In launching a global campaign to achieve its Sustainable Development Goal 5, “to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” the UN recently designated Wonder Woman as its new Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls.
This decision sparked widespread outrage and concerned UN staff members have started an online petition to have the decision reconsidered. This concern, which has been echoed by many women’s rights advocates is that this role should not be filled by a fictional character, but rather a real woman, and that Wonder Woman’s pin-up girl image fails to empower women by adhering to limiting and outdated gender ideals.
The UN’s decision to appoint Wonder Woman is perhaps a shrewd attempt to capitalise on the upcoming resurge in popularity that Wonder Woman is likely to receive as a result of an upcoming film; it may be easier to encourage interest in a campaign which has a popular character as its face. Indeed, the UN has has success in the past doing this by utilising Emma Watson for its “He for She” campaign – all of her speeches have been circulated many times through news websites and social media and most articles make reference to her Harry Potter character. The difference between Watson and Wonder Woman is, quite obviously, that Watson is a real person who can be relied on to make speeches and speak up for women. I doubt the UN will be able to get the same commitment from Wonder Woman. By choosing a real woman who has overcome the gendered obstacles on the path to success, the UN could have a representative who could actually offer useful help and advice to women and inspire them by demonstrating that female success does not only exist in comic books.
Moreover, it is reasonable for those who work at the UN to worry about what her appointment says about its attitude. However shrewd a decision it may be, the fact remains that Wonder Woman as a character is a highly unrealistic male ideal of a woman that does not demonstrate any clear trajectory to success for real women. She is the epitome of the male-gaze version of a “strong female character;” what is described in the petition as a “large breasted, white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring bodysuit,” whilst also being physically strong in a way more typical to men.
The problems with this are twofold. Firstly, it feeds into male objectification of women and girls, which directly contradicts recent UN campaigns such as the aforementioned “He for She” campaign, which encourages men to challenge their perceptions and help women in the quest for equality.
Secondly, the version of strength that is being championed by the UN through their appointment of Wonder Woman is a masculine one. Most women are not as physically strong as Wonder Woman, the UN is helping to perpetuate the idea that this is the most desirable kind of strength. It may have been better to choose a representative who demonstrates skills more accessible to women, such as a politician, activist or singer. Or if they were serious about celebrating women who demonstrate an admirable mastery of their bodies and incredible strength, a sportswoman, such as Serena Williams.
An Amazonian princess with superpowers who is usually drawn as a white woman can hardly be considered a role model for women across the globe. Women in developing countries, who are most in need of empowerment today, may struggle to identify with a privileged white woman. It is to the UN’s shame that it has not selected a woman who could truly represent them. The UN must reconsider its decision, and choose a real ambassador for all women.