Tag Archives: design history

Has the UN dismissed the heritage of women?

The UN has made Wonder Woman the Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women. The decision has not been without controversy as several UN staff staged a silent protest during the appointment. There are some positive aspects to the appointment. Wonder Woman is a widely recognised figure and may appeal to a wide audience and it is nice to see a female superhero being deployed in a positive campaign to raise the aspirations of women. However, there are some drawbacks that force us to question the value of Wonder Woman as a UN ambassador…. That seems like a very obvious thing to say, doesn’t it? Still, I think there are points worth raising here.

As well-known as Wonder Woman may be, she represents more specifically the United States. This much is clear from her original costume, displaying the colours and shapes of the US flag. As one of the UN staff protested, her costume is “pop culture imperialism”.  The close link to the US is in some regard appropriate because there are many empowered, successful women who have been nurtured there [e.g. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Beyonce, Harper Lee…]. But, on the other hand, the US is not exactly a champion for the rights of women. As just one example, it has a poor record on rights to paid maternity leave. If the empowerment of women needs to involve maternity rights, then Wonder Woman’s strong affiliation with the United States does her a disservice.

Wonder Woman battling enemies [Source: DC Comics]

Wonder Woman battling enemies [Source: DC Comics]

Indeed, such a strong association with the US implies that Wonder Woman is also sympathetic to US actions like the bombing of Yemen, the continued drone strikes in Iraq or the imprisonment of untried people in Guantanamo Bay. It suggests that the character is comfortable with the homogenising spread of American culture across the globe carried out by multinational corporations who suffocate local discourses and exploit workers and natural resources worldwide. These behaviours we might argue are more masculine than feminine; they resonate with the actions of a history of male leaders and a present context of male-dominated industry and epistemologies. They do not resonate with a history of women.

The heritage of Wonder Woman is at odds with the heritage of women.

Part of the heritage of Wonder Woman is the superhero’s origin story as an Amazonian Princess, Diana. Rather than being born from her mother, Diana is constructed from clay and the intervention of gods. As the daughter of the mythical Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazonian women, Diana has dwelt (for centuries) on the undiscovered Paradise Island.

For the Greeks, the Amazons did not represent female empowerment; at least not in a positive way. Their name ‘amazon’ meant ‘one-breasted’ – the women removed their right breast because it interfered with their spear throwing. The Amazons were created to represent what the Ancient Greeks saw as the danger of women. Women were seen as insatiable and uncontrollable. The Amazonian warrior women were symbols of the perceived disruptive nature of women. Amazonian society involved only women and as such was the antithesis of the Greek home and therefore a danger to the very fabric of Greekness. ‘Look at the mess women would make if left to their own devices,’ comes the message from the myth.

In this way we might question what the Amazonian heritage of Wonder Woman is meant to symbolise. There is clearly a message of independence, which may be harnessed to convey a sense of empowerment. But Wonder Woman’s empowerment is entirely without context. The character is a separate entity from contemporary society in all its forms and its heritage.

Wonder Woman through the decades [Source: DC Comics]

Wonder Woman through the decades [Source: DC Comics]

Clearly, a prominent problem here is that Wonder Woman is fictional. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a fictional character to have a shared context with real people, especially when they occupy a world of fantastical powers and unrealistic plot developments. But she is more than merely fictional; she is a comic book superhero based on a fictional group of women and born from clay and divine magic. She is hyper-unreal. This is an important point because it means that Wonder Woman sidesteps history and this has ramifications for her relevance to women of the world. Diana of the Amazons has been outside of the world of people. She has no link to women’s suffrage, women’s literature or any feminist movements; no experience of domestic violence, patriarchal society or glass ceilings. The comic book character may have been reinvented and redesigned over the decades, but it is her beginnings as being separate from the modern world that are fundamental to her character. Although the MarySue points out that she may represent what women CAN achieve outside of a patriarchal society, her separation from a contemporary social context distances the superhero from the many millions of real, living women for whom the UN mean her to function as a symbol of empowerment. Women today are descendants of women through the ages, variously disempowered, empowered, wealthy, impoverished; what we might call a heritage of women. It is this notion that perhaps the UN’s decision has undermined.

In choosing to use a symbol rather than a real woman, the UN seems to have dismissed the role of women themselves in their own empowerment. This means dismissing the achievements and struggles of women through history, but also dismissing all living successful women. It seems as though the perspective of the UN is such that it could not conceive of a positive real-world female exemplar for women across the world.

Wonder Woman is a comic book simulacrum whose current incarnation is being used by Hollywood to peddle action, violence and sex. Despite the positive benefits of Wonder Woman potentially being the first queer superhero presented in film media (also discussed in the MarySue ), the character is still the subject of the male gaze. Her forms are still representative of a male-centric Western ideal of feminine beauty. She is thus a tool of Western Americanised media, moreso now than when she was created by William Marston. In this way, it is difficult to see how Wonder Woman can function as an icon of empowerment for women across all areas of the globe.

The very reason that there is a need for an Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women is intertwined with the narrative of marginalisation and abuse of women throughout history. This narrative is ongoing. It is surely crucial to acknowledge and address this narrative by highlighting how it has been perpetuated throughout the centuries. Instead of a comic book character, a real woman could use their voice to explain the challenges they have overcome and still face in their lives.

The ongoing heritage of women is a complex network that must be explored to understand how and why women are being prevented from playing an equal part both in global and local societies. The symbol of Wonder Woman is too shallow to engage with this complexity and the character’s own heritage and design history seems to me to reveal her to be unfit for the role of ambassador.