Growing up, I didn’t think Jewish girls could be sexy. Or badass. Or sexy badasses. The Jewish actresses I saw on TV and in the movies were cute and lovable and smart, and they were scientists, teachers, funny girls, or columnists with shoe shopping additions (hi, Carrie Bradshaw!). Rarely would I see a Jewish actress portraying a strong, sensual lady hero who knows how to deflect punches by doing backflips and can speak twenty different languages, always Russian, duh.
And then there was Natalie Portman in The Phantom Menace, which came out in 1999. I was nine years old. Portman, who plays Padmé, wears sensual gowns and dates Darth Vader before he becomes Darth Vader while also defending the galaxy. Years after I watched the Star Wars prequels, I learned that Portman held dual American and Israeli citizenship. The badass, beautiful space queen who fought for intergalactic rights and trade regulations was Jewish — like me! Finally, a Semitic woman was playing a character who was sexy AND powerful.
But can you name more than five Jewish-identifying actresses who have played weapon-yielding, bad guy-fighting heroines in the last 17 years? Maybe there are others, but the only ones I can point at the screen and identify as Jewish are Scarlett Johanasson as Black Widow in the Marvel Universe, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Mostly, we see Jewish actresses embody quirky women who have relationship problems (Rachel Bloom in Crazy Ex Girlfriend, Obvious Child‘s Jenny Slate, Mila Kunis’s entire IMDB page).
But then came Wonder Woman, played by Israeli-born Gal Gadot. The iconic, comic book counterpart to Superman (but way cooler, let’s be real), is portrayed by a woman born in Petah, Tikva, Israel, and who enlisted in the Israeli army for two years. It took a second to sink in when I was watching the movie: a Jewish woman is our Wonder Woman.
Wonder Woman is already the antidote to all things terrible in 2017, but the film serves as a special kind of empowerment to me, someone who, for so many years, internalized our culture’s narrow beauty standards and never thought in a million years I could be both sexy and strong. Not with my Semitic features, my frizzy hair, my long nose, my glasses, my neurosis. While it’s a problem on a greater level that I am deeply affected (at least subconsciously) by the problematic and damaging ideals we project onto women, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Finally. A gorgeous Jewish woman who is saving the planet. Fuck. Yes.”
The plot of Wonder Woman makes the casting even more meaningful. The film, which is mostly a flashback to 1918, takes place at the end of World War I. Germany is about to surrender, but General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and his sidekick chemist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) have a plan to annihilate the Allies fighting against Germany with a new, killer poison even a gas mask can’t go up against. It’s up to Diana Prince and American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) to stop them. A Jewish Wonder Woman saving millions of innocent lives from the Germans fills me with a kind of emotion that’s hard to describe, and I felt myself overcome with the aching need to cry in the theater.
In the original 1941 comics, creator William Moulton Marston actually poised Wonder Woman to be the countermeasure to — according to a 1944 article written in The American Scholar — “blood-curdling masculinity” of which the world already had enough. Diana Prince was strong and confident, not macho and egotistical. She showed tenderness and compassion, the ultimate ingredients — paired with unworldly mightiness of course — that would help defeat the Nazis. Who better to help defeat Nazis than a badass Jewish lady?
Watching Wonder Woman and knowing she was brought to life in 2017 by a Jewish woman fulfilled a need I didn’t even realize I had. Though, sure, Gal Gadot meets our dumb, rigid standards of beauty (Gal Gadot is stunning, there is no way around this), she still exemplifies the kind of woman who is not represented nearly enough in Hollywood. She still shows Jewish girls that they are multi-faceted, that they are more than just funny, brainy girls, that they can see versions of themselves in women who save the world.