Artwork by Eli Cantor
The world we live in is filled with inspiring women for little girls to look up to as role models, from strong leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Michelle Obama, to activists like Malala Yousafzai. There are so many great women that could be considered symbols of female empowerment who help make girls and women feel like they can do whatever they dream of doing. So, why would the UN appoint a fictional character as a symbol of female power that was created by men, based on their ideals about how a woman should look and act?
On October 21, 2016, the United Nations appointed the famous comic book heroine Wonder Woman as the Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. This means Wonder Woman will be used as a symbol on social media to empower women and bring light to issues that are facing women today, such as gender violence and women’s equality. The 75-year-old character was not the first fictional character to be appointed as an Honorary Ambassador. Others include Tinker Bell and Winnie the Pooh. This appointment was more controversial than others because it came just after the UN rejected seven women candidates to replace the former secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon. A petition signed by six hundred different UN members stated that the least that the organization could do is appoint a real woman to symbol female empowerment instead of a fictional character, who doesn’t truly represent all women.
To fully understand the criticism of Wonder Woman’s appointment you have to look at her history. She was created by two men, H.G. Peter and William Marston, with some help from his wife, Elizabeth. Her iconic look was inspired by Olive Byrne, a woman living with the Marstons. Wonder Woman, with her bulletproof bracelets and lasso of truth, symbolized the archetype of William Marston’s dream woman. Of course, her short skirts did not harm this idea of the perfect woman, with her good looks and her ability to fight. Beginning with her first publication in 1941, she was the sole female superhero in the comic book world. For once, a woman wasn’t the damsel in distress but the one saving everyone. After 1947 until the early 60’s, Wonder Woman took a step back, with the comic book authority forcing comic book writers to put their characters into the gender stereotypes of the time, which for women was being at home cooking dinner for her husband.
Although the idea that the only thing a woman could do was to be a homemaker has passed, this has placed unrealistic expectations on women’s bodies. In our society, beauty has a very specific definition; it means being very skinny with long hair, big assets and skimpy clothing. Women are being hypersexualized every day, which is something that Wonder Woman symbolizes. She is a white, skinny female with large breasts and a tight costume, she doesn’t really symbolize the diversity of women. As protesters outside the UN have said, “[We] don’t think that a fictitious comic book characters wearing basically what looks like a Playboy-type bunny outfit is really the right message we need to send to girls or even boys for that matter.” The symbol of female empowerment for the world should be a real woman, one who everyone can relate to and one who can inspire females to be the best they can be, not a fictitious woman that men have sexualized for her entire existence.
A survey that I conducted online through a social network tested 96 people with different ages, backgrounds and genders. Of these subjects, fifty-eight percent of them said that the UN would have made a stronger statement showing that they supported women if they had appointed a real woman. When asked to elaborate more on the subject, they had differing opinions. One said that “her [Wonder woman] outfit and characterization reflect stereotypical images of women, and are not exactly empowering. Her heroism is largely defined by the fact that she is a woman. She is neither a well-known character nor a real-life person who has fought for female empowerment.” However, another said, “I see nothing wrong with it. By choosing a superhero as a symbol for female empowerment, it compares females to superheroes which is just about right.”
People who fully support Wonder Woman being appointed say that because she has been a symbol of feminism since the 1970’s, she is easily recognized throughout the world and is a strong independent woman who has proven that strength over time. My concern is that Wonder Woman isn’t real. As cool as it would be for the daughter of Zeus to be real, she isn’t. She has been around for a very long time, but other women have been, too. And these women have worked twice as hard as Wonder Woman did because they had to face gender inequality and discrimination in the real world, not the pages of a comic book.
Gloria Steinem has been fighting for women’s equality since the 1960’s, Margaret Thatcher proved to the male-dominated British government that she deserved to be Prime Minister and Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head fighting for girl’s education. Yet none of these women are being recognized for their fights for women’s equality and what they have done for the world. Instead a fictional character has become the symbol for 3.5 billion females to look at for empowerment and inspiration. Any other woman chosen by the UN for this honor would have made history, but instead they chose a character who isn’t a real person.
By Effiana Svarre