On October 21, Wonder Woman was officially named an Honorary Ambassador to the United Nations for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. The ceremony, which was held in New York City and counted both Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot among its attendees, felt celebratory. The reaction to Wonder Woman’s induction among some United Nations officials, and quite a few fans posting online, however, was mixed. Outside the U.N., angry protestors gathered, including some U.N. officials carrying signs that read, “I am not a mascot.”
When Wonder Woman’s ambassadorship was announced months ago, over 1,000 women’s activists and professionals from the United Nations signed a petition demanding a real, human leader for the cause of female, global empowerment. Even feminist icon Gloria Steinem, though she admitted having been inspired by Wonder Woman in her childhood, remarked that she’d much rather see legitimate female leadership put in place. She also pointed out that U.N. Women didn’t see a budget increase when Wonder Woman was appointed, which seems to be an important point of contention for protestors.
Wonder Woman’s role at the United Nations is obviously just a high profile instance of brand synthesis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean its core intention is malicious. Cristina Gallach, the U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, told the crowd at the ceremony that Wonder Woman would help advertise and promote the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Sustainable Development Goal #5.
As Gallach explained, Goal #5 focuses on global gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls to improve peace and prosperity through cultural sustainability. Arguably, Wonder Woman has always represented those values in comics, and the U.N. making her title official only capitalizes on 75 years of earnest history.
There are those who point out that Wonder Woman has always been a sexualized character, and it’s worth mentioning that all of the images of Wonder Woman displayed at the U.N. during the ceremony began at her waist (hiding her star spangled underwear) and featured a cape which hid her bust-line. It can be argued that Wonder Woman has represented sexual bondage imagery for as long as she’s represented gender equality, and this year, DC made her queerness official, though that development wasn’t mentioned at the U.N. either.
Another facet of the debate is the question of literacy: Because Wonder Woman is a fictional character whose canonized stories are, for the most part, available in print, access to learning about her requires literacy. As the U.N.’s materials pointed out, 60% of the world’s illiterate people are female, so it’s ironic that so many can’t engage with her outside of TV or films.
The controversy will likely be reignited after Gal Gadot begins releasing PSAs with the United Nations, as she’s scheduled to do in the coming weeks. After Gadot and Carter left the ceremony, protestors were still lingering outside. One of them pointed out, as ceremony attendees began to flood out of the building, that the United Nations had recently rejected seven female applicants for the position of Secretary General. “Does Wonder Woman count, then?” one protestor asked, sounding exhausted. That will ultimately be up to the rest of the world to decide.