Lebanon vs. ‘Wonder Woman’: Historic Overreaction or Historically Justified?
The June 2nd release of the DC Comics film Wonder Woman ushered in the usual amount of controversy that any production with a strong female lead would usually garner. From outrage at female-only screenings of the film to criticism that the portrayal of Wonder Woman isn’t “American” enough, the film has been critiqued with a considerable amount of scrutiny.
Another controversy ensued when the government of Lebanon banned the film on June 1st. As a Lebanese-American woman, this move hardly came as a shock to me. Gal Gadot’s casting as Wonder Woman promptly led to discussions within Lebanese and Arab circles when it came to light that she was an Israeli who proudly served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). I fully understood and sympathized with the discussion. I also felt disheartened that such a monumental symbol for women worldwide was being tainted by this actress’ dishonorable actions. This past week, we witnessed sensationalist headlines gawking at Lebanon for banning the film.
The move was summarized by American commentators as yet another example of the Arab world’s backwardness and absence of progressive values. Many Americans likely saw these headlines and assumed the ban was due to Wonder Woman’s revealing outfit, though anyone who has visited Lebanon can attest that one would see women dressed in less on a simple trip to the grocery store. Some others, as I heard on NPR’s ‘1A,’ expressed surprise that tensions “still” existed between Lebanon and Israel. In that moment, the tremendous lack of understanding that Americans have regarding the relationship between the two countries became overwhelmingly clear.
To give a bit of historical context, Lebanon and Israel have engaged militarily on a large scale at five separate points in the past 50 years. These engagements ranged from attacks to full-on invasions, seen most poignantly in 1982. Some of these engagements were first sparked by guerilla warfare activity from Lebanon, giving Israel a simple scapegoat of “They started it!” Others were results of Israel’s chauvinist policies which claim south Lebanon as part of their territory. The international community has repeatedly criticized Israel for its disproportionate use of military force against Lebanese citizens and infrastructure, causing mass displacement and destruction during these engagements.
Looking beyond a simplistic analysis of which party fired the first shot, it is crucial to note the root cause of these various engagements lie in Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestine (this past May marked the 69th year) as well as Israel’s continual disregard for Lebanon’s sovereignty, materializing regularly through illegal incursions in Lebanese airspace by Israeli jets. In total, Israeli aggression has resulted in the deaths of around 20,000 Lebanese, half of whom were civilians. So, to respond to NPR’s rather flippant comment: Yes, tensions are “still” high.
So, where does Gal Gadot come in? Like every Israeli citizen, Gadot fulfilled her state-mandated minimum two years of service in the IDF. Unfortunately, we cannot chalk up Gadot’s military service as merely fulfilling a requirement to avoid possible jail time, a situation which has befallen some Israelis. Nor can we chalk up Gadot’s service as a mistake of her youth during which she supported the IDF at the time but then realized the err of her ways. Rather, Gadot today is in full support of the IDF and its deplorable human rights violations that number too many to list here.
In 2014, Israel responded to the firing of low-grade rockets coming from the Gaza Strip by leading a traumatic offensive which, according to the UN Human Rights Council, killed 1,462 Palestinian civilians. Rather than rallying with the international community during this tense time to demand peace, as many did (including Israelis), she instead took the time to express support for the IDF despite widespread criticism towards Israel for engaging in a disproportionate use of force.
It can be difficult to explain to Americans the Lebanese-Israeli relationship. Many of us can’t imagine banning a film in most circumstances. It is, in fact, a privilege that we, as Americans, cannot relate to this problem; we’ve never experienced a state actor engaging in large-scale destruction on our land without impunity. Certainly, there are some Lebanese who disagree with the ban on the basis of free speech or perhaps simply of their love for DC Comics. This position is understandable, but it is crucial to understand that the Lebanese government ban was born of adherence to principle; a conscious decision not to support a film whose face represents destruction for many of its citizens, and to a larger extent, the settler colonial ideology known as Zionism which has displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians since 1948.
Does the media purposefully ignore historical context to paint Lebanon as a backwards country or are they simply unaware? Considering the massive amounts of accessible information regarding the relationship, the answer seems to lean towards the former. Either way, the result is that Lebanon is portrayed as intolerant, anti-Semitic, and even anti-Western. For the sake of a catchy headline, or perhaps the more sinister cause of propagating a false narrative that paints Israel as a righteous actor, the mainstream media has failed to report the full picture.
Sadly, many women worldwide will not see Gadot’s Wonder Woman as the symbol for justice that her creators intended, but rather as a symbol of oppression for those who have been injured, killed, or displaced by Israel’s aggression. Though it is unfortunate that governments are still banning films today, it is even more unfortunate that individuals supportive of war crimes and human rights violations are normalized and cast in major blockbusters, as seen with Gal Gadot. Filmmakers cannot necessarily be held accountable for their casting decisions, but it is the responsibility of the media to attempt to fairly report events, and I hope to see more accountability and critical thought in future “analysis” of the relationship between Lebanon and Israel.