What with all the folderol — including, not at all incidentally, a motion picture with the Amazon princess in the title role (due next summer) — Wonder Woman is having her best year yet. And it’s her 75th anniversary year, too. (So it took 75 years for her to get up on the Big Screen all by herself?) But the icing on the cake took place Friday, October 21 (her formally-designated birthday), when she was officially installed as the United Nation’s honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls and for gender equality, a.k.a. Goal 5 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World. She will appear in a social media campaign and other initiatives.
Alas, joy did not reign throughout the land. The UN staff, reported Somini Sengupta at the New York Times — some 600 of them—signed “an online petition calling on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a professed feminist, to reconsider the appointment of the fictitious superhero as its ambassador for women’s empowerment.”
Some objected to picking a comics character, but that’s been done before: earlier this year, Red from Angry Birds become honorary ambassador for the International Day of Happiness. All honorary ambassadors are fictional characters, so the association with the comics wasn’t the problem.
On one level, wrote Vanessa Friedman at nytimes.com, the appointment “makes sense. Wonder Woman is the epitome of the woman who needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle. (She appeared twice on the cover of Ms. magazine.) She is self-sufficient and strong and fights for equality and justice. She is not derivative of a male character the way Supergirl or Batgirl is, and she does not disguise herself as Catwoman does. In the new “Wonder Woman” movie, she says to her male co-star, ‘What I do is not up to you.’”
The source of the petitioners’ ire is the appearance of Wonder Woman. Or, as the petition puts it, “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” is not an appropriate spokeswoman for gender equity at the United Nations.
Friedman continues: “In the era of Donald J. Trump, when the issue of objectifying women because of how they look is foremost in every conversation, the outfit issue — and the related body image issue — cannot be so easily dismissed.”
The selection of Wonder Woman was “particularly ill-timed,” said Sengupta, “because the United Nations this month rejected seven female candidates for secretary general.”
“On the one hand,” said Friedman, “allowing girls to revel in their physicality and femininity is a good thing. I am not saying they should dress like nuns or adopt a pantsuits ‘r’ us mentality. They should own their womanhood and all that is special and different about it. You can argue that refusing to apologize for or hide your body under a sackcloth is a feminist act.”
But most women, she said, would not choose a skimpy bathing suit to wear to work in an office or any place other than the beach.
Friedman reported that Lynn Carter, who played Wonder Woman on tv 1975-79, appeared as President in a recent “Supergirl” episode, wearing “a long baby-blue jacket, skinny black trousers and pumps. ‘Smart, strong, easy, comfortable,’ Carter said of the look, adding that she based it on Hillary Clinton and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi.
Friedman acknowledges, however, that “like most superheroes, Wonder Woman is inseparable from her clothing: It is her immediate signifier, the representation of all about her that is special and unique (and kick-butt). And that clothing unavoidably indicates to everyone that part of the source of her power is her babeliciousness, as defined in a particularly retrograde way.”
When asked if the United Nations had thought about a wardrobe overhaul, Maher Nasser, UN’s director of Outreach in Public Relations, said, “The key art that was developed with the campaign does reflect many of the observations and comments that we have provided,” but he declined to be more specific.
Admittedly, Wonder Woman in any role intended to speak of women as people rather than as sex objects is a problem. But the problem began long ago — with the division of the human species into two sexes. All superheroes in funnybooks were skin-tight costumes, men as well as women. And I’m sure women readers find male superbeings as sexually attractive as men find female superbeings in comic books. And Wonder Woman is scarcely the only superheroine to show a lot of skin as well as skill.
I don’t think we can escape the predicament altogether. Not as long as humanity is bisexual.
But there is a matter of time and place. And I agree that Wonder Woman in her scanty underwear doesn’t belong on a serious mission for the UN. Friedman, too, wonders about the message Wonder Woman sends “about female empowerment to our daughters in an era when there are a number of fully clothed, notably powerful female role models.”
And she goes on with a perfectly acceptable suggestion: “Certainly, fashion, which is not ignorant of the rise of the power woman, and the industry’s role in determining what she might look like, has come up with a lot of options, from the C-suite sheath to the swishy suit to the athleisure power duo of leggings and Lycra. ... That’s something I would love to see.”