Maybe as a fictional figure Wonder Woman can actually embody something that we can't yet bear to have in the real as a version of feminism.
Worrying about Wonder Woman
Is the new UN honorary ambassador a potent symbol of female agency or an insult to feminism?
By GEOFF McMASTER
In 1937, the creator of Wonder Woman held a press conference to predict that women would some day rule the world.
William Moulton Marston—also a psychologist and inventor of the lie detector test—told the Washington Post that “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.” He also believed it was only a matter of time before the better sex assumed its rightful place at the helm.
The popular comic book superheroine Marston brought to life was a forceful expression of female empowerment—strong, courageous, smart, fiercely independent and bisexual. Wonder Woman is clearly the equal of any male superhero, and yet when she was recently appointed honorary United Nations ambassador “for the empowerment of women and girls,” many thought the gesture was patently absurd.
Some UN staffers even turned their backs on the announcement, which was attended by Linda Carter, the star of the 1970s television series, and Gal Gadot, the Israeli former Miss Universe who stars in the upcoming feature film. A protest erupted slamming the super-heroine as no more than a scantily clad relic of 1950s soft porn, and an insult to real feminists everywhere. “Real women deserve a real ambassador,” read the placards, and a petition against the appointment collected 600 signatures.
But in some ways the controversial appointment highlights differences between the imaginary and the real, between the power of the symbolic to change especially young lives and the ability of a flesh-and-blood human being—who can actually speak—to advocate for a cause and mobilize communities on the ground.
And critics are by no means agreed on the merit of this choice.
U of A sociologist Amy Kaler says she appreciates the good intentions behind the choice but argues that choosing a cartoon character for such an important cause is ultimately flawed. Previous honorary ambassadors have included Winnie the Pooh (friendship), Tinkerbelle (ambassador of green) and Red, leader of the Angry Birds (International Day of Happiness).
“I get that it’s trying to engage younger people, those who read comic books and go to see superhero movies,” says Kaler. “But you can’t get away from the fact that Wonder Woman doesn’t exist. She’s a cartoon, and to me it doesn’t work to have imaginary characters treated as though they were real people, particularly imaginary individuals who are also property.”
Kaler says it is troubling that the UN would align itself with a commercial venture like DC Entertainment, timing the appointment with the upcoming release of the Wonder Woman movie.
“As much as Wonder Woman promotes the message of women’s empowerment, the UN is also driving traffic and consumers to DC comics. And that crosses over a line,” she says.
Perhaps most offensive of all, she says, is that Wonder Woman is the only fictional character used to represent the current UN agenda, and that runs the danger of trivializing the issue of women’s empowerment.
“I don’t see Spider Man as an honorary envoy to stop genocide, or Batman being deployed against environmental destruction. The idea of using a superhero to promote awareness of genocide would strike many people as just wrong, and yet we can do this with women?”
Kaler says the move conveys a lack of seriousness by the UN around women’s concerns, a condition amplified by the paucity of women among the organization’s leadership. Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, is the only female member of the Security Council and the UN has yet to appoint a female secretary general, even though seven of the 14 candidates up for the job last time around were women.
To the rescue (or Merciful Minerva!)
Natasha Hurley sympathizes with those who side with a real woman for the role of ambassador. But the children’s literature specialist, who also works on gender studies and queer theory, warns against underestimating the power of the symbolic.
“Would she be the first person I would choose? Probably not. But only because she is too overtly American—Wonder Woman basically wears the American flag.
“But there are all kinds of good reasons to see this as not a bad selection… Sometimes fiction can do things the real can't, and sometimes an imaginary character gives rise to creative solutions.”
The appointment of a potent character at least stimulates “a conversation about what heroic femininity is, rather than taking that as a given and talking about what's inside that traditional category,” says Hurley. “Maybe saying this gives us a chance to think about how it is that we imagine feminism, or what the iconography of feminism looks like.”
Hurley also challenges the idea that Wonder Woman is objectionable because she is big-breasted and highly sexualized. To argue that she is mere object of the male gaze ignores the power and agency inherent in her bisexuality, and in her status as an icon of gay culture.
“One of the ways the circulation of Wonder Woman among queer communities complicates things is by not accepting that the only narrative about female sexuality is one of objectification,” says Hurley. “This is a kind of active sexuality, and it might be a kind of force for women's accomplishments in the world too—to not be reduced to your sexuality, but not to disavow it either.
“Maybe as a fictional figure Wonder Woman can actually embody something that we can't yet bear to have in the real as a version of feminism.”
Moreover, says Hurley, it’s impossible to predict what happens to an iconic symbol once put into circulation, where it can change and evolve depending on which community chooses to adopt it.
“It doesn't mean it won't be used to objectify women under certain conditions, but I find it striking that the petition seems to want to narrow the way we read Wonder Woman, whereas the popular culture seems to be expanding and proliferating the way we read her.
“In that sense, Wonder Woman becomes an interesting case for thinking about women and girls in the world as having an unpredictable force that is taken up in different places in the world in different ways.”