The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The U.N. hires Wonder Woman to fight for gender equality. But not everyone is happy about it.

Wonder Woman through her 75 years. (Courtesy of DC Entertainment)
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FROM HER origin to her sexual orientation right down to her latest toned-down outfit, arguably no figure in all of superhero comics is more saddled with political scrutiny great and small than Wonder Woman. She projects strength with compassion; onto her, the world has projected so much else.

So it’s entirely in character that as Wonder Woman turned 75 this year, and as the United Nations named her an honorary ambassador Friday in New York, the latest campaign to present the Amazonian princess as a symbol of self-empowerment has itself become fraught with politics, as some oppose the U.N. designation.

On Friday, DC Entertainment and Wonder Woman brought out their big guns to publicize the new post for this “goddess of war” at the United Nations. Gal Gadot, the soldier/model/actress who was featured as Wonder Woman/Diana Prince this year in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (the character’s feature-film debut) — and who will star in the first Wonder Woman solo feature film in June — were on hand for the live-streamed event. So was Lynda Carter, the Wonder Woman from the ’70s TV show whose role remains so iconic that it has yet to be eclipsed in the popular public imagination.

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There is a fitting cultural synergy here. Next week, Carter will return to network TV to play the U.S. president on the CW’s “Supergirl” — an arc that appears deftly timed to the current presidential election. DC and the WB are promoting the new campaign with the hashtag #WithWonderWoman — a sentiment that feels milled from the same cloth as Hillary Clinton’s stump slogan “I’m With Her.”

Friday’s ceremony also kicked off a 12-month campaign in which DC and Warner Bros., in teaming with the United Nations and UNICEF, are supporting “gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Yet not everyone at the United Nations itself views Wonder Woman as an appropriate symbol for such a campaign.

The character’s ambassadorship has sparked an online petition backed by hundreds of U.N. staff members, who urge Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to reconsider the appointment of what they see as an underdressed, anti-feminist figure. (This comes after multiple women were put forward for the secretary general position, and all were rejected.) And the site has urged appointing an actual woman to the honorary ambassadorship, faulting the United Nations’ decision to name “a muscled version of a Barbie doll as the symbol to globally represent gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.”

Somehow, this is all in keeping with Wonder Woman’s ever-roiling history within pop culture.

She was co-created by the psychologist/inventor William Moulton Marston, shortly after the World War II-era debuts of Superman and Batman, in direct reaction to those characters. Marston wanted a feminist character who could match DC’s first two superstars physically, yet also possess such traits as deep empathy in which, he felt, women were rendered superior. (Marston was said to have modeled the character at least partly after both his wife and the second woman in their three-way domestic relationship.)

And yet, within her feminist roots, Wonder Woman was forever depicted in bondage — a narrative staple that seemed to serve a dual purpose: depict her fight for freedom as equivalent to the unshackling of a suffragette, yet also sexualize her fight for male readers.

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Thus, Wonder Woman’s never-ending struggles as political figure were born. She was the superhero who could make the cover of Ms. magazine, yet still draw fire for her attire. It even made news last month when “Wonder Woman” comic book writer Greg Rucka confirmed that Diana Prince was “queer” — a fact long ago presumed by readers of the heroine from the all-female Paradise Island.

Now, in New York, at least a smattering of protesters are expected to attend the star-spangled #WithWonderWoman U.N. ceremony.

Then again, it wouldn’t be a true Wonder Woman event without impassioned politics enveloping her like a golden lasso.

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