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Wonder Woman kindles controversy in the Arab world

Frazer Harrison, AFP | Actress Gal Gadot arrives at the Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Wonder Woman" at the Pantages Theatre on May 25, 2017 in Hollywood, California.

She may be 76 years old, but Wonder Woman is stirring passions like never before.


The controversy surrounding the Amazonian superhero began last October, when more than 1,000 UN staffers signed a petition protesting at her being named an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls because they thought her image was “overtly sexualised".

One might think it would be the same scanty outfit and voluptuous curves that had North African and Arab countries banning the summer blockbuster “Wonder Woman” movie, but, no, the stated reason was that Gal Gadot, the actress playing the main character, is Israeli.

First the film was prohibited in Lebanon. Then it was pulled from the Nuits du Cinéma film festival in the Algerian capital, Algiers. Then Jordan banned it, then Tunisia suspended its release, and then Jordan unbanned it reportedly sparking a backlash. The Times of Israel said that at least one theatre in the Jordanian capital of Amman apologised for showing the movie and cancelled further screenings. The film is currently scheduled to be released in theatres throughout Jordan in July.

There have been other Israeli actors in big movies, and many of those were screened in the Arab-speaking world without the same commotion even some starring Gadot, including "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" (although activists tried and failed to get it banned) and "The Fast and Furious" films. Natalie Portman has Israeli citizenship and her films haven’t raised similar ire in the region.

Much of the problem with Gadot traces back to public statements she made in support of the Israeli military action in Gaza in 2014 and of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), in which the former Miss Israel served for two years, in accordance with Israeli law.

Gadot isn’t the first Israeli actor to come under fire. In 1959, “Ben Hur” was banned by all of the countries in the Arab League because its leading lady Haya Harareet was Israeli. The 1960 version of “Exodus” was banned in Egypt and Syria and boycotted in much of the Arab world along with Paul Newman’s other films due to Newman’s “material support for Zionism and Israel", according to the book "Cinematic Terror: a Global History of Terrorism on Film" by Tony Shaw.

Beginning as early as 1948, Arab nations routinely banned movies starring actors deemed to be pro-Zionist, including Danny Kaye, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor.

The movement to ban “Wonder Woman” in Lebanon was spearheaded by a social media campaign called the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon. Rania Masri, who is affiliated with the campaign, told the Associated Press why the group opposed the screening of Gadot’s film:

“First and foremost, she is Israeli. We don’t distinguish between a good Israeli and a bad Israeli,” she said. She explained that the group aims to resist any move towards normalising relations between the two nations. Lebanon is officially at war with Israel and bans all Israeli products.

In Tunisia the film’s premiere was suspended after the secular nationalist People's Movement Party and the Tunisian Young Lawyers Association filed a lawsuit seeking a ban of the film. The suit is currently under review.

It’s fitting that the powerful demigoddess is ruffling feathers. Her very conception was a study in cultural rebellion. When he conceived of the character in 1941, William Moulton Marston, who used the pen name Charles Moulton, was inspired both by his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston and their live-in companion, Olive Byrne. The two women were powerful renegades in their own rights.

Elizabeth Marston was a psychologist and a lawyer who was one of only three women in her graduating class at law school. Byrne was William Marston’s researcher and had her own feminist pedigree: Her mother, Ethel Byrne, opened the first birth-control clinic in the US, along with her sister Margaret Sanger, the famed birth control activist.

Marston had children with both of the women, and his wife even named one of her children Olive Ann, after Byrne.

Unorthodoxy breeds controversy, but neither the character’s unusual genesis nor the current imbroglio seems to be hurting the film a whit. The film topped the box office in its opening weekend and has already earned more than $500 million worldwide.

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