The Meaning of Gigi Hadid’s “Half-Palestinian”-Ness

Gigi Hadid paying homage to a past cover of Vogue featuring an Israeli model. (Vogue.com)

In September 2014, Sigal Samuel opined that the world’s premier fashion magazine – Vogue, of course – had effectively declared “Palestinian Is the New Israeli.” Writing in the Forward, Samuel alluded to a broader trend in American pop culture that increasingly identifies the stateless Palestinians living under the boot of the Israel Defense Forces as the new victims par excellence. One example Samuel pointed to was Art Spiegelman, the graphic novelist and author of the Holocaust novel “Maus,” whose famous collage for The Nation was captioned “Perspective in Gaza (The David and Goliath Illusion).” But Samuel’s piece focused on the California-born supermodel Gigi Hadid, who was chosen to recreate the image of legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour’s first cover (1988), which featured an Israeli model. For Samuel, Hadid’s Palestinian heritage was no coincidence: “I’d be surprised if the model’s background did not play a significant role in her selection,” she wrote.

Vogue had featured articles about other Palestinian women as well as photographs of Tilde Swinton sporting a Palestine scarf, Samuel noted; but the choice of Hadid was probably “a nice and subtle political point” conveying the rising profile of Palestinians in the American consciousness. (Al Jazeera and Israeli daily Ha’aretz ran similar stories.)

Maybe so.

Hadid has seldom mentioned her paternal Palestinian lineage (she is the daughter of Los Angeles real estate developer Mohamed Hadid and former model and “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” star Yolanda Foster). Back in 2013, when Hadid was less well-known, this is how she answered a fan’s question on Twitter about her nationality:

(Gigi Hadid Twitter)
(Gigi Hadid Twitter)

But it was a recent Instagram post that captured the digital imagination. In late December, Hadid posted a photograph of her hand, and those of her girlfriends, decorated with henna and she teased her 11+ million followers with the following words: “& before you go all ‘cultural appropriation’ in my comments, check out the last name. Hadid. Half Palestinian & proud of it.”

(Gigi Hadid Instagram)
(Gigi Hadid Instagram)

Hadid’s Palestinian pride attracted instant attention. Cable channel E!’s news site ran the headline “Gigi Hadid Wants to Remind You That She’s Half-Palestinian and ‘Proud of It'”; Entertainment Tonight gushed “Gigi Hadid Is ‘Proud’ to Be Half-Palestinian”; the New York Daily News told readers “Supermodel Gigi Hadid is ‘proud’ of her Palestinian roots — and haters can talk to the hand!”; the Hollywood Reporter wrote, “half-Palestinian model also shut down haters from posting any comments about ‘cultural appropriation’ on Instagram”; the UK’s Daily Mail declared, “Gigi Hadid defends her Palestinian roots”; the New York Post‘s famous (infamous?) Page Six gossip section publicized the post under the heading “Don’t accuse me of cultural appropriation, I’m half Palestinian.” And so on. They were not alone: a Google search of “Gigi Hadid half-Palestinian” turns up 46,700 results. Remove the “half” and that number jumps to 220,000.

While Hadid does not hyphenate herself as a “Palestinian-American model,” she has often been branded as one. The world (at least the part of it enamored with celebrities) is incredibly interested, and even giddy, over a declaration of Palestinian identity from such a glamorous individual.

Is the media simply covering Hadid’s every move as a super-model or is her Palestinian-ness particularly noteworthy? While our question might seem a little tongue-in-cheek there may be more to it than mere celebrity obsession.

In her seminal work Epic Encounters, American Studies scholar Melanie McAlister writes about the intersection between the political and cultural realms. “Where the two meet, political meanings are often made,” she states, pointing out that meaning is thus often constructed through convergences and not by design. It is not a conspiracy between disparate actors, but not entirely coincidental either.

A recent film about Wall Street greed had meaning to American audiences, for example, because the film’s narrative had already been laid down in numerous news stories and political rhetoric. In other words, representations have meaning within specific contexts. And these convergences between culture and politics become authoritative over time (akin to common sense), creating resonance and meaning.

All this is to say that the fascination with Gigi Hadid’s heritage is the reflection of a new intersection between culture and politics in the U.S. that attaches meaning to Hadid’s post about being a proud Palestinian.

Hadid in a keffiyeh-styled top designed by Chanel.
Hadid in a keffiyeh-styled top designed by Chanel.

We may be making a little too much of this, but we’d wager that the atypical attention centered on Hadid’s Palestinian heritage (while her Dutch heritage gets scant mention, and other models do not make similar headlines) reflects a cultural moment that goes beyond any aesthetic infatuation with Hadid. The gorgeous supermodel is at the cross-section of an American cultural and political awakening, which Hadid’s star status and very identity amplify.

The last few years have witnessed the creation of documentaries such as “Five Broken Cameras,” narrated by a Palestinian rights activist and the anti-occupation “The Gatekeepers,” as well as the Palestinian feature film “Omar,” which were all nominated for Academy Awards; they have also seen strained relations between Obama and Netanyahu; unprecedented public criticism of Israel reflecting increasing pro-Palestinian sentiment among Democrats and younger and minority Americans; and, at the moment, major presidential candidate Bernie Sanders voicing support (albeit restrained) for Palestinian rights.

Israel is more popular than ever on the American Right. But in the intersection of politics and culture in mainstream America, the cachet of the Palestinian cause has never been greater or its capital more attractive. And what better symbolizes the 21st century American embrace of Palestinians than the beautiful and glamorous Jelena “Gigi” Nour Hadid Vogue calls the “Model of the Moment“?

(Gigi Hadid Instagram)
(Gigi Hadid Instagram)

By Khelil Bouarrouj.

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