Sometime in 1940, American psychologist William Moulton Marston came up with the idea of a superhero “who would conquer not with fists, but with love”. The same year, he was hired as an ‘educational consultant’ for National Periodicals and All-American Publications, two of the companies that would later merge to form DC Comics. Martson first pitched the idea to his wife, Elizabeth, who responded with: “Fine, but make her a woman.” And that is how the character of Wonder Woman was born. “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world,” Marston had said in a press release.
Over the years, the character has been loved and loathed in equal measure. “Superman owes a debt to science fiction, Batman to the hardboiled detective. Wonder Woman’s debt is to feminism,” writes Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. That ‘debt’ aside, in her 75th year when the United Nations appointed Wonder Woman as honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, not everyone was pleased. The October 21 event in New York had many in the audience turn their backs on the panel in a silent protest.
The move also triggered a petition by ‘concerned United Nations staff members’ against “using a character with an overtly sexualised image at a time when the headline news in the world is the objectification of women and girls”. “The reality is that the character’s current iteration is that of a large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots — the epitome of a ‘pin-up’ girl,” the petition with nearly 45,000 signatures said. Finally, last week, mounting public anger forced the UN to drop the comic character as an ambassador.
“From the UN’s side, there was no plan for it to be much longer than this,” Jeffrey Brez, the UN’s chief of NGO relations and advocacy, told The Guardian. The abrupt departure has raised many questions, one among them being the “role fictional characters can and should play in UN campaigns”, with the critics arguing that there are “plenty of real women who could have filled the role”. “And context matters: Coming on the heels of the selection of António Guterres as the next Secretary-General over any of the seven women shortlisted, choosing Wonder Woman was seen as an affront,” Ellen Powell writes in The Christian Science Monitor.
Though this was not the first time that the UN opted for a fictional character as an ambassador — Winnie the Pooh served as honorary ambassador of friendship in 1999, and Tinker Bell became honorary ambassador of the green in 2009 — a backlash of this nature has been rare.
Apart from the projection of the character, Vanessa Friedman took issue with several plot points in the Wonder Woman storyline. “The reason Steve Trevor, her original love interest, falls for her is not just that she can defend herself and him, gallop into battle… It’s because, let’s be honest, of her looks — when she takes off her glasses, stops being that dowdy Diana Prince in a buttoned-up shirt and blossoms into her barely clad self. Is that really the message we want to send about female empowerment to our daughters in an era when there are a number of fully clothed, notably powerful female role models?” she writes in The New York Times.
Others pointed out the UN’s own “woefully poor” record when it came to women employees in the organisation. “Why not pick a representative who might have some feelings about the treatment of women in the world, rather than a 75-year-old scribble?… This light-hearted approach feels wrong when it comes to such a serious cause — particularly given the organisation’s own less-than-exemplary record of championing women,” Charlotte Lytton writes in The Telegraph, while quoting a 2015 analysis of the UN’s senior hires, which found that nine out of 10 of them were men.
Defending the UN’s decision, Cristina Gallach, UN undersecretary general for communications, had argued that the use of Wonder Woman “will help us reach new audiences with essential messages about empowerment and equality”. But Eleanor Lyon contends that women and girls in developing countries, where most UN gender inequality work is done, are unlikely to get the message. “It seems that the studio that owns her has negotiated a cushy deal wherein they do very little work for gender equality while enjoying free marketing provided by one of the world’s most notable human rights organisations. More importantly, choosing a fun little media stunt instead of selecting a qualified, motivated and breathing human being to work for women seems to imply that the situation is not that dire, ” she writes in The Gonzaga Bulletin, a newspaper published at Gonzaga University, Washington.
Though the voices supporting Wonder Woman’s appointment were few and far between, some, such as Sara Pintilie, argued that the character resonated with a wider audience. “Wonder Woman is immortal in more ways than one, and we need her brand of unbreakable, iconic courage to fight the toxicity of sexism and empower women. Critics can question why the UN picked a fictional character, especially one usually portrayed as scantily clad. Why not someone real? But Wonder Woman, with her unadulterated fight-for-justice attitude, translates and resonates with a wider audience,” she writes in her piece ‘Why we need Wonder Woman’s help today’ in the Star-Telegram.
In the end, it may be worth paying heed to Friedman’s advice: “If we had to hold up a woman in a bathing suit as an example, perhaps we should consider Katie Ledecky, one of the greatest swimmers ever. Her power famously comes from within. Which is the message the organisation wants to send.”