A few days ago, woke Twitter unleashed its fury over the decision to cast Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the role of Cleopatra in an upcoming film, suggesting it was a form of “whitewashing”.
However, the tables quickly turned, and it was even blue check-marked wokesters being mocked for their cluelessness about the ethnic background of the Egyptian queen. As many, including the screenplay author, pointed out, Cleopatra was neither Arab nor Black, but rather a Macedonian Greek.
Enter the Guardian, which yesterday published an op-ed by British writer and critic Hanna Flint (“Gal Gadot as Cleopatra is a backwards step for Hollywood representation”, Oct. 14). Flint agrees that Cleopatra was Macedonian-Greek on her father Ptolemy XII’s side, but centers her argument on her claim that “the ethnic origin of her mother remains unverified”, and that “the Egyptian ruler may have been of “mixed heritage”.
Flint does acknowledge that Gadot “ticks the box for Middle Eastern and north African (MENA) representation” and that “she’s not as western a choice as either Angelina Jolie or Lady Gaga would have been – who had both previously been linked to the role”. Nonetheless, she argues, her casting “perpetuates a white standard of foreignness”.
It would be tempting of course to play their game, and argue, on their own woke terms, why it’s justified for Gadot to play Cleopatra. We would note, in response to Flint’s charge that Gadot’s role is an example of how cinema “colonises foreign regions”, that Gadot’s father is a sixth generation Israeli, and thus is firmly rooted in the Middle East.
We could also refute Flint’s implicit suggestion that Gadot is an example of white privilege by observing that her maternal grandfather’s entire family was murdered in the Holocaust. Or, we’d explore the extremely problematic framing of Jews as “white” in the first place.
Finally, we’d at least mention that the film she characterises as a “step backwards” not only stars a woman as the leading character, but is directed by a woman, Patty Jenkins, in the context the under-representation of female directors in Hollywood.
But, no, we’re not going to play the game the identitarian left (or right) demands and see how many boxes we can tick. We reject the idea that the merit of ideas can be adjudicated by virtue of the racial, ethnic or gender identity of the individuals exploring them, and, in the case of Gadot, that the capacity – indeed the very right – of actors to play historical figures is determined by the colour of their skin or other such accidents of birth.
What is acting anyway, but the art of transcending the narrow boundaries of your genetic and cultural inheritance?
However, this isn’t about one actress and one film.
It’s about the embrace by the Guardian – and other media outlets – of the politics of an inherently regressive racial essentialism which is intrinsically hostile to one of liberalism’s most powerful ideas, as enunciated by one of its most eloquent advocates: that we should strive for a society where we’re not judged by the colour of our skin, but by the content of our character.
Though its likely painfully obvious to our supporters, it nonetheless needs to stressed that the Guardian can’t have it both ways: they can’t claim to be “liberalism’s leading voice” whilst simultaneously embracing ideas that are antithetical to liberal values.