Wonder-Woman Playing Cleopatra Sparks Racial Controversy
There is perhaps no better way of instigating argument in modern society than bringing up ethnicity, race or gender, and with this in mind I petition that you, the reader, to stay on “my side” throughout this article, no matter how sensitive it gets. Ancient Origins does not want to take a side, but just to try to work out if there is actually an answer in this debate. But what we have in front of us here is the hazardous task of together navigating the latest race controversy surrounding the casting for a forthcoming Hollywood movie telling the story of Egypt’s legendary Queen Cleopatra. It’s going to be bumpy, so buckle in.
What The Historians Say About Cleopatra’s Parents
According to Patricia Southern, a highly-respected English historian of classical Rome, Cleopatra VII was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt and she was a descendant of its founder Ptolemy I Soter, a Macedonian Greek general and companion of Alexander the Great . This is according to Southern’s 2007 book: Antony and Cleopatra: The Doomed Love Affair That United Ancient Rome and Egypt .
Scholars generally identify Cleopatra as having been of Greek (Macedonian) ancestry with some Persian and Syrian blood, based on evidence that her Macedonian Greek family (the Ptolemaic dynasty) intermingled with the Seleucid aristocracy of the time. But the true origins of her mother remain inconclusive, and this uncertainty does much to fuel the debate. The Wonder Woman Cleopatra race controversy is all about her ancient royal lineage and it certainly has created a storm.
Left image: Gal Gadot (Mark Neyman / Government Press Office (Israel) / CC BY-SA 3.0 ). Right image: An ancient Roman sculpture possibly depicting either Cleopatra of Ptolemaic Egypt, or her daughter, Cleopatra Selene II, Queen of Mauretania, located in the Archaeological Museum of Cherchell, Algeria ( Hichem algerino / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Is The Problem Left Or Right-Wing Media Or The Bird Itself?
According to a YouGov report, The Guardian , is the UK’s mainstream media outlet for left-wing British political opinion. And its socially liberal content is aimed at “Guardianistas,” who align with the latest “politically correct” tendencies. Another giant of left-wing liberal narratives is the Israeli media outlet Haaretz (News of the Land). Both of these media houses have criticized “Hollywood casting” for having missed the chance to give “north African actors a higher profile” and in doing do, ‘they’ have prolonged the debate over “Hollywood ’s colonization of ethnicity”.
At the heart of the Wonder Woman Cleopatra story, as you probably know, is the Israeli actress Gal Gadot, who is of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. She has been chosen to play Cleopatra in the Hollywood epic. When she was 18-years old, Gadot was crowned Miss Israel 2004 before she served for two years in the Israel Defense Forces as a fitness/combat readiness instructor. So, in a way, she was definitely a great choice to “rightfully” star as the modern Wonder Woman in the 2017 Hollywood historical thriller. She was hyper-fit, super beautiful, and she could really act! No questions there!
It should come as no surprise that the Wonder Woman Cleopatra controversy has also focused on Laeta Kalogridis, the female screen writer of the film, who chose Galdot for the role.
Is it possible the animators at Ubisoft are closer to the truth with this portrayal of Cleopatra from Assassin’s Creed Origins? ( CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Was Cleopatra White, Black, Mixed? The Facts Are Slippery!
When stories like this appear in left-wing media, journalists in right leaning media—such as Fox News in the U.S. or the Daily Mail in the UK—sharpen their pencils of war and tell their own versions of the story. In this case, they will likely focus on Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, being of Macedonian-Greek descent, which would make her “more” white than brown or even black. And if the war of words between both sides continues, as is likely, the right might argue that since the ethnic origins of Cleopatra’s mother are pretty much a mystery, who is to say what Cleopatra’s mixed heritage really means. For all we know her mother could have been from Israel. We just don’t know. This argument would be a challenge to the other side’s arguments, no doubt.
As one might expect, The Guardian supported rising criticism of Gadot ’s casting in U.S. left-wing media as being “understandable,” and they accuse the U.S. film industry of having a “frustrating habit of whitewashing history.” They go so far as to say that “thanks to white actors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Hildegard Neil, Claudette Colbert and Vivien Leigh” Cleopatra movies have “cemented her western appearance on screen.”
The Wonder Woman Cleopatra Uproar Is Complicated
This stance is set to raise fury within right-wing media camp's who will no-doubt soon announce that Gal Gadot was chosen to play the role because she was the most qualified actor for the job. They will go on to question how The Guardian could possibly suggest systemic “Hollywood whitewashing” when there was one casting agent involved, Laeta Kalogridis, the movie’s screenplay writer. The right will thus argue that even if this one person did actually make a race-based decision, that this is not evidence of systemic “Hollywood whitewashing.”
Even though Gal Gadot is of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) origins, The Guardian perspective is that her playing the role of Cleopatra “perpetuates a white standard of foreignness.” The left will likely emphasize that the peoples of the north African diaspora are offended by bad choices in big international-audience films that are about them. The Guardian already said as much: this is “yet another example of how cinema colonizes foreign regions for its own white-centric purpose.”
The Wonder Woman Cleopatra story will not go away and there will likely be boycotts on the film in some regions. But let’s not forget, bad news is good news for all the news outlets and Hollywood always seems to survive and surprise. Likely, the controversies will continue across the left-right spectrum in the media and Hollywood will have a new and bigger money maker on our screens just after we experience the Wonder Woman Cleopatra story once again in the cinema. Or maybe not?
Thanks for staying with me on this journey along the tideline of left- and right-wing media perspectives, and I would like to… hello?…hello? I knew it.
Top image: The Wonder Woman Cleopatra controversy is about this incredibly famous woman whose appearance has us stumped… Source: adrenalinapura / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie
Best stated as, “Gal Gadot was chosen to play the role because she was the most qualified actor for the job”.
From stardust I was born, to stardust I shall return
The most tragic subject of all Time thank you Ashley for sharing this article. Gives one much to think about.
Ah Race and ethnicity when we'll it end? The answer never!
If ethnicity wasn't a big deal then addressing social-injustices around the World in general perpetuated against Persons are People of specific Ethnicities would not be such a hot bed topic today.
In America who you were and who you weren't was clearly dream up before it was fully recognized as the U.S.A.
Before the U.S.A. however, The Ancient World seems to have upheld this practice as well regarding Race and Ethnicity.
In the case of Ptolemy I one of Alexander the Great's fellow Generals there were a few books that I read and I apologize it was back in High School so I don't remember their Titles but they did reference to the fact, Ptolemy I wound up marrying the Daughter of The Pharaoah in Egypt.
The question would be who was The Pharaoah of Egypt at that appointed Time in History?
Intermarrying two Nations are Kingdom's doesn't seem so far fetch strategically Egypt was known as a solid dependable place for Trade & Commerce that's like holding onto a World Bank.
Interesting thing with Greece although, they had a Foothold in Egypt to begin with their True Love affair appeared to be Ethiopia.
Going back to Cleopatra Movie I'm not surprise by this exchange Hollywood has always been like this whenever shooting Historical Figures.
One way or another in my opinion No Cleopatra Movie shot today in 2020 will never be as good like that of
Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra what can I say I love the classic Movies. The only other entertainment out there that topped Cleopatra Epic Story is T.V. Drama Game of Thrones.
I'm not sure my grandmother and mom told me this Story but, I thought that Taylor's Cleopatra lost out too the Philadelphia Story at the Academy Awards.
I propose Will Smith, castrated, in a pantsuit!
That’s totally Critical Race Theory – / Black Lives Marxist – / Gender Equality approved, if you ask me!
And for the upcomming Michael Jordan biopic I propose a blind, bedridden, Siberian Inuit transgender with lesbian tendencies...
I believe moreso than race we should focus on physical descriptions (or at least the closest we can get) concerning Cleopatra. She was not beautiful. Plutarch describes her as plain looking and her coinage sometimes depicts her as manly, with a strong jaw. Yet Plutarch and other writers consistently stress her ways of expressing herself and her intelligence. Regardless of who plays Cleopatra we should focus on HOW this person portrays Cleopatra. Gal Gadot might be an incorrect choice not because of her race but because of as the author puts it, "Gadot was crowned Miss Israel 2004 before she served for two years in the Israel Defense Forces as a fitness/combat readiness instructor", as well as "She was hyper-fit, super beautiful," from what we know of Cleopatra: she the first Ptolemy to actually learn to speak Egyptian, the others refusing to speak this foreign tongue, wrote to her subjects in the guise of the caring goddess Isis, and was able to compel both Alexander the Great and Mark Antony to honor her in a time that openly disparaged women (not so much in Egypt as Greece). Gal Gadot is good for action movies, Cleopatra should be a complex piece about an insanely interesting historical queen.
When I read this article, I immediately thought of the reading I did a couple of years back on the Ptolemis of Egypt. They married close relatives more than once, IIRC, to keep their bloodline entirely Macedonian. Whatever that says about them, personally, it would seem to indicate that the current critics of Gadot’s casting might want to look at surviving figurative art from that historical period to see what a Macedonian actually looked like.
Well, assuming they’re honestly intersted in historical accuracy and not primarily in being More Socially Correct Than Thou...
She could conceivably have other genetic input from her mother, but it’s difficult to imagine her father marrying anything other than a “pure” Macedonian, given his family’s history.