Wonder Woman is certainly basking in accolades these days.
The new movie starring Gal Gadot is being widely praised for finally giving the world a big-screen female superhero who — to quote just a few of the glowing reviews — is both “awesomely fierce” and “surprisingly funny,” “sexually aware without being sexualized” and a refreshing throwback to the days of “uncomplicated role models … fighting for peace and justice.”
All of which got us thinking about our coverage last fall of Wonder Woman’s short-lived tenure as the United Nation’s honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women of girls.
Remember that episode? Back then her reviews were decidedly more mixed.
The idea was to make the character of Wonder Woman the face of a U.N. social media campaign to promote women’s rights via tweets and facebook callouts. Women’s rights advocates exploded in outrage, and nearly 45,000 people signed a petition against the decision.
“It’s an insult, frankly,” said Anne Marie Goetz at the time. Goetz, a professor of global affairs at New York University and a former adviser on peace and security issues to the United Nations agency, U.N. Women, said a big issue was the timing.
The Wonder Woman campaign rollout — a collaboration with Warner Bros. and DC Comics, which owns the rights to the character — was intended to celebrate both the character’s 75th birthday and the upcoming movie featuring Gadot. The actress even attended the appointment ceremony at the U.N.’s New York headquarters, along with Lynda Carter, who portrayed the superhero in the 1970s television show. But the announcement also came on the heels of a disappointing, yearlong grass-roots effort to get the U.N. to choose its first female secretary-general.
“This was months and months of campaigning by feminist organizations around the world for a woman to be selected,” said Goetz.
Seven women — including a prime minister and other highly qualified individuals — were in the running, an unprecedented number. Ultimately the Security Council went with a man — Antonio Guterres. So at the time, the selection of Wonder Woman to represent women’s issues for the U.N. came off to Goetz and others as a sort of demeaning consolation prize.
“It’s frivolous, it’s fatuous and it reduces an extremely serious human rights problem experienced by half of the world to a cartoon,” she said.
And not just any cartoon, added Goetz. Wonder Woman in her view was tantamount to a Barbie/Playboy pinup. Like most female comic action figures, she has big breasts bursting out of a skimpy outfit and an impossibly tiny waist.
“The message to girls is that you are expected to meet a male standard in which your significance is reduced to your role as a sexual object,” said Goetz.
Maher Nasser, the U.N. official who essentially brokered Wonder Woman’s appointment, responded at the time that he and other U.N. colleagues had considered those concerns.
“I mean we have had these discussions, of course, with our partners,” said Nasser, who directs the Outreach Division of the U.N.’s Department of Public Information, which handles partnerships with celebrities and entertainment figures.
And Nasser noted that his team worked closely with artists at DC Comics to tone down the image that was used in the U.N. campaign.
“The campaign art that we are working with … doesn’t have that caricature image of the wrong stereotype of what a woman should look like,” he said.
For instance they only showed Wonder Woman from the waist up. And they gave her a cape draped round her neck and shoulders, making her bust less prominent.
Nasser also said the social media campaign was all about emphasizing Wonder Woman’s girl power credentials, what he called “the essence of the character.”
“The focus [of the U.N.] was on her feminist background, being the first female superhero in a world of male superheroes and that basically she always fought for fairness, justice and peace,” he said.
Nasser said he expected the campaign to last well into 2017. But less than two months later, with little fanfare, U.N. officials announced that Wonder Woman’s U.N. career was coming to a close, adding that, actually, they had always intended it to be brief.
Jill Lepore, a professor at Harvard University who wrote a book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, about the comic book character’s creation, said disputes like this have long dogged Wonder Woman.
On one hand, said Lepore, the character has solid feminist roots. She was invented in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. psychologist-cum-advice columnist for Family Circle magazine. Marston had been brought on board by the company that eventually became DC Comics to help deal with a public relations problem.
The company’s first two superheroes, created in the late 1930s, had become controversial. “Superman looked a bit like a fascist — he’s an ubermensch. Batman carried a gun and was quite violent,” explained Lepore.
It had gotten to the point where various religious and parental groups had banned the comics.
According to Lapore, “Marston said, ‘You know, you need a female superhero because she will embody the nurturing values of womanhood. She will be about peace not war.'”
The character he set about creating drew largely on a real-life woman Marston knew personally and greatly admired: Margaret Sanger, the co-founder of Planned Parenthood.
In the comic book — and now in the new movie — Wonder Woman is a princess of the Amazons of Greek mythology, living on an island where there are no men. That story, said Lepore, “comes not from science fiction but from feminist utopian fiction” popular with Sanger and other early feminists of the progressive era. (The cartoon then introduced the character of a U.S. Army officer, Capt. Steve Trevor, who crash lands on the island. Wonder Woman rescues him and then resolves to go with him to America to fight for democracy and equal rights.)
Marston had an ambitious vision for his new character, laid out in a remarkable press release, distributed soon after her debut. He stated: “The only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity. He added, “Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”
Yet even in those earliest years Wonder Woman embodied contradictions. It wasn’t just the risqué outfits. Marston insisted that in every episode Wonder Woman had to be tied up or otherwise bound by the villain.
In part, said Lepore, this was a nod to the iconography of the suffragettes of the early 1900s, who often wore chains on marches seeking the right to vote. But it also became clear from letters to DC Comics that Wonder Woman’s largely male audience found this aspect of her story titillating.
And last fall, that bondage theme — at a time when women are under threat from extremist violence around the world — was just one more reason activists like Goetz were uncomfortable with the idea of Wonder Woman as a U.N. ambassador.
Wonder Woman nonetheless remained a darling of feminists through the 1970s — she was on the first cover of Ms. magazine. But by the end of that decade she had started to symbolize a split within the feminist movement.
“A lot of people started to say, ‘Why is she the symbol of women’s power? She’s just so obviously made for men to look at and ogle,'” said Lepore. So it’s no surprise that she continues to raise conflicting feelings to this day. “Part of the richness of this character is that there are many layers to understanding her. Wonder Woman is always going to have a mixed legacy.”