Gal Gadot and the Jewish essence of Wonder Woman

May 31, 2017
gal-gadotGal Gadot in the 2017 film “Wonder Woman.” Photo by Clay Enos/DC Comics

When Wonder Woman first appeared on the comic book scene in 1941, she entered as a kind of messianic figure.

She soared to life during World War II, when most of Europe was in shambles. The devastating human and economic losses of the war had taken a grave toll on the global order thanks to real-life villains Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. And male superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, entered an existential crisis — their hypermasculinities seemed a little too simpatico with the villains of the war, even as their ignorance of the gas chambers made them irrelevant. A shattered world called out for a new superhero, someone who could elevate the genre and redeem humanity from the ashes of Auschwitz.

Enter Wonder Woman.

Sculpted from clay on the all-female island of Themyscira, Diana Prince (her civilian name) is nurtured by Aphrodite and trained as an Amazon warrior. When U.S. Army Air Corps intelligence officer Steve Trevor crashes on her island, he tells her of a world at war and she feels a duty to try to stop it.

Fast forward to 2013, when the casting of Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot in the Hollywood reboot of “Wonder Woman” — which opens in theaters on June 2 — was no less momentous than the moment of the character’s creation. Surely, this was good news for the Jews.

“So exciting!!! Can’t express how happy I am :)))),” Gadot tweeted to her followers after the announcement.

Her elation was widely shared. The editorial board of The Jerusalem Post saw fit to write about why this casting choice was so meaningful: “Israel — and the Jewish people — need heroines such as Gal Gadot,” the editors gushed. “They present a picture to the world of the beautiful, sexy Israeli, countering the all-too-pervasive negative and ugly imagery of Israel and Israelis in the international media.”

Nowadays, superheroes don’t just save the world; they apparently can save Israel’s image. Or so went The Jerusalem Post’s slightly delusional logic.

The newspaper was right to acknowledge the occasion’s significance, though for the wrong reason. The real power in casting Gadot as Wonder Woman is that it offers the moviegoing public both a real and fictive revenge fantasy. It isn’t just a triumph for women that the new savior of the world is female; it is a triumph for the Jews.

“Wonder Woman was created in and for World War II,” Glen Weldon, author of “Superman: The Unauthorized Biography” said during a 2013 interview on National Public Radio. “That was her whole shtick, fighting the Nazis.”

Indeed, Wonder Woman’s first adversaries in the comic books are the military of the Axis powers, whose defeat is her raison d’etre. Though the new Hollywood version inexplicably changes the war from World War II to World War I, fighting Hitler is in the character’s DNA — but so is tikkun olam (repairing the world).

“She was created to be something of a contradiction,” Weldon said. “She is a warrior for peace. That’s tough.”

Ha! Not if you’re Israeli.

Besides the fact that Batman and Superman were emblematic of male power at a time when male power had left half the world in ruins, they also were psychological disappointments. As popular projections of divine, supernal power, Batman and Superman fell short. Not only had their “super-ness” failed the populace of Europe, they were ill-equipped to help survivors heal. The heroic imagination required a radical champion — someone with worldly qualities, like strength, but also divine qualities, like love. Power alone was not enough to prevail; a wounded world needed heart and soul.

Psychologist, feminist and comic book writer William Moulton Marston decided to create an antidote and alternative to what he saw as the “blood-curdling masculinity” of the superhero landscape. “A male hero, at best, lacks the qualities of maternal love and tenderness which are as essential to a normal child as the breath of life,” Marston wrote in a 1944 article for The American Scholar. So along came Wonder Woman, “with all the strength of a Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman,” Marston wrote. She would be the new, epicene ideal of heroism: an amalgam of masculine might and feminine compassion.

How appropriate, then, to cast Jewish former Israel Defense Forces soldier Gal Gadot as the character originally conceived as a Nazi-crushing superheroine. Wonder Woman may not be the only superhero to take on the Nazis (see: Captain America), but it’s the first time an actor can arm such a character with real-world cultural vengeance. Gadot’s maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, which binds her psychically to her avenging character. In 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” her fighting spirit was so obvious that director Justin Lin added to her character’s backstory by making her a Mossad agent. “He really liked that I was in the Israeli military and he wanted to use my knowledge of weapons,” she told the Forward in 2011.

Tender, smart and strong, Wonder Woman was designed as a feminist archetype, but her current iteration also has come to embody Israeliness. In the Jewish state, it’s a national requirement for women to kick ass. And it is specifically within the micro-society of the Israeli military that men and women are expected to contribute equally, both serving in combat roles. This norm suggests that strength, skill and weaponry are the domain of both sexes, and reinforces equality of the sexes among secular Israelis. Mixed-gender army service also contributes to a national myth in which each soldier is a potential “superhero” whose duty is to protect innocents and fight evil (i.e., terrorists) who seek the country’s destruction.

Notably, the Hollywood “Wonder Woman” is the first superhero movie in over a decade to feature a female in the title role. It is also the first time a female director (Patty Jenkins) has helmed a superhero franchise, an effort to dispel conventional wisdom that a female-centric film can’t be a blockbuster (see: “The Hunger Games”).

Although, early on, Gadot was criticized for not having the appropriate body type for Wonder Woman — she was considered too thin and too lanky to be strong, her breasts too small to exude sexuality — she put those criticisms to rest with her real-life combat resume. When still others charged that Gadot couldn’t reconcile playing a strong female character while clad in a skimpy outfit, she shot back: “I think as a feminist, you should be able to wear whatever you like!” Gadot told The New York Times.

As Gadot herself has put it, one of the defining aspects of her character is that she transcends gender. “Feminism is about equality and choice and freedom. … And the best way to show that is to show Diana as having no awareness of social roles. She has no gender boundaries. To her, everyone is equal.”

Wonder Woman doesn’t inhabit an us-versus-them universe the way her male counterparts do. Instead, she serves as that “warrior for peace” — neither provocateur, nor pacifist — but one who only uses her strength against an unambiguous enemy. At least in theory, this also is the animating force of the Israeli army. Though Wonder Woman was conceived specifically to combat Nazism, her matchless qualities have turned her into a redemptive figure for humankind. She fights only when she must, and she loves just as fiercely.

By turning her over to Gadot, Hollywood is answering historical tragedy with a touch of irony: Wonder Woman is an Israeli Jew.

“Wonder Woman” opens in theaters June 2. 

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