Wonder Woman, the blockbuster superhero film starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the title role, has dominated discussion on social media for weeks now. Fanboys, fangirls and feminists are celebrating this milestone in cinema history: the highest-grossing film helmed by a female director, and a beloved female icon finally getting her due on the big screen. But this week, Wonder Woman has been trending for a more troubling reason thanks to Matthew Mueller’s article titled, “Wonder Woman: There IS A Person Of Color In The Lead Role” for comicbook.com.
In the article, Mueller claims that “It might come as a shock, but there are people of color in the film, and one of them is in the lead role. Yep, with a quick Google search, it turns out that Gal Gadot is not actually Caucasian, but is in fact Israeli.” This proclamation, that melanin-light Gadot is a woman of color, has created an avalanche of social commentary and set Twitter ablaze.
Some have pointed out — and they do have a point — that by focusing on this kind of background noise instead of celebrating the fact that a female hero movie directed by a female is slaying the box office, we are doing a disservice to the herstory that is happening right here, right now. But, we can’t ignore the very real problem with masquerading this victory as one also for people of color. What’s more, it adds salt to the wound when the one making this misinformed claim is a privileged White Male.
But Mueller opened the door for a public discussion on passing and self-identification — a conversation we’ve long needed to have — and so walk through it we will. Because the fact of the matter is what constitutes someone as a person of color is much more complex than any “quick Google search” can answer.
If Gal Gadot is not a woman of color — then what is she? And what is Kim Kardashian, whose father is Armenian, for that matter? The premise itself is problematic for those of us who don’t want to speak for a woman’s racial experiences any more than we want Matt Mueller to speak on behalf of us. But one cannot deny that, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds, Gadot and Kardashian walk this Earth as White women, enjoying all the privilege that affords. Because White is the color of privilege in our society. And so is the ability to pass as it.
And it is this ease of passing into the world of privilege that makes us — the 99.9% whose skin color automatically makes it harder for us to get loans, graduate from high school and even just stay alive — angry when someone like Mueller claims that a woman who clearly passes as White (even if she is ‘not’ ethnically speaking) is not only a woman of color but a “first” but that her success is a “giant step” forward for the women in our community.
Bullshit. Gal Gadot is a far cry from Halle Berry as Storm.
However, it’s important to remember that unlike Rachel Dolezal, Gal herself isn’t claiming ‘of color’ heritage where there is none. Other people, like Mueller, are claiming that for her. And therein lies the problem: our society’s need to label vs. the individual’s autonomous right to self identify. This false binary has reached a fever pitch in the debate over gender, and Mueller’s article unwittingly brought into focus the way it impacts race, too.
While I personally don’t believe Gal Gadot should be classified as a ‘woman of color,’ I do believe that she is something other than White.
Gal, like Kim, falls into that grey (pun intended) space between the color binaries that the majority of mainstream culture can’t see beyond. Perhaps she doesn’t claim ‘of color,’ but maybe she does claim ‘of ethnicity’ — and that’s an entirely different proclamation. It’s a distinction that Twitter user S.I. Rosenbaum eloquently details:
I think the point of all this discussion of other people’s anything — race, bodies, sexuality, gender, ableism, class — is that we take special care to not speak over people’s self-identification based off of what we see. Gal Gadot may appear White, but so did Lynda Carter, the original Wonder Woman. Born Linda Jean Córdova, Carter may have “looked unmistakably white” to The Atlantic writer Maya Rupert, but Lynda made it clear even back then that she didn’t want society to literally whitewash away the roots of which she was so proud. To quote Lynda herself, “When I was still Wonder Woman, I did a special where I talked about my Mexican roots. I talked about it all of the time, way before it was the ‘in’ thing to do.”
We are all, in fact, much more diverse than we appear on the surface. Forcing someone to wear the identity of White, thereby erasing important parts of their history, is as problematic as using those who can pass as White as proof of diversity and inclusion.
And if Wonder Woman has taught us anything, it’s that we all have a superhero’s ability to claim who and what we are and the power to break out of own shadows, our own shells, our own labels — regardless if they are self-imposed or slapped on us by society.