When renowned scientist Stephen Hawking passed away on March 14, 2018, multiple people posted tributes to him on social media. Among them was Wonder Woman actress Gal Gadot, who left a message on her Twitter. But her post met with some controversy. It was obviously heartfelt, but many people thought it was saying something subtly prejudiced. Arguments broke out over the actress’ words.
Gadot has been a big name ever since she was cast as Wonder Woman in the DC Cinematic Universe. Before that happened, the former Miss Israel was only really familiar to Fast and Furious fans, as she’d been in three movies from that franchise. Her casting as the iconic superhero drew a slightly mixed reaction with many people saying she wasn’t experienced enough for the role.
But when the Wonder Woman film came out in 2017, the naysayers were silenced. It was a huge success, grossing more than $800 million and becoming the sixth-highest-earning superhero movie of all time. And Gadot’s performance especially drew lots of praise from critics. She had gone from little-known actress to one of the most famous faces in Hollywood.
And of course, she quickly gained a huge following on social media. Though in all her career she had only posted less than 2000 tweets, by 2018 her follower count stood at 1.72 million. So all those people were watching when she posted a tribute tweet to Stephen Hawking, whose sudden death at the age of 76 saddened many.
Hawking had lived out most of his life with slow-progressing motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. When he was first diagnosed with the condition at the age of 21, doctors told him he only had two years left to live. He defied that prediction, and he did so in spectacular fashion.
Not only did Hawking survive, he seemed to thrive. He worked on multiple theories involving quantum physics and the nature of the universe. And when his book A Brief History of Time was published, it shot to the top of the bestseller list in both the U.S. and U.K.. “I have lived most of my life in the expectation of an early death, so time has always been precious to me,” Hawking stated in 2006.
Hawking was also a huge advocate for disability rights. In the ’70s, as his speech and health deteriorated even more, he and his wife Jane fought Cambridge University for better wheelchair access and adapted student housing. As time went on he became arguably the most recognizable disabled person in the world, and he used his platform for more campaigning.
His death was considered not just a loss to the science world but to the disabled community as well. When news of his passing hit, people commented on what a role model he had been to them. “He was a huge inspiration to me as a teen when I was in and out of wheelchairs from my illness,” tweeted Tanya Harrison, director of research at Arizona State’s Space Technology and Science Initiative. “Seeing him keeping on doing science kept me going.”
Other people commented on Hawking’s great sense of humor. Actor Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar for playing Hawking in the 2014 movie The Theory of Everything, described the physicist as “a truly beautiful mind, an astonishing scientist and the funniest man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.”
Gal Gadot’s tweet, though, was different. “Rest in peace, Dr. Hawking,” she wrote. “Now you’re free of any physical constraints. Your brilliance and wisdom will be cherished forever.” On the surface, her message looked like a perfectly inoffensive tribute. But some people took issue with the exact words she used.
“I think you’re fantastic Gal but this tweet is very ableist,” one person tweeted back to the actress. “His physical constraints didn’t stop him from changing the world. People with disabilities don’t wish for death to be free of their challenges. We wish to be valued for what we CAN do, not pitied for we can’t.”
Others were angrier and said so in their responses. “Thank you ‘Wonder Woman’ for that completely ableist comment. Being disabled is not a restraint, he is one of the greatest minds in the world AND he was disabled. It did not RESTRAIN him. So disappointed people think this way,” wrote another person.
In the comments beneath Gadot’s post, debate raged. “How on earth do you interpret this tweet as her saying that one’s life is not important if you’re disabled ? I’m sorry, it is common belief that one of is free of pain and illness after death, that’s what her tweet said,” came one comment. “She obviously didn’t mean anything offensive,” wrote someone else.
However, Gadot isn’t the only person who’s come under fire for a tribute to Hawking. Australian artist Mitchell Toy posted a drawing of the scientist getting up out of his wheelchair, a picture that went viral, and many considered that the artwork contributed to a damaging misconception about disabled people.
“What this image suggested was a rather damaging trope: the disabled person should always seek to not use a wheelchair,” wrote Ellis Palmer for the BBC, in an article titled, “How I saw Stephen Hawking’s death as a disabled person.” “Society still seeks to create an image of a disabled person’s life as pitiable or a burden on society.”
This same argument is what’s being leveled against Gadot’s tweet. “[Gadot’s] sentiment affects me personally, it affects all people with disabilities because it impacts how we are perceived,” another person wrote below it. “The unemployment rate for people with disabilities is 70-80 percent and the idea that disabilities are scary things to be “freed” from is a big reason why.”
Indeed, in the U.K. and U.S. the topic of prejudice against disabled people is something that’s often debated. New healthcare bills in America could threaten the quality of life of millions of disabled people. And in 2017 Britain was judged by the United Nations to be failing disabled people through their austerity policies.
So it’s not surprising that emotions run very high around this issue. However, Gadot hasn’t made any answer to the criticisms leveled at her. Her next few tweets were about her partnership with Reebok, a message regarding the first day of spring and a retweet thanking The Hollywood Reporter for putting her and her stylist on the cover.
But the world is still mourning the loss of Hawking. His family released a statement on March 20, 2018, which read, “On behalf of our whole family we want to express our huge gratitude for all the wonderful tributes to our father and to those who have sent us messages of condolence.” His funeral, they said, would be held in Cambridge on March 31.
Hawking himself had plenty to say about his ALS. “My disabilities have not been a significant handicap in my field, which is theoretical physics. Indeed, they have helped me in a way by shielding me from lecturing and administrative work that I would otherwise have been involved in,” he said in Science Digest in 1984. It’s something to remember as everyone comes to term with his loss.