Yikes! Wonder Woman Insults UN Staffers

Wonder Woman is not so wonderful in the eyes of hundreds of United Nations staff members around the world. Recently, 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 on Oct. 21, held at UN headquarters in New York to present the avatar, prevailed. So far, the petition has nearly 2,000 signatories and remains active, its initiators say.

About 100 staff members, despite possible repercussions, held a silent protest at the UN event, with participants standing in a balcony with their backs to the program, their fists raised.

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 in the room, 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, a taciturn diplomat, 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: "This is not a serious issue. Move on."

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 was traveling and unable to 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."

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 UN 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."

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."