“Real” Wonder Women? The United Nations, Feminism, and the Media

The rift between commercialism and feminism emerged in the debate over the appointment of Wonder Woman as Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Last October, the UN announced that Wonder Woman would become the organization’s Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. The empowerment of femininity, both physical and otherwise, is a central feature of the character and resonates with the values the UN sought to promote in this ambassadorship. Considering this, the decision seemed like a legitimate choice. But some were not enthusiastic about the decision, and UN staff created a petition to protest it.

The petition outlined that Wonder Woman should not be a UN ambassador for a number of reasons. First, she is a corporate product owned by a for-profit business. Second, she’s too sexual to be in line with “actual” feminism. And finally, there are “real” women who would make better ambassadors. The subject was closed last December when the UN announced that Wonder Woman would be stepping down from the position of women’s ambassador.

The petition had received almost 45,000 signatures. While the criticisms against Wonder Woman’s ambassadorship all reach to ongoing debates about feminism in the popular media, these debates raise issues about what comprises “real” feminism and even what makes a “real” person. In this essay, I dig a little deeper to find out what implications these issues have regarding feminism in the popular media.

Is Commercialism Incompatible with Feminism?

Second-wave feminism, stemming from the Western civil rights era of the 1960s, positioned itself against the mainstream. These values are often reached to in discussions denouncing more contemporary forms of feminism. This is why Emma Watson’s or Beyoncé’s feminism is sometimes criticized as not “real” feminism. Feminism that takes place in popular arenas is considered apolitical because it is part of mainstream media. Mainstream media are commercial; they exist in the service of buying and selling goods. This capitalist model is patriarchal and subject to corruption and inequality, characteristics which feminists, the argument goes, oppose.

The media are corporate organizations that create products for mass consumption. This is considered incompatible with the grassroots, egalitarian qualities classically associated with second-wave feminism. Therefore, feminism shouldn’t be a product that is bought and exchanged or used as a tool to promote a commodity. But this picture is much more complicated. For instance, economic empowerment has been associated with feminism, as demonstrated by Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” feminism. Likewise, the ways in which feminism is used by corporations in order to sell products is referred to as commodity feminism. Campaigns such as Always’ #LikeAGirl aim to raise awareness of women’s issues while also selling products.

According to the anti-capitalist sentiments behind second-wave feminism, these aren’t “real” feminism. However, this does not change the fact that many women continue to engage with and enjoy these forms of feminism. For all intents and purposes, all of these phenomena, which in some way engage with feminist issues and rely on feminism to exist, are feminism. This complicates the criticism that Wonder Woman, as a commercial product, is fundamentally incompatible with feminism.

Ambassador or Mascot?

Wonder Woman’s image is owned by DC Entertainment (in turn owned by Warner Bros). This company makes money from Wonder Woman by featuring her in comics and movies, on bedspreads, and coffee mugs. In these terms, she might considered to be DC’s mascot (although this title likely belongs to Superman). The UN is funded by voluntary contributions from member states. Its purpose is to promote peace between these member states, as well as drive progression of pressing political issues such as gender equality. But non-profit organizations often have to use the same methods as commercial businesses to promote themselves. If they didn’t, we probably wouldn’t notice them. If corporate giants can have mascots such as Tony the Tiger, Ronald McDonald, Colonel Sanders, and the rest, non-profit organizations want to participate as well, otherwise they’ll be left behind. Cue Angry Birds and Wonder Woman.

Previously, the UN appointed an Angry Birds character as Ambassador for climate change. This was part of an expanded social media strategy that hooked onto the International Day of Happiness and aimed to make children engage with climate change issues through the hashtag #AngryBirdsHappyPlanet. In this sense, the UN was appropriating corporate, for-profit methods to spread awareness of climate change through the Angry Birds character.

Red from Angry Birds with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

Presumably the UN wanted to replicate such a strategy with Wonder Woman and women’s rights issues. Indeed, a UN statement presented alongside the petition states that the purpose of Wonder Woman’s appointment as women’s ambassador was to reach new audiences and to make feminism appealing to more people through a popular character.  In the former case, climate change advocacy, a political issue, was combined with commercial methods to spread awareness. This is similar to when Wonder Woman appeared on the cover of new popular feminist magazine Ms. five decades ago. The character was used to make it appealing to as many people as possible. This was also the motivation behind Wonder Woman’s UN ambassadorship.

Then again, Wonder Woman has a historical relationship to representations of and attitudes towards feminism. This relationship is often conflicted. Wonder Woman’s origins in the 1940s, for instance, are often described as being a reaction of her creator William Moulton Marston’s frustrations with “feminine archetypes.” Marston created the character to question existing gender stereotypes. However, the character has also been talked about in terms of her complex relationship to ideas of submission and bondage and how this relates to ideas of feminism. In the 1970s, Wonder Woman appeared in her own TV show. Appearing alongside this would be other series with heroic (yet sensual) women, such as Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Woman. Though the heroines of these series appear to be rudimentary portrayals of feminine heroism today, they illustrated the possibility that women could fight and be heroic amid the political shifts of the 1970s. Still, their focus on the heroines’ traditional beauty and the fact that they were mainstream media products offset the potential for second wavers to identify these characters as “feminist.”

Ms. Magazine Cover, 1972
Ms. Magazine Cover, 1972

The use of Wonder Woman, a popular figure, on the cover of Ms., a publication that promoted feminist politics, was therefore a challenge to second-wave anti-commercial ideals. Steinem chose the character because she thought Wonder Woman was representative of what the magazine stood for. Also, Time Warner, then called Warner Communications and now-parent of Warner Bros, owner of DC Entertainment, was an investor. Certainly, Steinem’s aim was to spread awareness of feminism through an accessible magazine. But there was also clearly a commercial element to Ms.

Third and fourth wavers may have less of an issue with indulging in the feminist potentials of Wonder Woman, as these generations are more open to the idea of popular culture being a venue for feminist values. But the criticisms by UN staff of Wonder Woman are in line with ideas about feminism and popular culture being incompatible. Interestingly, there were no petitions against an Angry Bird being the UN’s climate change ambassador, even though the motivations behind the appointments were similar.

Wonder Woman as Postfeminist, Sexualized Superheroine?

Postfeminist culture embraces the sentiments of women’s empowerment while simultaneously distancing itself from political feminism. It might be when someone says, “I’m not a feminist, but…” and then expresses something concerned with gender equality. Indeed, the prominence of commercialized feminism might be considered an aspect of postfeminist culture, as feminism is referred to, but only with the goal of selling products rather than being political activism.

This isn’t the first time Wonder Woman has been used to “sell” feminism. As mentioned, it was Wonder Woman whom Gloria Steinem put on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine, a publication which helped propel feminism into the mainstream. But also bear in mind that it was a product to be sold. And although no money was exchanged to allow the UN to use Wonder Woman’s image, it is easy to see how her commercial connotations might problematize the process.

UN staff who criticized the choice stated that the role is “too important to be championed by a ‘mascot’” and that they would prefer a “real-life female role model.” From this perspective, it seems that the UN has signaled that they do not need a “real” woman to be women’s ambassador because a fictional character is sufficient. It makes claims in favor of feminist goals, but what it offers falls short of having any tangible political substance because the character isn’t “real-life.” That could be interpreted as a postfeminist move.

Perhaps the most interesting issue, and the one that got the most media attention, is that of Wonder Woman’s representation as a sexualized superheroine throughout her publication history. The petition states, “the character’s current iteration is that of 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–the epitome of a ‘pin-up’ girl.” All of this is deemed inappropriate because it does not adhere to the feminist ideals of the UN staff members making the criticisms. It also draws attention to the paradoxes faced by women, whose bodies are policed regardless of how they are presented.

Again, issues about postfeminism surface in such criticisms because postfeminist culture implies that women’s power lies in their (hetero)sexuality. This means that women are encouraged, even expected, to be sexualized or sexualize themselves because it empowers them. A recent example of this might be reports of President Trump’s call for his female staffers to “dress like women,” which promotes notions of traditional femininity as “proper” The online response to the report, the hashtag #DressLikeAWoman sought to redress this approach to femininity. Postfeminist ideas of sexuality have several drawbacks, the most obvious being that it is only certain women who are allowed to partake of these conventions (slim, pretty, white, heterosexual, non-disabled). Indeed, the petition draws attention to these limits, for instance in terms of race.

It is clear, then, that the UN staff making these assertions envision a very specific image of Wonder Woman that is not compatible with their idea of feminism. This tells us more about the kinds of values of femininity held by the UN staff than it does about Wonder Woman herself. For instance, it indicates that the UN staff value versions of femininity, which denounce overt displays of the female body, regardless of the context. As counterarguments documented, this also posed the danger of shaming the female body and ultimately characterizing female nudity as inherently wrong. This may have been informed by second-wave feminist sentiments about traditional femininity being essentially oppressive. This highlights the delicate nature of the place of women’s bodies in ideas of female empowerment and representations thereof.

The UN Wonder Woman Sustainable Development Goals Campaign Poster, art by Nicola Scott.
The UN Wonder Woman Sustainable Development Goals Campaign Poster, art by Nicola Scott.

“Real” Feminism and “Real” Women: What Are We Arguing About?

What is perhaps most noteworthy is the sheer volume of media coverage and criticism this controversy received. This draws attention to the precarious position of feminism within mainstream media and indeed wider culture as a matter which draws heated commentary and criticism. Overall, criticisms of Wonder Woman’s ambassadorship are concerned with the idea of “realness” in relation to both people and feminism. The arguments about “real” feminism and Wonder Woman not being a “real” person run parallel to each other. We can bring them together by questioning what is meant by “real” and what the purpose of these arguments is.

Questions over “realness” are tricky. They could also present the danger of derailing the discussion as the discussion becomes centralized on who does and who does not count as a “real” feminist/person/man/woman/whatever. Attention is focused on policing the “realness” of something related to an important issue, rather than the issue itself. Clearly, Wonder Woman is not “real” in that she is a fictional, made-up person. Counterarguments to the criticism that Wonder Woman is too sexaul pointed out that that is not “really” what the character is like, that there is much more to Wonder Woman than her supposed sex appeal. Again, ideas about reality and realness cropped up.

Perhaps these discussions should have focused on how Wonder Woman’s representation fits in with wider ideas about what it means to be a woman and how these relate to specific social contexts. Fictional representations are informed by our lives as well as they feed into them. Representation matters. Wonder Woman might not be “real,” but what she might represent has an effect on real people depending on who they are and what they take from the character.

"We Are All Wonder Women" by Catherine and Sarah Satrun
“We Are All Wonder Women” by Catherine and Sarah Satrun

The compelling thing about Wonder Woman, about any person, is that she has been and continues to be all of the things the UN staff describe her as, as well none of them. Reducing the complex history of the character to several traits is a problem in itself. Intersectional ideas around contemporary feminism have allowed the character be flexible in terms of audience identification as well as authorship. Her positioning as a queer superheroine, for instance, complicates ideas about the character’s relationship to traditional structures of heterosexuality.

A more useful question is to ask, then, is how can Wonder Woman help us think about the different ways in which feminism is presented in the media? And how does this relate to wider issues about feminism in people’s lives? What does Wonder Woman mean to different people? What are the cultural contexts?

The UN’s assigning and relinquishing Wonder Woman’s ambassadorship brings up issues about feminism’s role within a commercialized media landscape. These issues gesture towards arguments about the nature of feminism which are made time and again, and will continue to be made in future.

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Miriam Kent

Miriam Kent

Miriam Kent is a media specialist and writer focusing on issues of identity and representation in the media. She recently completed her PhD about women in films based on Marvel superhero comics.