With Wonder Woman’s tenure as the United Nations Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls coming to a somewhat unceremonious end, I can’t help wanting to do a postmortem on her appointment and the controversy surrounding it. In addition to finding the whole affair oddly fascinating, I found it revealing—not only about global attitudes towards feminism but on how the most recognizable symbols of pop culture feminism are often inherently polarizing.
While I do not question that all parties involved genuinely had nothing but good intentions, there were some serious objections raised almost immediately (after the collective online shout of “cool!” dissipated, anyways) and they bear further examination, especially in light of the apparent success of said objections.
The three things that were most controversial about this “appointment” are all significant. The primary objections were that Wonder Woman is overtly sexualized, that a fictional rather than a real woman was unacceptable for such a role, and that giving “Wonder Woman” that voice for women was effectively just handing it to the DC Comics marketing department. While there were a few objections related to her history of violence and some that simply being a comic book character delegitimized her, the former was not really unique to this case in any particularly interesting way and the latter is something I won’t dignify with a response.
Before I jump into the fallout over all this, it’s probably a good idea to recap what exactly happened. While this was a big deal in geek and/or feminist circles, it was quick and a lot of us may have missed most of it. In October of 2016, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be named an honorary ambassador. The press release mentioned that as part of a campaign with DC and Warner Bros, Wonder Woman would be connected to everything from fighting abuse to promoting examples of women making a difference. What would WW actually do though? Primarily, be featured in various social media campaigns to promote gender equality as part of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
Some of the most immediate and most vocal objections revolved around Wonder Woman’s often sexualized portrayal. I initially thought most of those objections were from SWERFS and, in all fairness, many of them were, but there is a history here that cannot be ignored. Wonder Woman has been connected to both the objectification of women and to feminism since her inception. This connection extends as far back as first-wave feminism.
The reason that the SWERF connection immediately came to mind is that WW has a very long history with schools of feminist thought that involve sex positivity and consensual BDSM roleplay as a social good. In his book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941–1948, Noah Berlatsky examines how William Marston intended Wonder Woman to be a form of propaganda for a very unique vision of social change through feminist theory. To be specific, he thought women were “naturally better at being submissive”, submissiveness being seen as a positive quality, and simultaneously better suited to take the dominant role in society and rule the world. Marston was a famous psychiatrist, and while his thinking was clearly colored by his own personal psychology, many of his ideas are similar to both historical and modern sex-positive feminist theory. Indeed, the specific connection between Margaret Sanger and Wonder Woman is a primary subject of the widely popular book The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Dr. Jill Lepore.
But while the connections between sex-positive feminism and Wonder Woman are clear, there are also innumerable cases of her simply being objectified. As possibly the highest-profile example of a powerful female superhero that exists, the tendency to subjugate her or relegate her to a tropey power fantasy (*cough* Frank Miller) has always reared its head in the Wonder Woman universe. While Wonder Woman has a long history of being a feminist icon, she has also been used to promote juvenile and often straight-up misogynistic fantasies. That is a valid point if she is to be “officially” representing the advancement of gender equality. Given the fact that the most prominentof the petitions against this was created by UN staff, that sexualization, along with culturally imperialist undertones (both the fact that her costume is based on the American flag and the fact that the connection between bare skin and empowerment varies widely between the cultures the UN represents) appears to have been something that the creators of the campaign failed to adequately consider, particularly given that the campaign is aimed largely at improving the lives of women in non-Western cultures.
As this debate played out, however, a second one was beginning to gain volume. It was argued that by picking a fictional superhero to spearhead a movement for the visibility of female empowerment, we were sending the message that real women weren’t enough. While she is a symbol of a great many inspiring things to a great many people, Wonder Woman is also arguably the definition of “unrealistic standard of beauty”. There are some incredible people on this planet (UN Women certainly has a few available at a moment’s notice) but no real human could possibly hope to compare to Wonder Woman, though Hermione comes close. We’re talking about an Amazonian princess superhero that’s either a demigod daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus or made from magic clay; the most badass lady on Earth is still not literally Wonder Woman. Even though it is part of her character, that image is a different consideration in entertainment than in a PSA about female empowerment.
This argument, to me, has more weight. Why use a comic book character when we could use any of thousands, perhaps millions, of real life superheroes as examples? The United Nations has a great many empowering women working for them and a great many more working with them; they could have gone to any of them and come up with an equally powerful campaign. Surely a woman actually helping change the world is a better ambassador for this cause. While I believe that to be the case, the public recognition of Wonder Woman, one of comics’ “big three”, seemed to override that consideration.
By picking a well known and generally beloved character to help spread the message, it was likely believed that the campaign would go viral. It did, just not for all the reasons they thought. And as that publicity continued to mount, the third debate begins to become more relevant to this breakdown. That viral campaign, in addition to drawing attention to the important issues, could also easily be construed as generating publicity for the upcoming film version of Wonder Woman from the studios behind the campaign.
Now, that is not necessarily a conflict of interest. Promoting a message of gender equality is in the interest of both the studios and the United Nations. While their motivations for doing so are clearly different, they are both seeking the same thing and were uniquely positioned to work together on this. The fact remains, however, that it can be argued that this public service campaign is a covert vehicle for film promotion, and that is somewhat unsettling, but it also seems to be an indication that the film will feature an unapologetically feminist Wonder Woman. If that proves to be the case (it better be), then the film itself is a vehicle to promote the same message as the campaign, potentially spreading the message to a much wider audience. That said, while the potential benefits to all parties seem clear, it still feels like something about public/private PR campaigns deserves extra scrutiny. In this case, major studios stand to make hundreds of millions of dollars on this film, and they are evidently (finally) aware that their depiction of women is going to be a crucial part of its success. Though maintaining Wonder Woman as a feminist role model is a moral imperative, it’s also one that is inextricably tied to DC and WB’s bottom line, and that is questionable enough that it casts a shadow over the campaign.
While I still think the validity of that uneasiness in this specific case rests, at least in some small part, on the Wonder Woman movie, given the recent problematic depictions of women and the general poor writing in DC films of late this objection lent enough weight to the other two that the general mindset seemed to have turned. So the UN halted the campaign and called it a success. After all, even if the central point of the WW movie is to advance a feminist message, it’s still a multimillion dollar blockbuster, not a PSA.
While it seems like as soon as protest heated up and appeared to be turning into internet outrage, those involved wanted out as quick as possible… that is the nature of publicity campaigns, public or private. So was the PSA a problem or was it all just a publicity fiasco? In looking back at the whole thing, I’ve finally reconciled my conflicting feelings over it.
I loved the campaign and I’m really glad they did it.
I’m also glad it’s over.
Wonder Woman is an ideal. To many many people she represents the goodness of humanity. She is a modern-day pop culture demigod that represents those virtues we strive to uphold. Virtues like love, justice, compassion, and integrity are represented in Wonder Woman, perhaps moreso than either of her male counterparts in the big three. There is already a counter petition formed to reinstate her along these lines.
In the end, however, it became at the very least a distraction from, if not an insult to, those who are out there actively pursuing gender equality and social progress, many of whom are likely lifelong Wonder Woman fans themselves. Once that happened, the value of the honorary ambassadorship became toxic. While the things Wonder Woman has and does represent are perfectly suited to the role they had her play as UN Ambassador, the timing of this, along with the need to focus on real-life inspiring women, ultimately outweighed a continued use of her for this purpose. While the concept of Wonder Woman has certainly inspired many real women (and everyone else) to go out and actually change the world, perhaps what we need now is to hear more of their stories as well as whatever awesomeness Greg Rucka turns out.
In their brief statement on the aftermath, DC spokesperson Courtney Simmons told NBC News that “Wonder Woman stands for peace, justice and equality, and for 75 years she has been a motivating force for many and will continue to be long after the conclusion of her U.N. honorary ambassadorship.”
I agree wholeheartedly. While Wonder Woman may not have been a good long-term choice as United Nations Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, she has long been, is, and hopefully will continue to be a beacon for some vital principles worth fighting for.
All Berlatsky quotes are from a fantastic interview in iO9.
A truly solid Smithsonian Magazine piece by Jill Lepore also explores these concepts.
Special thanks to Ash L for consulting on WW fandom.