unapologetic and open about their support of anti-Palestinian violence. During Operation Protective Edge, Gadot, just cast as Wonder Woman, used her new platform to defend direct attacks on civilians, including women and children. Gadot celebrated Israeli propaganda that every such casualty was Hamas’ fault for storing weapons close to them in the most densely populated open-air prison camp on earth. The most frustrating thing to me is how obviously this invalidates Gadot as a feminist icon, and Wonder Woman as well, when the character is brought to life by Gadot. If gender is shared by all racial groups, feminism cannot be Zionist, just as it cannot be neo-Nazi—feminism that doesn’t have an understanding of how it intersects with racial and ethnic oppression is simply a diversification of white supremacy.
Coates is perhaps even worse than Gadot, with a host of publicly expressed enthusiasms for Zionism. German reparations to Israel for the holocaust—which were deliberately directed to Israel’s colonial project in Palestine—are a central rubric of Coates’ proposed methodology for African American reparations. Coates, in fact, introduced the idea co-jointly with his editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg, an Iraq war supporter and Islamophobe is also a rabid Zionist. Two decades ago, Goldberg travelled to Israel to live a vicarious life of bigotry and violence as an IDF guard in a prison for Palestinians arrested for violations of Israeli martial law. Coates made sure the world knew that his relationship with Goldberg was not just professional, that of an editor and journalist, or even colleagues who see eye to eye on a thing or two. Rather, Coates fondly recalls his regular family breakfasts with an unindicted war criminal in warm tones during an interview with Goldberg for the Atlantic a few years ago.
Again, this is not a commentary on the value of the narrative behind Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Coates’ Black Panther, nor Gadot’s acting prowess, or the strength of Coates’ observations about the Black experience of US oppression. Instead, it’s an open question about whether its possible to support Zionism while also proposing useful iterations of feminism and racial justice.
Is it possible to openly call for the death of women in a neighboring state, to support a political and economic regime that without a doubt contributes to their subjugation both at the hands of Israel, and in Palestinian society, and still be a feminist? And can one use the funding of European colonialism in historical Palestine as a viable blueprint for African-American reparations and not lose something inherent to racial justice in the process? This is more than just an issue of being ignorant to intersectionality, because the leftwing audience I am talking about is comfortable and familiar with ideas around intersectionality. I guess I’m asking if Palestinians even rate high enough on the scale of human beings to be seen as worthy of intersecting with. So far, from what I’m seeing, I don’t like the answer.