Back in the mid-1990s, a young cousin of mine mentioned that he was collecting "X-Men" trading cards. I asked him which cards he was missing, as I knew that the local comic book store had a bunch of "X-Men" common cards. I found him ten or so cards that he needed and the next time that there was a family gathering (that I couldn't attend), I gave the cards to my father and told him to give them to my cousin. My father, not exactly being the type of guy that you entrust with stuff like "give comic book trading cards to ten year olds," just gave the cards to my aunt instead. As it turned out, she was none too pleased with the cards. My aunt is, and was, a reasonable woman, but she felt that one of the cards was way too sexualized and she wasn't about to have her ten-year-old collecting cards like this. The card in question? A Julie Bell-painted Jean Grey card.
At the time, I was perplexed. "Jean Grey? Overly sexualized? Huh? Did I give my dad the right card?" However, if you look at the card from the perspective of someone who had no connection to the world of the X-Men at all, it's easy to see my aunt's perspective (I hadn't looked at the card in twenty years, so when I did an image search for it, I was even sort of taken aback).
I think we have to keep that perspective in mind when we talk about the protesters who were outraged that Wonder Woman was named as an honorary good will ambassador to the United Nations in October 21 as part of the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 (to have gender equality by 2030), a role that will come to a seemingly premature finish this week. We say "seemingly" because a spokesperson for the United Nations, Jeffrey Brez, insists that the United Nations' role with Wonder Woman was always intended to end now.
We always knew it would end in December. Soon after the launch we said, what day should it actually end on? And we decided on December 16 because after that, the holidays were coming up, and it didn't make sense to continue the campaign into the holiday season.
DC Comics is still producing a special "Wonder Woman" comic book for release next year in the six official languages of the United Nations (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) and will do public service announcements with Gal Gadot, the actress who will portray Wonder Woman in next year's "Wonder Woman" film. With DC's plans scheduled to continue into 2017 and likely through the June release of Wonder Woman's movie, it seemed to many as though DC believed that this campaign was going to last a lot longer than just two months.
The initial announcement about Wonder Woman's honorary ambassadorship was met with hostility by many, including 45,000 people who signed a petition asking the United Nations to remove Wonder Woman from the role. The petition read, in part:
Wonder Woman was created 75 years ago. Although the original creators may have intended Wonder Woman to represent a strong and independent “warrior” woman with a feminist message, the reality is that 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. This is the character that the United Nations has decided to represent a globally important issue – that of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. It appears that this character will be promoted as the face of sustainable development goal 5 for the United Nations at large.
Obviously, we as comic book fans read this, and we automatically think that they are way off base with their critique of the character.
Current "Wonder Woman" writer Greg Rucka described Wonder Woman in the same way many comic book fans see her:
We live in a time of such acrimony. Diana is many things, she’s not acrimonious. She’s the antithesis of that. She is an open hand, always reaching out. Always asking for the opportunity to make a friend and to ease the pain and to make things better. God! How can you not be aching for somebody like that right now?
He also described her in the following manner:
She is tireless, and she is undefeated. She’s never going to bow her head. I think that is so important. We need heroes like that. We spend a lot of time looking at our superheroes and trying to darken them up. That ain’t her.
Rucka is absolutely right. It's also important to note that the Wonder Woman posters for the ambassadorship were intentionally designed to not be too sexy.
DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson explained how they went about designing her look for the campaign:
We did work closely with the U.N. in the development so that we were thinking about the sensitivities that might occur in other regions. We want to be respectful of where the images should be appropriately garbed, but we’re not ultimately changing anything. We believe the character stands for the right values everywhere.
Nelson is clearly correct; Wonder Woman does stand for the right values everywhere. If the protesters (including the fifty or so United Nations staffers who turned their backs during the ceremony honoring Wonder Woman) had read more about her, they would have realized that they were not fairly judging what the character stands for (not to mention that, on top of all of the real life people who serve or have served as goodwill ambassadors to the United Nations over the years, there are plenty of fictional characters who have served as well, including one of the Angry Birds earlier this year, and no one seemed to care about that).
However, is it really their responsibility to read up on Wonder Woman? One of the basic ideas behind using a fictional character as a good will ambassador is the notion that the rest of the world is already familiar with the character. If the rest of the world views Wonder Woman the same way my aunt viewed Jean Grey, as simply an over-sexualized pin-up, is it really their failing, or is it just a matter of Wonder Woman not being famous enough in other parts of the world for them to know much about her beyond her iconic image, which is of a beautiful woman wearing, in effect, an American flag-emblazoned bathing suit? Should the United Nations really have to bother with explaining to people what their good will ambassador really stands for?
Again, to be clear, the protesters are wrong in their critique of Wonder Woman, but rather than just dismiss them as "only looking at the surface," we should try to understand that when it comes to an iconic symbol (like a good will ambassador), sometimes the surface is all that people are going to have to judge and if that surface doesn't come across to people unfamiliar with the symbol, then that's something that we, the people who have a deeper understanding of what the symbol means from our own specific knowledge of the symbol, have to understand.
In the end, though, we can just be grateful for the same thing that I'm thankful for about those cards all those years ago - at least we avoided showing Emma Frost to an unsuspecting audience.