Levity is not the United Nations’ strong suit.
The organization announced earlier this month that it would appoint comic book superhero Wonder Woman as honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls, as it pairs a longstanding push for gender equality with the launch of new sustainable-development goals. But much of the UN's own staff thinks the decision is in bad taste.
At the appointment ceremony on Friday, about 50 staff members stood and turned their backs in protest, according to the Independent, while 100 others gathered in the visitor’s lobby holding signs that expressed their disagreement with the choice, as the Guardian reported. And a petition drawn up by staff had garnered nearly 2,000 signatures by Saturday afternoon.
“It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualized image,” wrote the petition’s authors, adding that the character’s image was “not culturally encompassing or sensitive” to UN values of respect for diversity.
“The bottom line appears to be that the United Nations was unable to find a real-life woman that would be able to champion the rights of ALL women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for their empowerment.”
The petition may highlight a longstanding debate over what kind of icon Wonder Woman really is – either an exemplar of female power that any feminist could celebrate, or an image made passé by the traces it retained of the original creator’s erotic fantasies.
As The Christian Science Monitor wrote in 2014 in a review of Jill Lepore’s book “The Secret History of Wonder Woman”, creator William Moulton Marston designed the comic as kind of “feminist propaganda” at a time when American women were entering the workforce en masse. And in the 1970s, feminist Gloria Steinem declared her amazement at how progressive the comics were.
Many of the early comics depict Wonder Woman rebuffing offers of marriage, saving men too weak to rescue themselves, and escaping from all manner of chains and snares meant to symbolize the oppression of women. Though immensely strong, Wonder Woman uses her incredible powers only to prevent harm to others; violence is a tactic rather than a pastime. In the strip’s origin story, Wonder Woman hails from a lost island populated by strong and beautiful women warriors. When she is especially worked up, she sometimes mutters curses like “Suffering Sappho!” or “By Hera!”
The primary villain, Dr. Psycho, was inspired by one of Marston’s Harvard professors, a psychologist who opposed female suffrage and thought that a moral woman belonged at home. Dr. Psycho delights in confining Wonder Woman with chains, ropes, and gags. Marston saw this as a metaphor for the bonds of a sexist society, but the persistence of the trope made some suspect the bondage motif had sexual undertones.
In 2010, DC Comics decided to fit Wonder Woman out with a less scanty set of clothes, perhaps more appropriate to her hard work of crime-fighting.
"It’s a look designed to be taken seriously as a warrior, in partial answer to the many female fans over the years who’ve asked, 'how does she fight in that thing without all her parts falling out?'" series writer J. Michael Straczynski said.
This September, head writer Greg Rucka also gave a nod to the resonance that the comic has had for LGBT audiences, telling website Comicosity that the character had “obviously” been in romantic relationships with other women.
In the petition circulated by UN staff this week, the authors acknowledged that the original creators “may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent ‘warrior’ woman with a feminist message.”
But they also took exception with the elevation of the character’s current iteration, calling her “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.”
Much of the criticism, however, took issue less with the representation of the character herself than on what some felt was the degradation of the ambassadorship itself.
“Wonder Woman is a great pop cultural symbol, but I feel an ambassador for the UN should be an actual person,” says Barbara Gottfried, co-director of Boston University undergrad studies in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program, in an email to the Monitor.
One UN protestor, who spoke to the Guardian on condition of anonymity, echoed that sentiment.
“For something that is this important,” said the protestor, “you need a woman or a man who can speak, somebody who can travel, somebody who can champion these rights, somebody who is able to have an opinion, somebody that can be interviewed, somebody that can stand up in front of 192 member states and say this is what we would like you to do.”