Dear United Nations,
I am writing to you with regard to your recent selection of Wonder Woman as your Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls, effective today. If there were ever a modern-day “shot heard round the world,” this would be it. (And not just because it is deflected off her metal bracelets!)
Your appointment of Wonder Woman is a bold effort that resonates with so many of us: women and men, black and white, young and old. I would argue that no other figure has connected so universally to people around the world. She represents hope, she represents courage, and she represents truth. She is an embodiment of the diplomatic warrior, speaking softly but carrying a big stick. Theodore Roosevelt saw his philosophy on foreign policy as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis.” Wonder Woman exemplifies this.
But not everyone is pleased with the choice. Most notable among the critics is Shazia Z. Rafi, UN representative for the All Pakistan Women’s Association (the oldest and largest women’s organization in the country), former secretary-general of Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA), and managing director of Global Parliamentary Services. She has 25 years of experience in diplomacy and international relations, holds a master’s degree in international political economy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and is a magna cum laude graduate in political science from Bryn Mawr College. She is also one of the organizers of WomanSG, a campaign to elect a female UN secretary-general.
Ms. Rafi is quoted in several news sources as calling this appointment “ridiculous,” saying, “The campaign for women’s empowerment is represented by a cartoon when there are so many real-life women who could have been chosen,” and “Younger women are no longer looking at themselves and think they need to be dressed in cleavage and bustiers to be taken seriously.” While I disagree with Ms. Rafi, I also recognize that given her accomplishments and life’s work, her criticism of your appointment of Wonder Woman should not be dismissed outright.
I can understand how the appointment of a “cartoon character” could seem disingenuous, if not actively disrespectful of Ms. Rafi’s recent, well-founded efforts with the WomanSG campaign, not to mention her ongoing focus on the lack of gender parity and women’s empowerment in the UN and more generally around the world. Despite the UN Security Council adopting Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security—which called for an increase in the participation of women and incorporate gender perspectives in all United Nations peace and security efforts—in October 2000, you still lag drastically behind in gender equity in the top UN positions. In the UN’s 70-year history, not once has a woman held the position of secretary-general.
And yet, I have to respectfully disagree with Ms. Rafi’s opposition to and open criticism of your recent selection of Wonder Woman as an honorary ambassador. In response, I’d like to offer an alternative perspective.
I feel that Ms. Rafi is misinformed in her classifying Wonder Woman as merely a “cartoon character.” If you look at the Telegraph’s January 28, 2016, article “The 19 Best Female Cartoon Characters,” you will find Lucy from Peanuts, Velma from the Scooby-Doo Gang, and even Jane Jetson, but you won’t find Wonder Woman. You will find the same with Paste Magazine’s “The 40 Best Cartoon Characters of All Time”: Bugs Bunny, Homer Simpson, Charlie Brown, but no Wonder Woman. You can check list after list and you will not find her, because she is more than a cartoon character. She is a symbol.
A cartoon character is defined as “a fictional character depicted in an animated film or a comic strip” and as “a person or portrayal lacking in depth or characterized by exaggerated or stereotypical features.” These characters are meant for humor and satire; they make us laugh and sometimes cry, but they aren’t meant to inspire, to give hope, or to evoke emotion so intense that you might need to breathe deep to keep your voice from shaking. Wonder Woman does all of that.
Gloria Steinem credits Wonder Woman in many ways as the reason she became a feminist and political activist. The hero’s influence on Steinem developed her independence, as well as her views on equality and what a feminist and female role model was supposed to be. In fact, the first issue (and two subsequent issues) of Ms. magazine, which Steinem co-founded, depicted Wonder Woman on the cover. Steinem still buys bracelets in pairs because of her, and she speaks more about Wonder Woman’s influence in her life and in society as a whole in the Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines.
Betsy Hodges, mayor of the City of Minneapolis—and, like Ms. Rafi, a Mawrter—is similarly open about her love for and inspiration by Wonder Woman. She traces it back to when she was eight years old and “ensorcelled” by Lynda Carter’s portrayal of the iconic hero, which paved the way for other female heroes, such as the Bionic Woman and Xena, Warrior Princess. Mayor Hodges works Wonder Woman references into her speeches and has even declared today Wonder Woman Day in Minneapolis. She is a phenomenal elected official and an inspiration to young women, and it all started with Wonder Woman.
The list goes on, but if you look around—search the Internet, read news articles, or even just ask—you’ll find thousands of both women and men (myself included) who grew up with and are inspired by Wonder Woman. I and many others tap into her as a source for empowerment and the strength to uplift ourselves, to move ahead in this world and bring compassion, inspiration, hope, and good works to others’ lives. If you read issues of Wonder Woman comic books, you will find her story lines filled with the very real issues people face, with words of inspiration and no shortage of positive roles the character takes on to serve as example. I use these in my work with at-risk youth in Project Superhero to help them find positive paths in life.
And while Ms. Rafi may feel that a living person would be a better alternative, I would submit that, due to politics, you will never find a living person who everyone will agree on, much less one who has the depth of impact that Wonder Woman offers. There will always be someone who will criticize, rail against, or just intentionally dismiss an individual because they don’t align with their goals and beliefs. The lack of any of the six qualified female candidates for secretary-general to be selected as either first or second choices by the UN Security Council would seem to bear this out. Moreover, a person is flesh and blood; they can be ignored, marginalized, or even destroyed. But a symbol? A symbol transcends all of that. A symbol can be incorruptible, all reaching, and everlasting. In today’s world, with so much turmoil and strife, people need to have dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and frustration. They need a symbol of hope, of courage, and of truth.
Wonder Woman is that symbol.
In 1897, eight-year-old Virginia Hanlon wrote a letter to the New York Sun asking whether Santa Claus was real. Her friends had told her he wasn’t, but her father had told her that if she “[saw] it in The Sun, it was so.” Veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church responded thus:
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.
In the same spirit, I say: yes, Ms. Rafi, there is a Wonder Woman, and she is the best honorary ambassador the UN could have.
But it is also true that she must be the harbinger, not the sole example or token. For the United Nations’ appointment of Wonder Woman to have any meaning—for the UN to live up to the profound example that she embodies—she must lead a vanguard of women who will fulfill the mission of gender equity and empowerment that the UN has chosen her for not just around the world, but within the body of the United Nations itself. Because that is precisely what Wonder Woman would call on you to do.
And that is a point I think Ms. Rafi and I can absolutely agree on.