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.
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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