Wonder Woman is not so wonderful in the eyes of hundreds of United Nations staff members around the world. Earlier this week, a petition began circulating among personnel to ask their boss, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to rescind the choice of the cartoon character, whose main uniform is a bustier and high heels, as an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls.
But the event at noon on Oct. 21, held at UN headquarters in New York to present the avatar, will prevail, say people who are circulating the petition, which has garnered 700 signatures in the last 24 hours or so.
Some staff members, despite possible repercussions, are planning to hold a silent protest at 11:45 a.m. outside the chambers where the program will occur, with participants dressed in white.
Farhan Haq, a spokesman for Ban, confirmed the Wonder Woman celebration was still going on. Technically, it is her 75th birthday on Oct. 21.
The day before the event, a media briefing, held on “deep background” — meaning no quotes could be used for publication or tweeted — featured the head of the UN’s Department of Public Information, Cristina Gallach, and Diane Nelson, the president of DC Entertainment, which is behind the promotion of Wonder Woman as a role model for women and girls at the UN. A new movie featuring the character happens to be coming out next year.
Gallach and Nelson emphasized to the media how the choice of Wonder Woman, despite the significant backlash to her new place at the UN, was meant to raise awareness of the Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality, or SDG 5. The specific comments by Gallach and Nelson were embargoed until the Oct. 21 event, effectively censoring media.
A UN official confirmed later that during the half-hour briefing, Internet had been cut, as requested by DC Entertainment, he said, but some UN staff members, who could not have access to the briefing and have found the Wonder Woman choice deplorable, called it blatant “secrecy.”
Even the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN, Petr Iliichev, felt compelled to comment on the Wonder Woman flap, saying to this reporter, as he exited the Security Council chambers: “I would have liked a real woman” to be an emblem for women and girls.
The petition by UN staff members begins: “The Secretary-General of the United Nations has recently announced that the new Honorary Ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls will be Wonder Woman, a fictional character, the rights to which are owned by DC Comics, a for-profit entertainment corporation.”
One woman at the UN involved in the petition characterized the response from Ban’s office to the petition as: “Very little coming out of the 38th floor. They want to go ahead and not sure the criticism is getting through.”
The view appears to be, she added: “This is not a serious issue. Move on.”
At no point did the Department of Public Information consult with staff members unhappy with the use of Wonder Woman, said a UN employee about the petition. Gallach’s remarks to the media had suggested much discussion with disgruntled staff members. Meetings were held with UN units tasked with assuring gender equality in the UN workplace, but Wonder Woman had long been decided by upper echelon at the UN, so it was a fait accompli.
Wonder Woman “beats people up, uses small arms, so how does that reconcile with other SDG mandates?” the UN staff member asked rhetorically, describing the people behind the UN protest as wracked with fear for speaking up. To counter internal protests, Ban’s office apparently sent an email asking staff members to participate in a lottery to meet Wonder Woman, which some people considered to be overt intimidation if you didn’t sign up.
Many others in the UN and beyond not only objected to how Wonder Woman dresses but also why the UN agreed to a cartoon character to represent half the world’s population.
“It’s an insult to member states to say that we can’t find a real live person,” a UN protester said. “What about Michelle Obama?”
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the head of UN Women, the main body pushing for women’s rights in the organization and globally, was apparently unaware of the selection until last week. She is said to have been “incensed” over the choice and tried to get the event canceled but was told it was impossible. She is traveling and cannot attend the Oct. 21 program, though her Twitter page registered no reference to the controversy.
The use of an avatar that wears an American flag in the form of a bathing suit has caused uproar that has refused to die down since Oct. 12, when the UN first announced she would be an honorary ambassador. PassBlue published a satirical fact sheet on the pros and cons of Wonder Woman as a symbol promoting the empowerment of women and girls, noting that she has no platform on such burning issues as child marriage and female genital mutilation.
The UN announcement said the “designation ceremony will launch a campaign supporting Sustainable Development Goal #5 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.”
It added that “surprise guests will be present to accept the designation on behalf of the comic book, TV and film character Wonder Woman.”
A man in the UN’s Department of Public Information is said to have made the decision to go with the Wonder Woman idea.
The response after the UN announcement was instant on social media as well as in ensuing articles and commentary globally, with the primary sentiment being disbelief. The choice was especially grating since it immediately followed the formal appointment of a man, António Guterres, as the next secretary-general, starting Jan. 1.
Many women’s groups and certain UN member nations that had advocated for nearly a year for a woman to get the job had been crushed by yet another man slipping into the world’s top diplomatic post, a job that has never been filled by a woman. Seven female candidates had vied for the position in the new, open selection process this year, including UN executives.
In a post-mortem to the UN process, observers have been remarking that the female candidates were subjected to scathing coverage in the media while the six male candidates were left relatively untouched. The roster included a former foreign minister from Serbia, Vuk Jeremic, who played his country’s national anthem at the UN when he was president of the General Assembly, a debatable move given his country’s notorious aggressions during the Bosnian war.
“After not giving any of the seven women SG candidates a chance, women’s power is reduced to this?” said Mavic Cabrera-Balleza in an email to PassBlue. She is the international coordinator for the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, an advocacy group.
“Is women’s power and women’s agency just a fantasy or comic book story? Moreover, what happened to cultural and racial diversity? We have a lot of superwomen in Asian legends and folk tales. There are in Africa and Latin America too and I’m sure in other cultures as well.
Not to mention the body image. You can only be a Wonder Woman if you have an hourglass figure??? Women in different parts of the world have conflicted or weak appreciation of themselves because of the dominant sexy images that the media bombard them with.”
A boycott of the Oct. 21 event was also called by a member of the Campaign to Select a Woman Secretary-General, but an organized response never got underway outside the UN. Instead, online commentary grew louder.
“WomanSG asks the Secretary-General to immediately cancel plans for this launch, reverse the decision and replace the cartoon symbol with a real, live, qualified woman as the symbol of Gender Equality and the face of SDG 5,” read a statement from the campaign group.
Helen Clark, the head of the UN Development Program and a former candidate for secretary-general, is said to be boycotting the Wonder Woman program. So is Irina Bokova, who runs Unesco and is in New York on business. She, too, was a candidate for secretary-general.
The appropriateness of Wonder Woman was questioned by some media at the UN early this week. Ban’s spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, defended the iconography of Wonder Woman, saying she was a cartoon character meant to draw young people to the UN.
But after more questions came from reporters, Dujarric tried to dismiss the topic, saying that UN Women and Unicef were on board and that it was time to move on to more important matters, which that day was about the retaking of Mosul by Iraq and allies and the humanitarian chaos that could result.
Yet the problem with Wonder Woman has not relented, despite wars and other big dramas unfolding in new ways this week. For DC Entertainment, the mountain of publicity couldn’t be more helpful to the company’s public relations spin for the movie.
As one top official of a UN agency said of the Wonder Woman selection: “I thought it was a joke.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.