If there is such a thing as the most famous Israeli or even the most famous Jew in the world, it is in all likelihood the actress Gal Gadot. Indeed, when a film like Wonder Woman is a hit from the US to China and back again, it could hardly be otherwise. One imagines that the film has thousands, perhaps millions, of fans who have never heard of, say, Benjamin Netanyahu. Being a prominent world leader is one thing — being a blockbuster movie star is quite another.
Generally speaking, Israelis and Jews are fairly proud of Gadot’s success, mainly because she is seen as an excellent, if informal, cultural ambassador for the Jewish state. And Gadot, unlike previous Israeli international stars, plays roles more in accordance with Israel’s sabra archetype — the Zionist “new Jew” liberated from the Diaspora: beautiful, smiling, athletic, slightly exotic and with just a touch of swagger.
She feels, in other words, both genuinely Israeli and very much the image Israelis would like to present to the world.
More than anything else, however, Gadot is unapologetic, completely open about her Israeli and Jewish identities, with none of the cringing deference other Jewish celebrities often make to potentially-hostile audiences.
But there is something else Gadot is doing, perhaps involuntarily, that is less tangible and less connected to Israel per se: By simply being who she is with the celebrity she enjoys, Gadot is remaking the cultural image of Jewish women in the non-Jewish world.
Over the last century, non-Jewish cultural products — and, regrettably, quite a few Jewish ones — have tended to portray Jewish women according to a rather small set of derogatory stereotypes: the ugly but conveniently promiscuous slut; the materialist, demanding and sexually-withholding JAP; and, of course, the grasping and suffocating Jewish mother.
None of these are particularly appealing stereotypes, and they weren’t meant to be. Nonetheless, they were and, in many ways, still are immensely popular, especially in American cultural products, where they are usually played for cheap laughs and tend to get them.
It should be noted that this is, in fact, a relatively new development. For most of Diaspora history, such as in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and 19th-century European literature, the “Jewess” was in fact seen as an exotic, highly-sexualized and desirable object: the beautiful, inscrutable woman of the East who the non-Jewish man sought to capture and conquer. This was, of course, an equally-derogatory stereotype in its own way, but it does point to the fact that the image of the Jewish woman in non-Jewish eyes has always been a malleable one, and subject to rapid change.
What Gadot — or at least the image of Gadot — is accomplishing, however, is something quite new: she is remaking the image of the Jewish woman via Israeli means. That is to say, the image is finally being remade by Jews. While it still has remnants of the old stereotypes, especially of the exotic Oriental, it nonetheless is taking place almost entirely on Gadot’s own terms. That is, on Jewish terms, and this is something that, interestingly, the non-Jewish world appears finally ready to accept.
One can see this in the very fact of Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman. While comic book films are, of course, not profound art, they do speak to the collective unconscious of a particular culture. Wonder Woman has for decades been a feminist icon around the world; an embodiment of the ideas of female strength, intelligence, beauty and power.
And the film itself was also groundbreaking, not only because it was the first female-led superhero blockbuster. More important was the uniqueness of the story it told — most superhero “origin stories” are about the coming of age of a young boy, a classic universal archetype. Wonder Woman was about the coming of age of a young girl, introducing a new universal archetype into mainstream pop cinema. That the non-Jewish world has proven itself willing to not only accept a Jewish actress in such a role, but to embrace it enthusiastically, is in historical context fairly remarkable.
It is true that, in some ways, Gadot had to be Israeli to accomplish this. Israel’s relatively-unusual policy of drafting women into the army has long created an underground fetish for such things as “the girls of the IDF” — that is, powerful and forceful women who can hold their own among men — and it was likely that putting a non-Israeli Jew in such a role would have been a step slightly too far for an ever-cautious Hollywood. But by giving the world a new image of how a Jewish woman can and ought to be seen, Gadot’s success may be a step toward changing this.
Jewish girls around the world can look at Wonder Woman and see themselves in a way they cannot with other female heroines, and perhaps they too will begin to insist on putting an end to pernicious stereotypes that have already persisted for far too long.
Photo by Gage Skidmore