Wonder Woman as UN ambassador: social change or commercial campaign?

What is the superheroine an ambassador for? Some reflections on the different narratives behind the appointment of Wonder Woman as an Honorary UN Ambassador.

The UN has decided to appoint Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador for gender equality and women empowerment. The purpose of this choice, according to the UN,  is to use Wonder Woman’s image of strength and her role in the fight for justice and peace to ‘raise awareness about Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030’.

The decision has met the criticism of UN staff members who have started a petition to ask the Secretary General to reconsider the decision. The petition mentions concerns such as Wonder Woman’s ‘overtly sexualised image’, not being ‘culturally encompassing or sensitive’ and the fact that she is ‘a fictional character whose rights are owned by DC Comics, a for-profit entertainment corporation’. But what kind of feminism does Wonder Woman promote? Can she represent the plurality of local and global feminisms? Or she is just part of a politico-commercial partnership? And to what extent a fictional character can represent the interests of real women around the world?

Wonder Woman was created in the 1940s by William Moulton Marston who supported the idea that women could bring about a more just and peaceful society, particularly in light of the experience of the Second World War. Wonder Woman challenged the idea of ‘good girls’ who just want a husband and children and she started being considered an inspiration for American women and soon also beyond America. She later became an icon of American liberal feminism to the extent that Gloria Steinem ‘nominated’ her for president in an issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972. The character and image of Wonder Woman has changed over time according to the writers and editors that succeeded Marston and adapted to political, social and cultural changes. She is often represented as strong, unique and exceptional, an idea reinforced by Lynda Carter’s portrayal of Wonder Woman in the titular television series, but she also sends the message that all women can do amazing things if given the opportunity. An idea which seems to have inspired the decision of the UN.

The consideration of Wonder Woman as a queer character can shed some light on the limits of the woman/man dichotomy so strongly embedded in institutional structures and policies, including international organisations such as the UN. However, she also represents a white able-bodied American (although raised in an all-female Amazon society) which risks replicating some of the dominant gender narratives that have produced and keep reproducing inequalities.

As Chiamada Ngozi Adiche says in talking about her early writing shaped by British and American books: ‘All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples and they talked a lot about the weather… This despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather, because there was no need to.’ This shows not only ‘the danger of a single story’, but also how disempowering fictional characters can be.

African feminists have often argued that since the 1970s Western feminists and development institutions have instrumentally portrayed African women first as victims of a patriarchal culture in need of liberation and later as heroines of their own, their families’ and their countries’ development. The same idea of using Wonder Woman as a role model, more than as a disruptor of stereotyped social models, seems to foster the attempt to provide vulnerable women with hope while legitimising their unsustainable responsibility to make the world a more sustainable place. This narrative clearly fails to recognise political and economic dynamics of power and dispossession and legitimises the use of international resources and collaborations in ways that create an imaginary of social justice without actually contributing to it.

It is relevant to notice that the UN campaign for Wonder Woman is also supported by DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. According to Cristina Gallach, the UN Under-Secretary General for Communications and Public Information: ‘the campaign is an example of how we are working with diverse partners and making new alliances to reach out to audiences everywhere to know about and understand the Goals, and, in this case, about gender equality’. Considering that the Wonder Woman film will be released in 2017, it is probably reasonable to suspect that in this campaign gender equality means business as usual, or even the political legitimisation of a growing transnational business feminism.

So what is a superheroine ambassador for? Is Wonder Woman going to promote more fluid gender possibilities? Is she going to make global inequalities more visible and support the work of the UN in addressing the socio-economic disadvantages that reproduce gender inequalities not only between men and women, but also between different categories of women locally and globally? Or is Wonder Woman just part of a promotional campaign aimed at normalising powerful economic relations, reminding us that gender equality is not only a political instrument, but also a profitable business?

The UN itself has recently failed in the attempt to elect the first female Secretary General. Not that a woman leader automatically means better politics and policies to fight inequalities and contribute to social justice, but the fact that since 1945 the UN has had only male Secretaries General sends quite a strong message in terms of the political use and abuse of gender equality within the UN system. It is not clear how the fictional character of Wonder Woman can challenge this pattern and eventually have an impact on the lives of real women across the world.

Last July the picture of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans travelled around the world through social media: she reminds of a superhero fighting for justice consciously and peacefully. Ieshia is portrayed standing in Baton Rouge, unarmed and unafraid, facing a line of militarised cops. In that image Ieshia doesn’t represent just herself, but all the people who fight daily against inequalities around the world. Are perhaps people like Ieshia the everyday superheroes we need to look at to challenge unequal social relations?



Serena Natile

Serena is a Lecturer in Socio-Legal Studies at Brunel University London, where she teaches Public Law in Context, International Law, Gender and Human Rights and Research Methods. She has worked on a variety of research projects on social and economic inclusion, digital finance, gender rights, law & development and digital humanitarianism. She is currently completing a monograph based on the PhD thesis and titled 'Mobile Money, Gendered Walls: The Exclusionary Politics of Digital Financial Inclusion'. Besides academia, Serena has worked for the Permanent Representation of Italy to the EU and for the UNDP in Brussels, served as a pro-bono lawyer and collaborated with gender rights organisations in Italy, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Brazil.
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