Comic Book Brain

Gal Gadot, to be or not to be Cleopatra

Wonder Woman as a different Wonder Woman from the age of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, 69 BC - 30 BC.

Gal Gadot Cleopatra

This artwork actually has nothing to do with the coming movie. It has Gadot dressed up in the Cleopatra gear similar to what Elizabeth Taylor wore in the most expensive American film ever made, 1963's Cleopatra.
Art by eew138

Controversy erupted when the announcement was made that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins were doing a Cleopatra movie. The complaints were:

1. Gal Gadot is an Israeli, and not an Egyptian, and only an Egyptian should play Cleopatra. Then a history lesson spread across the internet: Cleopatra wasn't actually Egyptian, though she did speak the language. She was actually Greek.

1B. But, still, Gal Gadot isn't Greek! (She is a Mediterranean, though, like Greeks.)

2. Jewish actors shouldn't get work because there's a loud contingent of people who hate Jews. This was obviously a much more stupid argument than the first one.

Story about all this at Yahoo News (Oct 11, 2020) and at Deadline Hollywood (Oct 11, 2020)

Addressing the controversy at NBC News - the article at NBC is by Arish Azizi.

The controversy shows a misunderstanding of history and an unfortunate persistence of racialized thinking about both Gadot and Cleopatra, two women born some 2,000 years apart in two relatively close parts of the Eastern Mediterranean. The fact that neither one’s background can be easily distilled shows why it’s wrong to insist that artists fit rigid identity boxes to qualify for a role and to treat historical figures as markers in our modern-day divides, rather than celebrating individuals for their talents and civilizations for their diversity. To do otherwise denies humanity its rich multicultural heritage.

The article writer at NBC protests about the limitations that political positions foist upon artistry, but I think the argument can go much further in this sphere. Actors are chameleon shape-shifters who through mastery (or natural inexplicable talent) have a unique skill to portray things that outstrip their surface appearances.

Actors are emotional shapeshifters

Good actors express ideas and identity simultaneously, and even more, by their skill they carry forward a story, through a character they play, despite the fact the actor themself may be too short, too tall, too fat or too skinny to be an accurate physical representation of a historical or a fictional character. Actors of a variety of races have portrayed King Leer (for example Paul Robeson) and MacBeth (for example Toshiro Mifune) and in both cases only a person unable to recognize the art (or with an non-art agenda) would protest: "this isn't good because those two guys ain't Shakespearian Englishmen!"

An actor is emotionally whatever they have to be in order to express the story and the character within the story. It is short-sighted to say that only a long-nosed short man who was born on the island of Corsica could possibly portray Napoleon, because these things are what Napoleon was. Any number of such men are still being born on Corsica, and yet none of them are Napoleon, but a skilled actor from anywhere with the right props and scene situation can convince us he is Napoleon.

The dilemma of art vs politics

Saying what art should be according to the realm of political science doesn't make for either freedom or quality in expression. Artists themselves have enough trouble producing good art, how can turning over the leadership in art to political science make sense? Would we want the science of astronomy ruled by astrologists? There are obvious reasons why separate disciplines are separate.

Legitimate arguments are made for aligning an actor's ethnicity to a role, all having to do with successfully accomplishing the need for artistry in a role. But the current situation under debate in 21st century American culture isn't about the art, it is about aligning art to the goals of political fashion (and in the case of Gadot, some complaints look like barely-disguised bigotry. The argument that she shouldn't have acting work because she is a Jew sounds like the argument made by the Nazis 80-odd years ago against other Jews. When this is pointed out, often these who are the modern equivalent commences with accusing everyone else of being Nazis).

Concocting art

As if actors didn't have a burden already with the anxiety of producers leaning over their shoulder to be sure and bring a gimmick that'll provoke attention and financial success, now the politically minded intrude and want their "pound of flesh" too, demanding that art be distorted to fit the agenda of that separate world, demanding subservience to those goals and methods, insisting that all artists have acceptable current political positions. This is an absurd assignment to concoct art this way. The history of art is full of very good artists who were crazy, or alcoholics, eccentrics, jerks, fanatics, assholes, drug-addicts and men and women who were not in tune to their times and weren't nice to mother. Political science wants to get society ordered and organized and everyone moving together, unified, in the right direction. Its not just that artists won't cooperate, its that so many of them can't whether they want to or not.

There is also a simple question of fairness, the world of art doesn't deserve to be ruled by the world of political science. When this happens, the hacks are elevated* because they'll say the right things, and the talented and those dedicated to maintaining skill in artistry (instead of dedicated to excelling in the myriad twists and turns of politics) soon have only the possible utility of producing propaganda, or leaving for exile. It should come as a warning to artists who bother to look at the history of their own profession that when a society becomes engulfed in rampant politicalization of, well, everything, artists are soon forced to make very uncomfortable choices. Manufacturing "art" that is really a series of political statements that flatter the gang in charge becomes like working at the treasury where every single coin is minted with the image of the Emperor.

So Gal Gadot offends the quota world

So naming Gal Gadot for a role as Cleopatra offends some quota imagined by a group possessed with a political creed about how the rest of the world should operate and look like. That's certainly fine for them since politics is what they're concerned about. But they're not artists and that's not art, and artists should not, if possible, turn over the reigns of their place in the contemporary world to them. Should plumbers being telling brain-surgeons how to do their work? Should brain-surgeons be telling subway-train drivers how to do their work?

The world of actors is just one section of the world of art and it doesn't benefit any of the other parts to have actors getting black-listed, pushed to appear for the benefit of the right political causes, and all the rest of the blarney that we've seen in the past when purity tests begin to determine who gets work and who doesn't, and how the great god Conformity is raised up proudly over the whole edifice.

*Many artists in many fields of expression have been fervently devoted to some political (or religious) idea, and they put their training, skill, talent, complexity, and their arbitrary and unpredictable qualities to work for those ideals. Even when the political moment or a religious fashion has faded or become vague, art produced as art by skilled artists remains strong and clear. This is because artistry technically isn't a moral position, but a skill, but the difference between the skill and the morality can be forced to emerge. A perusal of propaganda art of the USSR and the Nazis shows that while some artists were fully invested into those ideals, over time the artistry in the propaganda grew more and more deeply ornamented with detail and an imitation of the centuries old style of realism (but a 'realism' always used in one way, to flatter the adherents of the political philosophy, and to make monsters of its enemies) and in the end, so often, that skill that garnished the political ideals produces the reverse effect of something like a Faberge egg: encrusted skillfully on the outside, but hollow on the inside.

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Original Page October 2020 | Updated January 28, 2022