In 2016 Wonder Woman served, briefly, as an honorary UN ambassador. Her appointment was met with protest and a petition that argued, among other complaints, that Wonder Woman's sexualized appearance made her unsuitable as a representative of the UN. This paper seeks to argue the contrary. It charts the use of the character as a political figure, both on and off the page, noting that her role as UN ambassador has significant historical precedent. While recognizing the often problematic representation of women in many iterations of the superhero genre, this paper also seeks to understand complaints over Wonder Woman's mode of dress in the context of arguments that have historically been used to bar women's entry into politics.
In August 2016, outgoing United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed the hope that his successor would be a woman:
We have many distinguished and eminent women leaders in national governments or other organizations or even business communities, political communities, and cultural and every aspect of our life. There's no reason why not in the United Nations.1
Since its establishment in 1945, the UN has never had a female secretary-general. It also has a poor track record of appointing women to senior positions, with nine in ten senior roles going to men.2 Ban Ki-moon's hopes were not entirely groundless—of the twelve candidates put forward who might succeed him, seven were women. The appointment of a woman to the role of secretary-general would have signaled a shift in UN culture and offered a gesture of support for women who pursue careers in politics. His suggestion met with widespread support but did not come to fruition, and in October 2016 the United Nations General Assembly voted António Guterres as the ninth secretary-general.3
In the same month that Guterres's appointment was announced, the UN also appointed the fictional character Wonder Woman as an “honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.”4 The post of honorary ambassador has always been held by a fictional character, with Winnie the Pooh and Tinker Bell as previous incumbents. The event coincided with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the first Wonder Woman comic, and the announcement of a forthcoming Wonder Woman film. Plans were put into place for a ceremony to honor the appointment, including visitors from the publisher DC as well as actors Gal Gadot and Lynda Carter, both of whom have played the character on-screen.
The announcement of Wonder Woman's appointment led to an immediate backlash: more than forty-four thousand individuals, including UN staff members, signed an online petition in which they argued that Wonder Woman's “overtly sexualized image” and fictional nature made her an inappropriate representative of the UN.5 Her “shimmery, thigh-baring bodysuit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots,” they asserted, meant that she was a culturally insensitive (and overtly imperialistic) icon and thus an unsuitable ambassador for many countries.6 They further argued that, for an organization that has failed to appoint women to positions of power, the appointment of a fictional character as honorary ambassador is not only logistically impractical but reads as a cruel, insulting joke to the women who pursue careers at the UN and consistently find themselves passed over for promotion. In a further act of protest, during the official appointment ceremony, around one hundred individuals stood with their backs turned and their fists raised. In December 2016, just two months after Wonder Woman was appointed as ambassador, the UN announced that her tenure had come to an end. Jeffrey Brez, chief of NGO relations and advocacy, claimed that the appointment had always been planned to be short-term, but the specter of the protests loomed large over the announcement.7
This paper does not seek to dismiss or lessen the complains voiced by the protestors. Wonder Woman appeared during the “Golden Age” of superhero comics, when American superheroes were closely tied to the American military, and most of the subsequent incarnations of the character continued to wear a costume based on the US flag, making her a symbol of American imperialism in the sense of both military interventionism and the global spread of US culture. As Philip Sandifer argues, Robert Kanigher, who took over the comic after lead creator William Moulton Marston's death, changed the character to one who, like many of her male counterparts, employs violence and “boasts about American supremacy” as a means to overcome her enemies.8 Denny O'Neil, who wrote the character from 1968 to 1972, likewise reimagined her as one whose solution to every problem, Tim Hanley asserts, was to “hit it or blow it up or, more often than not, kill it.”9 Wonder Woman has also typically (although not always) been portrayed as a white woman, making her a problematic representative of global womanhood and an agent of the “homogenizing tendency” of white feminism that ignores and marginalizes the identities and concerns of people of color.10 Perhaps most importantly, the appointment of Wonder Woman as an ambassador so shortly after hopes of a female head of the UN had been dashed seemed like a woefully inadequate gesture.
At the same time, however, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, read and represented differently, Wonder Woman could have served as an effective symbol for intersectional feminism and women in politics. The character's role as a political figure has a strong historical precedent both on and off the page, and she has often been mobilized as an advocate for peace and gender equality. More recent incarnations, most notably in the work of George Pérez, have cast her as a person of color and icon of gender fluidity. Her rapid removal as UN ambassador, particularly when tied to debates concerning sexualization, is representative of an ideology that has historically prevented women from attaining political office. Ultimately, I concur with The Guardian's assessment that Wonder Woman's removal from her post as UN ambassador only compounds the endemic problem of the lack of women in senior positions at the UN. Her firing amounts to “one less woman in politics.”11
“WONDER WOMAN FOR PRESIDENT”
Wonder Woman's extra-textual origins have been exhaustively documented in comics scholarship.12 She was the creation of William Moulton Marston, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, and Harry G. Peter. William Marston was a psychologist and pulp novelist who cohabited with two women (one his wife), both of whom bore him children. His philosophy of sexuality and politics embraced practices of dominance and submission as well as lesbianism as a normal part of female sexuality. He famously asserted that “there isn't love enough in the male organism to run this planet peacefully.”13 He proposed that Wonder Woman, a character sprung from a matriarchal utopia, might serve as an antidote to what he saw as the destructive and domineering practices of male politicians.
Marston's philosophy relied upon somewhat essentialist ideas of gender—he conceived of men as naturally warlike and women as naturally nurturing. Modern feminist thinkers have largely abandoned this kind of rhetoric, as our understanding of the role of culture in determining gendered behaviors has evolved. Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman provided an enduring and persuasive reading of gender as “an emergent feature of social situations: both as an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements, and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society.”14 Marston's ideas about gender did not align with modern thinking, then, but he nonetheless articulated what we might describe as a proto-feminist ideal.15
Marston's vision for female world leaders is articulated Wonder Woman, no. 7 (1943). The comic carries the title “Wonder Woman for President” and shows the character addressing a crowd of women “1000 years in the future.” In the comic, Wonder Woman looks forward, by way of Hippolyta's magic sphere, to the year 3000, when a female president, Wonder Woman's companion Arda Moore, does political battle with Senator Heeman and Professor Manly, members of the Men's World Party. Manly's followers, whose philosophy bears a worrying resemblance to modern men's rights activists today, wear purple shirts in a somewhat unsubtle reference to the brownshirts of Nazi Germany and the black shirts worn by Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale in Fascist Italy. Manly proposes that Steve Trevor—the ongoing romantic interest in the Wonder Woman comics—should run for president and rigs the election. When, thanks to the help of Wonder Woman's friend Etta Candy, the deception comes to light, Wonder Woman is sworn in as president of the United States.16
The proposition that Wonder Woman might serve as a political leader has been taken up by numerous subsequent writers. In 1970 she appeared on the cover of the feminist underground comic It Ain't Me, Babe—drawn by comics writer, artist, and women's comics advocate Trina Robbins—alongside other icons from the world of comics, namely Olive Oyl, Little Lulu, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Mary Marvel, and Elsie the Cow (fig. 1). These characters march, fists held high, across the page in an unmistakable articulation of protest. It is perhaps the act of appropriation and recontextualization (a hallmark of the independent and iconoclastic underground comics movement) that makes these characters appear empowered, rather than something inherent in the characters themselves. Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons, for example, is largely relegated to the position of the protagonist's girlfriend and, thus, motivation for his narratives rather than a character in her own right. It is only by presenting her in the context of women's liberation that Robbins repurposes her as a feminist icon. Among these women, though, Wonder Woman appears most prominently. She is in the foreground of the image and, aside from Little Lulu, the only character shown in full. She is taking a long stride, and seems to be preparing to deliver a swinging uppercut. She is not necessarily presented as a leader, but as a significant force in this brigade of empowered female characters.
The inaugural issue of the feminist publication Ms. magazine in 1972 featured Wonder Woman on the cover, this time engaged in battle with symbols of the American industrial complex. The cover, once again, featured the caption “Wonder Woman for President.” In the same year, DC and Ms. copublished a collection of Wonder Woman stories with an introduction by Gloria Steinem that espoused the character as a feminist ideal.
One of the reasons why Wonder Woman was imagined by her original and subsequent creators as a political figure (in ways that her contemporaries Batman and Superman have not) is that, in accordance with Marston's vision of women in politics, pacifism has always been a fundamental aspect of her superheroic mandate. Steinem argues:
Here was a heroic person who might conquer with force, but only a force that was tempered with love and justice. … Wonder Woman symbolises many of the values of the women's culture that feminists are now trying to introduce into the mainstream: strength and self-reliance for women; sisterhood and mutual support among women; peacefulness and esteem for human life; a diminishment of both “masculine” aggression and of the belief that violence is the only way of solving conflicts.17
In many of the Marston/Peter comics, Wonder Woman relocates captured villains to a rehabilitation center on an island near Paradise Island. In Wonder Woman, no. 6 (1942), for example, we see captured criminals, among them hawkish advocates for a third world war, being attended to by “Venus Girls” who bind them in gold nets that induce happiness (fig. 2). In later comics, some earlier villains return having learned the error of their ways.
Wonder Woman went through various incarnations during the 1980s and 1990s, many of which have rightly been criticized for their objectification of female bodies and disempowerment of a female superhero.18 George Pérez, who served as writer and artist for Wonder Woman from 1987 to 1992, fought this trend, conceiving of her as a “peace character” who rejects the Justice League's violent methods and stands for female liberation.19 Philip Sandifer reads Pérez's Wonder Woman as a reinvention of the character as an evolution of her feminism to incorporate intersectional concerns: “Marston's singular vision of how feminism can save the world is not so much wrong as inadequate—an outmoded version that the Amazons can now move beyond in favor of a more diverse and complex vision based not on dominance and submission but on the existence of a higher principle that can unify diverse groups—peace as Pérez would have it.”20 One means by which this intersectionality was articulated was through Wonder Woman's racial and sexual identities; Pérez, Carolyn Cocca argues, coded the character as a person of color, showed her expressing both masculine and feminine traits, and presented her as sexually ambiguous.21 Pérez's Wonder Woman, in other words, complicates many of the traits to which the UN protestors objected; his Wonder Woman is a symbol of intersectional feminism and a vocal opponent of military conflict and interventionism.
Subsequent writers further developed Wonder Woman as a political figure. When Phil Jimenez wrote the character from 2000 to 2003, he, like Robbins, sought to position her as an advocate for women's liberation. In the Jimenez comics, Wonder Woman heads the Wonder Woman Foundation—an organization that seeks to make women “economically self-sufficient and in control of their bodies and reproductive lives.”22 In the Jimenez story “She's a Wonder,” cowritten with Joe Kelly, Lois Lane follows Wonder Woman on an international lecture tour where she serves as ambassador in the White House and speaks to the UN General Assembly—precisely the kinds of activities in which a UN ambassador might engage.23 Wonder Woman has also enjoyed a political life off the page. Writer Andy Mangels, who subsequently served as writer for Wonder Woman in 2016, organized and ran Wonder Woman Day from 2006 to 2010 with the primary goal of raising awareness regarding domestic violence.24 The mobilization of Wonder Woman to combat domestic violence specifically has a textual precedent—in 2000, Trina Robbins worked with Colleen Doran on Wonder Woman: The Once and Future Story, which specifically concerns domestic abuse.25
Later writers returned to the theme of Wonder Woman as peacemaker and diplomat. Gail Simone, who wrote the character from 2008 to 2010, for example, showed Wonder Woman successfully negotiating peace with a group of talking gorillas. As they bow before her, one remarks at her lack of desire for vengeance. In a caption, she muses, “This is why I prefer never to use Batman's methods” (fig. 3).26 Wonder Woman, then, seems to have ample credentials to serve as “ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls,” as she has long served, both on and off the page, as an advocate of women's rights and a counter to, in Marston's words, the “blood-curdling masculinity” of her peers.27 She has also served, in the hands of certain writers, as a representative of intersectional feminism and an opponent of US imperialism. This does not address all of the UN protestors’ objections, however. A far more significant question is that of sexualization.
THE “OVERTLY SEXUALIZED IMAGE”
The petition signed and circulated by “Concerned United Nations Staff Members” phrases one of their central objections thus:
It is alarming that the United Nations would consider using a character with an overtly sexualised image at a time when the headline news in United States and the world is the objectification of women and girls.28
This objection, certainly, is well supported by the comics. Indeed, the problem of sexual objectification remains a perennial one in female superheroes, and Wonder Woman has been no exception. The male gaze, manifest in erect nipples visible through skintight costumes, as well as what Carolyn Cocca calls the “broke back” pose (showing both buttocks and breasts in the same image), remains part of the standard tool set of superhero artists.29 Controversies over (to name a few) Kenneth Rocafort's cover for Teen Titans, no. 1 (2014), Milo Manara's cover for Spider-Woman, no. 1 (2014), and J. Scott Campbell's variant cover to Invincible Iron Man, no. 1 (2016) all show that the problems of sexual objectification (sometimes of characters who are minors) remain very much alive in superhero comics.
The question of sexualization appears even in the very earliest incarnations of the character and has been the source of considerable debate. The Marston/Peter comics served as a platform for Marston's theories on human sexuality. Among these theories was that men should learn, from women, the practice of submission. Accordingly, the comics contain a very high instance (as high as 27 percent, Tim Hanley estimates) of images of individuals being tied up and humiliated.30 Understood as an articulation of Marston's proto-feminist philosophy, Noah Berlatsky argues, these images should not necessarily be read as misogynistic, but as an articulation of “loving submission”: Marston believed that the use of restraints could be a source of mutual pleasure and a means by which men might learn to submit to women. At the same time, as Berlatsky acknowledges, these images were open to multiple readings, and those readers who derived sexual pleasure from images of women being bound and humiliated certainly found much to enjoy in the early comics, to the point that some, such as an anonymous staff sergeant who wrote in 1943, even contacted Marston to express their thanks.31
Later incarnations of the character continued to position Wonder Woman in poses that, while they did not always specifically speak to desires related to dominance and submission, certainly sought to invite the male gaze. Michael Goodrum argues: “Bondage and costumes have long worked towards the representation of Wonder Woman as titillation for adolescent male audiences rather than a positive force for gender equality.”32 The television series, Hanley argues, “combined snippets of feminism for female viewers and pretty girls for male viewers.”33 The period 1992 to 1995 is often identified by critics as a time when sexualization reached almost hyperbolic proportions (fig. 4). Mike Deodato, the artist on Wonder Woman during that time, asserts that “every time the bikini was smaller the sales got higher.”34 Hanley describes Deodato's Wonder Woman as having “impossibly long legs, a minuscule waist, breasts that jutted out like torpedoes, and a perpetual sexy glare.”35 Off the page, Wonder Woman has fared even worse; Playboy magazine has featured models Gaby Ramirez and Tiffany Fallon in Wonder Woman body paint and, as I have reported elsewhere, the search term “Wonder Woman” returns 560 videos on the pornographic website xHamster.36
Wonder Woman, then, in every incarnation, to varying degrees, has indeed been presented as an object of the male gaze. The presentation of the (idealized and unrealistically proportioned) female form found in the comics and film series has belied the pacifistic and feminist themes described above. What I wish to argue in the section that follows, however, is that while the “Concerned United Nations Staff Members” are rightly concerned over the question of sexualization, debates surrounding the representation of the female body have historically served as a barrier for women in politics.
NEW NECKLINE TERRITORY
In 2007, a Washington Post fashion reporter wrote of Senator Hillary Clinton:
She was talking on the Senate floor about the burdensome cost of higher education. She was wearing a rose-colored blazer over a black top. The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape. The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.37
The article goes on to note that this change in clothing is a departure from the “desexualized uniform: a black pantsuit” that Clinton had worn previously, and to which she returned for her presidential bid. The criticism that Clinton drew for wearing a pantsuit (reporter Deirdre Clemente, in another article, cited sources describing her style of dress as “hideous,” “unflattering,” “unfeminine”) finds something of a confluence with Wonder Woman, who from 1968 to 1973 also adopted an outfit described by Mike Madrid as a “pantsuit.”38 The two are again conjoined in that they are women who have been involved in politics and for whom modes of dress have been cited as grounds for their being unfit for office.
This kind of scrutiny paid to Clinton's blouse in 2007 is far from unusual; in 2015 Emily Smith of PageSix.com offered an “exclusive” report on “Hillary Clinton's $600 haircut,” and in March 2017, at the height of negotiations over Scotland's place in Britain's departure from the EU, the Daily Mail showed an image of First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon and British Prime Minister Theresa May, both wearing skirts with the headline “Never Mind Brexit Who Won Legs-It!”39 The media's tendency to focus on the appearance of female political figures at the expense of discussion of their policies has been documented by Gertrude Robinson and Armande Saint-Jean, who demonstrate, in two separate studies, that media coverage of female politicians tends to focus disproportionately on clothing and appearance rather than the substance of speeches.40 This focus on appearance tends to serve as a commentary on the individual in question's personal character. The tone of the Clinton stories described above, specifically, carried a somewhat damning recrimination—that if a female politician seems to have taken care of her appearance then she is either frivolous (closing a salon off to other customers and paying $600 for a haircut) or inviting sexual attention (showing cleavage).
We might further note that had Clinton (or, indeed, Wonder Woman) seemed to have taken no care over her appearance then she would have been accused of being slovenly. Paul Solotaroff, writing for Rolling Stone magazine, described watching television with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump as businesswoman Carly Fiorina, who once ran for president, appeared on the screen:
When the anchor throws to Carly Fiorina for her reaction to Trump's momentum, Trump's expression sours in schoolboy disgust as the camera bores in on Fiorina. “Look at that face!” he cries. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?!” The laughter grows halting and faint behind him. “I mean, she's a woman, and I'm not s'posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”41
Women in politics, then, are caught in a bind. If their appearance seems too practiced then they are seen as sexualized, frivolous, and unsuitable for public office. If they appear to have taken no care of their appearance, then they have failed to provide an image that voters want to see and are considered unsuitable for public office.
Such accusations of frivolity, sexualization, or slovenliness serve to compound the problem, identified by Deirdre O'Neill and Heather Savigny, that politics is generally considered a “man's game” where female politicians are treated as exceptions to the rule.42 Female politicians who seem to have successfully navigated a path within politics are those who have cultivated (or perhaps found themselves characterized as) hypermasculine and desexualized. The language that surrounds such figures is telling: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously presented herself as a “tough” leader, and Anneke Ribberink reports that many individuals equated this toughness with Thatcher becoming, in a literal and physiological sense, male. Anneke Ribberink reports that she once heard a fellow conference attendee declare that “Margaret Thatcher [was] not a woman.”43 And extreme-right politician and 2017 presidential candidate Marine Le Pen speaks with a low voice, affecting a masculine persona. A common phrase among her supporters is “elle a des coullies” (“she has balls”), suggesting once more that for a woman to be successful in politics she must become biologically male.44
This rhetoric can inform our reading of Wonder Woman's temporary position as UN ambassador. As the protestors rightly observed, Wonder Woman has been represented, for much of her history, as the subject of the male gaze. At the same time, however, her removal as representative of the UN is a wholly inadequate solution to a perennial problem that affects women in politics. When the debate concerns her appearance, she has effectively already lost. She exists in a system that holds women to an impossible and self-contradictory standard, where she is read as sexualized and then punished for that reading, and where the only way to be regarded as a legitimate public figure is to reject any signs of femininity. Wonder Woman's removal from political office ended one part of this debate, but did nothing to address the underlying problem.
Wonder Woman's appointment was an insultingly poor response to the lack of women in senior positions at the UN. Depending on the version of the character one chooses to address, she can also be read as a symbol of white feminism, US cultural and military imperialism, and the objectification of women. The character has also served, however, as a symbol of peace, has served as a woman in politics, has called attention to women's concerns such as domestic violence, and, in George Pérez's hands, has served as a symbol of intersectional feminism, all attributes that make her eminently suitable as a UN ambassador.
As a postscript, we might note that the end of Wonder Woman's tenure at the UN did not represent the end of her time in politics. On January 21, 2017, the day of the worldwide Women's March, comic book artist Nicola Scott sent an image over Twitter from the Marston/Peter-era Wonder Woman comics showing Wonder Woman surrounded by a sea of other women and declaring: “Fight on as before—we will show those evil men that women fight for peace harder than men can fight to satisfy their greed” (fig. 5).45 Wonder Woman has been fighting for women's rights without the UN's support for seventy-five years, and she shows no sign of stopping.