Gal Gadot

Cleopatra: Gal Gadot Whitewashing Controversy Explained

The upcoming Cleopatra biopic will star Gal Gadot, whose casting caused controversy and accusations of "whitewashing," which is harmfully erroneous.

The upcoming biopic Cleopatra will star Gal Gadot in the title role, though her casting has been a source of controversy, with some describing it as “whitewashing.” This description not only harmfully misunderstands the identity of Wonder Woman Gal Gadot, but also Cleopatra herself. Despite significant evolution in recent years, the film industry is still in need of improvement, as far as diversity and representation go, but the casting of Gal Gadot as Cleopatra is not an example of whitewashing.

The film industry has a long history of casting white actors in non-white roles, which is a symptom of institutional racism that persists to this day. Classic films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Ten Commandments, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s are just a few examples, featuring instances of white actors playing non-white characters, at times quite offensively. More recent examples include Gods of Egypt, The Last Airbender, and Avengers: Age of Ultron, proving that the film industry’s penchant for whitewashing is alive and well.

What Cleopatra’s Whitewashing Controversy Gets Wrong

Cleopatra reigned as the Queen of Egypt from 52 to 30 BCE, but she was not of Egyptian ethnicity, having a mostly Greek Macedonian background with, potentially, a small degree of Persian ancestry. There are theories that her mother may have been of Egyptian ancestry, or African, but her ethnicity is simply unknown. Cleopatra’s father, however, was descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy I Soter, as were all rules of Alexandria, Egypt, at the time, and Cleopatra’s siblings, as far as researchers know, were all Greco-Macedonian. Casting an Arab actress as Cleopatra wouldn’t necessarily be inappropriate, but it would be historically inaccurate, as Arab colonization of Egypt began centuries after Cleopatra died. While Gal Gadot is not Egyptian, either, her casting as Cleopatra is not whitewashing.

Gal Gadot’s Ashkenazi heritage means that her ancestors are indigenous to the Levant but were displaced to Europe by the diaspora, where they were systemically oppressed for generations. Ashkenazi Jews were oppressed in Europe for not being “white,” so calling Gadot’s casting whitewashing is a harmful erasure of both her ethnicity and Europe’s long history of antisemitism. The film industry’s harmful practice of whitewashing is still a glaring issue, but Gal Gadot’s role as Cleopatra is not part of the problem, since she is a Levantine actress playing a Greek historical figure.

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