Does Cultural Appropriation Apply to Natalie Portman?
Assoc. Fantasy Contributor
Does appropriation apply to the worst parts of European cultures?
Today, I want to discuss cultural appropriation. Yes, the issue of the times. But what exactly is cultural appropriation? Well, nobody knows. Starting at the first word, it claims to be some kind of appropriation. And it has something to do with culture.
Firstly, it should be said that this article has nothing to actually do with cultural appropriation. That is because cultural appropriation is essentially defined by racism. The term first appears, so it goes, as a description of how racist citizens of England marginalised and exploited the peoples of the Caribbean, and attacked sections of the working class schtick, for fun. Sounds evil enough.
The term cultural appropriation cannot be used as a mild term or played around with much, because it is by definition a form of misconduct. The term cultural appropriation is defined by the words “inappropriate,” “racist,” and “commercialist.” There is no redeeming quality to cultural appropriation because cultural appropriation is used to describe exclusively irredeemable activity, markedly opposite to cultural exchange or respect.
Consider the worst perpetrator in the United Kingdom and the United States: hip-hop / rap music, curly hair, or a summer tan. Racists always attack these music genres and human characteristics un-European, placing them into the same box on the fringes of their minds, but at the same time view themselves as ‘cultured’ for dipping into the same music, view themselves as ‘interesting’ for factory curling their hair, or view themselves as ‘unique’ for getting a spray-on tan. There is a murderous and delirious sense of bad irony, that racists altogether marginalise, demonise, and lust after perfectly normal traits and human practices, which the racist calls exotic, for fear of being labelled as freaks themselves. That is cultural appropriation.
Another bad actor is the billion-dollar yoga industry in Western nations as well, which attempts at every corner to steal Indian culture then mutilate the original concept, taking the yoga gurus off the cover and planting in some body-bleaching whores, or some wavy Italian guy, to appeal to the racist American, à la youth female target audience. All the while, Hinduism, inextricable from yoga’s origins while not necessarily the same as yoga in any way, is viewed as a false and inexpiable religion by most people in the West. Yoga was not learned from the Hindu, it was looted, and replaced with a shallow, cruel, commercial, and disgraceful attempt to Europeanise and trivialise the hobby while selling it the crude sex markets. That is a form of cultural genocide and religion-sacking. That is cultural appropriation.
But this article is not about cultural appropriation, in a way. The distinction was only added to please those offended by the comparison. This article is about movies, as part of a series of Star Wars critiques, and it’s about Natalie Portman.
Long have I harboured a question about Natalie Portman’s career, as it is so vapid yet so prolific, so vain yet so ubiquitous. This is just the opportunity. Natalie Portman got her start in acting as a 16-year-old leading actress on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. She returned three years later as a 19-year-old lead on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, where her character dies. After moving on from the Star Wars prequels, she used that resume to enrol at Harvard University to study psychology.
She has actually commented on this, as all Harvard associates eventually do, saying she and her peers felt she was only enrolled because she was in Star Wars, and this insecurity led her to push harder than her friends in her classes and challenge herself by picking ‘harder-than-necessary’ classes. Still, psychology is the most common undergraduate degree major among women, so hardly original. Whether or not Natalie invites the assessment or feels it is correct, this is undoubtedly true; She, as most people, never would have been looked at by Harvard if she did not have some kind of bank of riches or wealth of limelight that could be mined by the admissions board. Natalie might want to be viewed as a genius of “Hebrew literature” who stood out among the crowd, but that is just impossible parlour speak. Not that she deserves to go to Harvard any less than anyone else, no one deserves to go to Harvard, as Harvard in the 20th Century existed for the sole purpose of excluding people who were not rich, famous, or connected: not academics, so Natalie’s lie to herself merely parrots Harvard’s lie to the world.
But I want to go back just a second. Yes, Natalie Portman said she studied Hebrew at Harvard, even if not intensely enough to double-major in it. That is because her name is not actually Natalie Portman. Her name is Neta-Li Herschlag, and she is Jewish. So, studying Hebrew isn’t impressive knowing she speaks fluent Hebrew at home. That is not to undermine literature, as English-speakers still study English literature, but it’s hardly extraordinary. Hershlag, as I will now be exclusively referring to her, is using her association to Harvard, Judaism, and other, lesser, things to seem smart, yet all of those were gifted to her by either birth or Star Wars.
Now comes the question of cultural appropriation. Neta-Li started her acting footprint as an understudy for the part of Elle Woods in Broadway plays. Yes, that Elle Woods, aside Britney Spears no less. It hardly seems like the right role for a good Jewish girl. But lo, there are some who might point out that Hershlag is an Ashkenazi, and therefore not actually Jewish, that is, not a Semitic person. This is a touchy subject for the Jewish community, particularly since the establishment of Israel: Who actually is Jewish, by means of ethnicity or heritage, and not just language and religion? Is there a meaningful distinction between the Semitic Jewish culture that remained in the Levant, the Sephardic Jewish culture that emigrated to Africa and Iberia, the Mizrahi Jewish culture in Iran and Arabia, the Yiddish Jewish culture that stuck around in Germany, and the Ashkenazi Jewish culture that settled Eastern Europe? Really, who knows, and that is a deeper question; a question, perhaps, for a student of Hebrew literature, wherever we should find one.
Nonetheless, Hershlag is most certainly not British. That Israeli-American nuance is fine for the world of “Naboo” in Star Wars, which ideally would defy every concept of the term “ethnicity,” but works less congruously for Elle Woods. In Star Wars, Hershlag was a doppelganger of Keira Knightly, a dyad which has persisted the entirety of Netali’s 30-year-long career. Here too, we find questions.
Netali gave an interview, which I discuss almost on a daily basis among my social circle, where she firmly wanted to establish herself as a kind of British legacy. She said, of herself, “I iron out my Jew curls” and bleaches/dyes her hair, for no particular reason other than she wants to, and thinks it will make her fit in. Netali also went on to say that no one has naturally yellow hair — which is true, they don’t — implying that a non-Jewish, European actress would not face the same questions about her hair she did. Because the concept of hair straightening and hair bleaching are Nazi holdovers in British and American culture, and as someone who personally hates Nazis, this endlessly infuriates me. All the more so because Hershlag identifies as Jewish!
If Hershlag thinks modifying her hair to make it look ‘more European,’ or, more correctly (since almost all young Europeans have brown hair), to make it look more Hitlerite, more ‘Arianised,’ is acceptable, then she must either view herself as European first and Jewish second, or just care very little about the legacy of antisemitic racism. Why else would a person who calls herself Jewish want to alter her appearance so drastically, in order to look like a posterchild for one of the Hitler Youth?
Many Jewish-Americans feel pressures of Nazi antisemitism and colonial racism in the United States, and many Ashkenazim respond to that by changing their names, Nazifying their looks, and abandoning the Jewish religion. Netali retains a veneer of her Jewishness on the inside, within her own self-perception, while turning into the Arianised version of the Elle Woods archetype on the outside, for the world to see. Is she just playing a part? Is there a real difference in the personality and values of Netali Hershlag vs. Natalie Portman?
People don’t treat her as such. Keira Knightly, for instance, is an Englishwoman. Knightly claims she is ‘British,’ not English, but she is definitely English. Intriguingly, Knightly never went to school, reportedly a dyslexic, while Hershlag, in the Jewish stereotype, went straight to Harvard College. I wouldn’t say Hershlag seems like a nice person, she seems like an ordinary person. Remember that she is part of the Star Wars pantheon of small-time actors who were lifted by George Lucas to notoriety, like Mark Hamill (despite him being my favourite Star Wars actor, I can never remember his name), Harrison Ford, and of course, Sir Alec Guinness CBE.
Jokes aside, with all the classically-trained, upper-class, heavy-hitters from Britain — Peter Cushing OBE, Sir Christopher Lee CBE, and Sir Alec — not to mention the affable nobodies from Hamill to Ford, most Star Wars people are considered likable, especially by fans of nerdom.
That is not to say anyone was struggling, as every lead character in Star Wars was already documented as rich and famous by the time they were cast, but they were “nobodies” in the sense they were not household names until after the film became one of the first Hollywood summer “blockbusters” in history.
Most of all, it is undeniable that, other than Lucas, no one defined the Star Wars films as much as Carrie Fisher, if not for a want of contrast. Fisher was the only female character in all three of the movies, and both the predecessor and counterpart to Hershlag’s character in the Star Wars prequels. Does Hershlag meet the comparison?
The two are very different, both personally and on-screen. Fisher at the age of 19 had sex with numerous middle-aged members of the cast, often the only female and only teenager in a room of dozens of men, forbidden to wear a bra or choose her own hairstyle but allowed to partake in the rumoured plethora of drugs on the set. Hershlag, part of Star Wars from 16 to 19, was entirely unremarkable, both in life and profession, not a very impressive actor or much of a hoot. Again, the good Jewish girl. Some blame Netali’s poorly role on the weakness of the prequels compared to the originals, just as some blame Carrie’s bipolar diagnosis for her eccentricity. Both of these are half-truths, as personality and talent can never be substituted for anything other than what they are. Nonetheless, Fisher and Hershlag were both made rich and famous. While Hershlag is the lesser in terms of her performance, she probably got in the end a much better long-term deal.
A boring role meant Netali would not be immediately typecast, though she went on to play exclusively the girl-next-door leading female interest for a male protagonist, much the same as in Star Wars: Episode II. Coming into acting younger meant she could largely leave acting after childhood, then return to it later as an adult experience. Moreover, we never got to see teenage Netali chained to a bed in a gold bikini.
Our good, Jewish girl.
So, if Hershlag is playing roles given mostly to British, or Hitlerite, actresses, is she not taking away from the British actor? There are too many actors in the world. They are overexposed and over paid, seen too much and given too much, as they are in the same camp as clowns, entertainers, and comedians. But, people like to be entertained, and in the world of capitalism where only money is worship in lapse of dignity, anything people like sells, and anything that sells can make people rich, and riches are a substitute for class, if only a thin one. Just as the weak-minded can be fooled by the Force, so are they easily bought and sold. The British or American actor suffers for nothing, and there are too many of them as it is.
But, does Hershlag have a place in displacing them, or moulding in to become one of them? And would it be cultural appropriation? Undeniably, Netali is conforming to something objectionable when she plays simple roles as sex objects and Hitlerite women, embracing if not embodying the racism and problematic nature of Hollywood casting. But then again, it is with her very body that she represents this trend. One could defend Hershlag, saying she is made to do these things, that she is not so much appropriating Western culture for her ends, but more so that Western culture is stifling her true self, at least if she wants to continue to have a role in acting.
An interesting counter-point, but undermined by Hershlag’s particular brand of coy self-promotion, and eagerness in taking on such roles. And are the Jewish people entirely exploited by Hollywood? In many respects, so-called Europeans are exploited by powerful Jewish moguls in media more often than the other way around, even if they are Jewish Europeans themselves. Harvey Weinstein, a Jewish millionaire who sexually assaulted non-Jewish Western women in order to get them roles, his Jewishness hardly made a ripple.
The biggest names in Hollywood: Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Rudd, Marta Kauffman, J.J. Abrams, Scarlett Johansson, Harrison Ford, John Stewart, Louis Szekely, Mila Kunis, Daniel Radcliffe, Rachel Weisz, Gal Gadot, Roseanne Barr, Judd Apatow, Marcus Loew, Lauren Bacall, Adam Sandler, Amy Schumer, Larry David, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cassidy Freeman, Stanley Kubrick, Jennifer Connelly, Richard Dreyfuss, Samuel Goldwyn, Julia Garner, Elijah Allan-Blitz, Kirk Douglas, Ellen Barkin, Ingrid Pitt, Darren Aronofsky, Eva Green, David Geffen, Lesley Ann Warren, Paul Newman, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ben Stiller, Louis B. Mayer, Alison Brie, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Chuck Lorre.
As Conan O’Brien jokingly stated: “The Cash-ews run Hollywood.” Almost every major production in Hollywood has a massive Jewish section of development. The United States, for whatever reason, is a majority “Christian-identifying” country, but Judaism plays a much more massive role in the culture than Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism combined. Even most of the agnosticism in ‘progressive’ Hollywood values comes largely from material secularism, or Jewish incredulity of Christianity, not an ideological pull towards atheism. Is this cultural reproachment why Jewish people are pulled towards media and entertainment, theatre being a known haven for outcasts and oddballs? The Judeo-Protestant alliance of the Hollywood ilk would seem to disqualify the established Jewish community — rich, interconnected, secular Jewish communities of New York, Los Angeles, and DC — from being an oppressed mass.
An important editor’s note is that the actors listed are: Jewish people who adopt non-Jewish appearances or non-Jewish values to a borderline-racist degree (i.e. Eva Green: Jewish actress who plays roles bookmarked for non-Jewish Europeans), thoroughly Jewish people who refuse to identify as Jewish (i.e. Julia Louis-Dreyfus: Jewish billionaire heiress who plays Jewish characters on TV), or regular observers of Judaism who are really, really famous (i.e. J.J. Abrams: co-director of the controversial Star Wars reboot).
More often behind the scenes than on-screen, but usually leading the show when taking a starring role, the Jewish imprint is inseparable from American movies, media production, television, the comedy scene, finance, and screenwriting. Is Jewish not the ruling order of Hollywood? And then would Europeans be the group on the margins? But why, if Jewish people write, pay for, and put on the shows, are there so few Jewish actors, and of those who are, why do they not look Jewish, or a better question would be, why do they try to avoid looking Jewish, and actively attempt to look Western European? That gives the impression that Jewish people are still marginalised in media, even if they are overrepresented in media, and generally more affluent, interconnected, and educated than those non-Jewish counterparts. Why do Jewish people go out of their way to appeal to racist audiences, and in the process erase their own Jewishness.
Maybe it is because the Hollywood Jewry isn’t actually Jewish. Nothing about their jobs or their behaviours embodies the Jewish religion. Most people in Hollywood in general consider themselves as nonreligious, yet that too, might be an influence of a markedly Jewish trait. Non-Christians in the United States are much more likely to turn to atheism and agnosticism on the one hand or fanatical extremism, likely due to being outcast by the mainstream Protestant dialogue, with liberal Jewish people often going agnostic and conservative Catholics often going supercharged while Muslims live on somewhere off in the shadows of public perception.
Yet nonreligious Jewish people still identify as Jewish, separating the religion of Judaism from the ethnic mark. Faith has nothing to do with appearance, and appearance is the base of antisemitism. Enter non-Jewish-looking Jewish people, usually women with heat-flattened hair, like Netali Hershlag and Gal Greenstein Godot. That is not to say they don’t look Jewish, as in an equal measure they all do and at the same time no one does, since what a Jewish person “looks like” is a narrow heuristic based on problematic cultural expectation. That is not to say they are or aren’t Jewish. But are Jewish people like Natalie Portman being forced to conform to racist society, or are they jumping on the bandwagon of racist society and using it to their advantage? Is there actually a difference between the two?
There is a deeper question lying beneath the surface here: The questions of “Jewish complicity in racism?,” “Jewish participation in neo-Nazism?,” and “If ‘Jew’ is a ‘race’ and ‘White’ is a ‘race’ then why are there ‘White’ and ‘non-White’ Jews?,” which other people have asked before. This article is not to address those questions, but they are acknowledged.
Certainly, there are some Jewish people who attach themselves to racist tendencies and Hitlerite habits out of personal advantage in the racist countries in which they might live. In this narrative, the notional collaborator Jewish community would blame the Europeans for racism and cast themselves as convenient survivors. That is not a uniquely Jewish trait, it is a flawed human trait, bystanderism, which defies religious teachings. Why there is such a prevalence among rich, secular Jewish people, of racism mixed with liberalism, is a concern. It could be as simple that, at a certain point, the trait “rich” might start to cancel out the trait “religious.” Old guard antisemites would be unforgiving regarding hatred towards ‘ethnic Judaism,’ and contemporary racist sentiments would reject Jewish people from the points of heritage and beliefs, but it is not immediately clear if Western neo-Nazis would target non-religious Jewish people who, quote, “pass” as Euro-Christians.
If Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and Mizrahim join Western cultures, ideals, and appearances while abandoning the Jewish religion, are they functionally Jewish at all? In the absence of different brands of generational antisemitism, what is holding back an atheist Ashkenazi from becoming a Nazi themself? The Jewish community and Israel critics have been ablaze with debate about the Eurocentric, Ashkenazim-focused account of Judaism in the West, drawing attention to the issue of inter-Jewish racism and inequality among the diaspora of the Jewish faithful. This question is debated separately for Jewish communities because unity is their faith. Followers of Christianity have always cut one another down over heresies and infidelities, but discourse and diversity have defined the post-Rabbinic tradition. The notion of one Jewish diaspora being more powerful than another, based not even on secularism such as in Christianity, but based solely on racism and adjacency to Christian empires, causes non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities to question that proximity in values and appearance Western Ashkenazi populations have with the goyish counterparts. Even the terms Ashkenazi and Mizrahi have taken fundamentally racist connotations, particularly in the advent of Zionism, to separate the ‘European Jewish’ from the ‘Arabian Jewish,’ in a kind of wartime apartheid of academia; a conflict emblematic of larger paradoxes in modern Israel.
This is not the focus of this article. Obviously, Jewish people living in Western Europe and urban America are more “Western” than people who live somewhere else. And obviously, Western nations have a serious and prolonged issue with racism. However, welding those two facts together, then conflating them with Judaism in some sense, would be a mistake.
There are some racist people in Hollywood who identify as, or are identified as, Jewish. That is not the question. The question is: How does the concept of cultural appropriation contribute to that complex dynamic, of conformity and exploitation in Hollywood, even amongst the big names?
This all comes back to the perceptual balance of power. Just as the term cultural appropriation is defined as a group being in a oppressive position and exploiting something that that group itself has made derogatory.
Is Netali Hershlag appropriating Western culture? In a way, yes. As a rich, powerful Jewish actress, she could hardly be said to be put at a disadvantage to Keira Knightly (Harvard versus dropout, remember), or the millions of aspiring brown-haired actresses who are shunned from Hollywood castings. And yet, she decides to look more like them. Obviously, as an ordinary woman herself, she has been victim to the usual sexism and obsessive demands of producers and directors concerning appearances, but that is hardly so say she is a victim. At any moment, she could deign to take a different part or produce her own movies (I would balk to call them films), rather than be typecast as the sexy and innocent girl-next-door. She lives the life of the good Jewish, girl, but never takes on those types of roles, opting instead for Princess Amidala, ballerina Nina Sayers, valley girl Elle Woods, comic book Jane Foster, or Englishwoman Anne Boleyn. Hershlag could at any moment leave acting to climb the ladder a Harvard A.B. clears the way for. How could Harvard Law School, or subsequently the California Democratic caucus, say no? Who wouldn’t pay for a doctor’s visit with the woman from V For Vendetta?
This is not to say that Jewish people are appropriating or imposing themselves upon Westerners, but it is to say that there is a distinct group of Jewish people who draw from Western or Hitlerite practices while entirely avoiding ‘Juden-haus’ or ‘Euro-trash’ rhetoric that hampers people on both sides of the racist conflict. Portman is Netali’s grandmother’s name, so she does have some kind of loose claim to it, if her cousins are still go by that name and she is close with them, while Natalie is a form of the name Neta-Li, and plenty if not most actors use stage names. Many people do racist or questionable things because they are in fashion. But altogether, one must ask the question why the self ascribed curly-haired Netali Hershlag is appearing is French wig and makeup commercials. Is it raw, unidealistic money? Is it Maybelline? Or it is fake hair, fake lashes, and a fake identity?
Natalie Portman is hardly an inspiring figure for women, playing roles subservient to men, often murdered by her lovers or terribly afflicted herself. This is true in Star Wars, Black Swan, Thor, V For Vendetta, and when she played the wife of wife-killer Henry VIII. Where is the liberty in being bedded by an uxoricidal maniac, be it a tired British period piece, or the obsessive Anakin Skywalker? Body modification of any type is not the product or respect or exchange, and can only be looked down upon as unnecessary and insecure. Acting is lying, but that does not mean the actress must change their looks or change their self to read some lines to a camera.