[UPDATED] Why Wonder Woman is Not the Problem When It Comes to Sexism At the United Nations
*UPDATED 5:52PM – a reader informed me that Lynda Carter is part Latina, which I looked up and confirmed! I had no idea that she was part Mexican, and I was thrilled to hear it. I’ve altered my text below to reflect this fact. As a Latina myself, this means so much to me, and I’m sorry to have gone this long not knowing this! – Teresa*
Earlier today, in a ceremony at the United Nations, Wonder Woman was named an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, in conjunction with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal #5 which, according to a press release, “focuses on gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls as a critical component of a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.” However, there are those at the UN who were not thrilled with this particular choice of ambassador.
As reported in the New York Times, over 600 members of the UN staff have signed an online petition calling for the Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, to reconsider using Wonder Woman in this way, preferring instead that a flesh-and-blood woman with a proven track record of activism, rather than a fictional character, be bestowed with this honor. Part of the petition reads:
Wonder Woman was created 75 years ago. Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent “warrior” woman with a feminist message, 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. This is the character that the United Nations has decided to represent a globally important issue – that of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. It appears that this character will be promoted as the face of sustainable development goal 5 for the United Nations at large.
The online petition was followed up by an IRL protest during the ceremony itself. According to Revelist, several dozen protesters held up their fists with their backs turned on the proceedings in silent protest of the decision.
As a woman of color who loves comics and empowering women, I have mixed feelings about this whole thing.
On the one hand, I understand the hesitation on this. Had anyone asked me (PS, no one did), I would’ve suggested that they have Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador and an actual, real-life human woman as a goodwill ambassador, or vice versa. This is especially sensitive, considering the fact that the United Nations has never had a female Secretary General. This month, the UN apparently rejected seven female candidates for the position in a year when everyone was certain it was going to be a woman’s turn, only to name António Guterres of Argentina as the next Secretary General.
THAT sucks. In fact, that’s unconscionable. How are you going to claim a Sustainable Development Goal like “empowering women” while not empowering women in your own organization? THAT, quite frankly, is some bullshit, and THAT needs to be called out, for sure.
But it also has nothing to do with Wonder Woman being chosen as a symbol of female empowerment, and the petition, while understandable, also reeks of ignorance about the character and a lack of self-awareness as far as what the UN has always done, rightfully so, as far as creating these symbolic positions to raise awareness.
Let’s talk character first:
- “Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent “warrior” woman with a feminist message” – she was never just a warrior. Wonder Woman has always been about love and peace first, war as a very last resort, and only defensively.
- “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.” – So much to unpack here: 1) of which “current iteration” are they speaking? Do they know she has several titles with several different creative teams, each doing very different takes?, 2) her appearance changes with every artist, as does the size of her breasts and how pronounced the “American flag motif” is, 3) what’s wrong with large breasts and knee-high boots? Women who have or wear these can’t be good examples or role models?
A fourth point deserves its own space. The fact that Wonder Woman is a “white woman” and that she wears an “American flag motif.” Of all the reasons why Wondy would be “inappropriate” for a global organization, these are the two I understand the most. And yet, I think whoever created this petition doesn’t really know or understand the character and is making assumptions based on that ignorance.
Like, for example, calling her “white.” Now, “white” means something very specific here in the States, and it can mean something else entirely depending on where you are in the world. However, something to keep in mind is that Diana of Themyscira grew up worshiping both Greek and Egyptian goddesses, and depending on what version of her story you read, Themyscira (or Paradise Island) is located somewhere in the Mediterranean. Wonder Woman herself — again, depending on the telling — could be Greek, or Turkish, or even Middle Eastern. But rather than approaching the character with any sort of complexity, or alternately, using this as an opportunity to find the international layers within the character, they’ve made a blanket assumption on sight, or else, based on the TV show in which an American actress portrayed the character and for which the words “Red, white, and blue” are sung in the very theme song! (NOTE: even this is misleading, considering that Carter herself is part Latina, her mother being of Mexican, Spanish, and French descent!)
And speaking of Wonder Woman’s “Americanness,” again that depends on what version of her you’re talking about. In Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier, for example, Wonder Woman is clearly not all about America. We first meet her fighting alongside female rebels in China when Superman comes to rein her in, and she’s all “NOPE.” Even when she’s fighting on the side of America in certain stories, it’s never (or rarely) “because ‘MURICUH!” She’s always fighting in the interest of global peace and women everywhere.
And now we have Gal Gadot, an Israeli citizen, playing her in the upcoming film, and one of the things I love about her casting is that her accent immediately makes her Not American, and so she can become more of a symbol to women everywhere, because she’s not the standard American Hollywood Bombshell. She’s not particularly “large breasted” either, for those at the UN keeping track of these things for some reason.
Point being, people who work for an international organization like the United Nations should understand and be paying attention to these ethnic and geographical complexities, and when coming at something like this, they should know better.
Now that we’ve gotten character stuff out of the way, I have to bring up the fact that she is an HONORARY ambassador. The role is a symbolic one. What more appropriate thing to do than to have an actual symbol in that role? In a separate New York Times piece, writer Somini Sengupta refers to Wonder Woman as a “mascot” when deriding the choice in an op-ed, and my first thought was, “Well…yes.”
That’s pretty much the point of something like this. “Honorary ambassadorships” are entirely designed to be mascots, symbols to raise awareness. It should be more troubling when actual people are put into those roles, but it isn’t, because the people understand what function they serve. It’s their job to be the “face” of a cause, to draw worldwide attention to an effort of global importance.
In response to the Wonder Woman ceremony, UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric expressed his disappointment by saying, ““We work and engage with amazing women around the world every day and have many strong, real-life women who advocate on behalf of the UN for rights of women,” and proceeds to name Alaa Murabit, a Canadian Muslim physician and advocate originally from Libya; Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; the Brazillian soccer (futbol!) player Marta; and Angelina Jolie, whom I’m sure you all know.
Here’s the thing: how is choosing Wonder Woman as a symbol to raise awareness any different than choosing a celebrity like Angelina Jolie, or Marta, or Emma Watson? All of these women have done amazing, real humanitarian work before they were selected, but if the UN expects us to believe that these women in particular weren’t also selected for their celebrity cache, I’d find that hilarious! And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why we have celebrity spokespeople for anything. We’re all more likely to pay attention when someone with whom we’re familiar points something out. That’s just the way it is, and it’s not a bad thing.
And yes, the argument can be made that “real woman” should always trump “fictional characters” in a case like this. But to me, it’s more important to let real women go about doing their real work, not necessarily spending time going to ribbon-cutting ceremonies or endless speaking engagements. What’s more, this petition severely underestimates the power of media and pop culture, as well as the impact that Wonder Woman continues to have — yes, even after 75 years — on women and girls worldwide.
Wonder Woman isn’t just American in scope. She has an international audience. Whether people enjoy her in comics form, in video games, in animated series and TV shows, or soon on film, Wonder Woman is already a symbol that transcends borders. Using her in this way works, and will make people look up and care about the UN’s efforts regarding women, much in the same way that Emma Watson has made so many people look up and care about the HeForShe campaign. It doesn’t have to be either/or. It can be both.
Meanwhile, the very real problem of a woman never having held the highest office at the UN needs to be dealt with. Perhaps this petition could have been about that instead.
(images via DC Entertainment)
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