Hating Wonder Woman: Why Men Shouldn't Pick Female Role Models

by Jennifer Gilhool - Gender Economics Lab —

Wonder Woman is an icon to some and to others, she is a scourge. Whether you love her or hate her, the fact remains that Wonder Woman is not real. And, for this reason alone, Wonder Woman should not be the symbol of female empowerment for the United Nations or anyone else.


Consider the recent comments of Maher Nasser, the man responsible for brokering the deal with Warner Brothers and DC Comics to install Wonder Woman as Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls. Nasser grew up reading comics and says that he was inspired by Wonder Woman’s fight for justice,

"For me these values [of truth, justice, and peace] are what brought me to the United Nations.”     

But when asked what Wonder Woman represents for him at this particular moment, after women began voicing differing views about the character, Nasser ruefully chuckled, that Wonder Woman is simply,

“A big headache, now."


The moment Wonder Woman moved from the imagination and fantasy world of men, she became a headache. It isn’t a coincidence that when women began voicing a dissenting point of view regarding the mythology of Wonder Woman that she became less attractive and more of a headache for the men marketing her not as a beacon of female empowerment but as a commercial object (a movie) and a public relations campaign.

Wonder Woman is the product of a man’s imagination. The man, William Moulton Marston, may have had the best of intentions when he created the first female superhero but intentions have little to do with impact. For many women, the impact of Wonder Woman is decidedly mixed.

Since her inception in 1941, men have carefully controlled the image of Wonder Woman. Even now, Nasser explains that he and his team worked with the artists of DC Comics to “tone down the image” of Wonder Woman that will be used in the United Nations campaign,
"The campaign art that we are working with ... doesn't have that caricature image of the wrong stereotype of what a woman should look like."

Nasser points out that the United Nations’ version of Wonder Woman only shows Wonder Woman from the waist up. Additionally, and presumably to mitigate the highly sexualized image, the DC Comics artists draped Wonder Woman’s cape around her neck and shoulders to minimize the focus on her ample breasts, which are more prominently displayed in other versions of the cartoon character. Further, Nasser says that the social media campaign the United Nations is planning will emphasize Wonder Woman's girl power credentials, what he calls "the essence of the character."

"The focus [of the United Nations] was on her feminist background, being the first female superhero in a world of male superheroes and that basically she always fought for fairness, justice and peace."

The United Nations own defense of their selection reveals the inherent flaw in their thinking. It also reveals the problem of having men choose role models for girls and women. Men simply don’t understand the experience of women in the world. That isn’t a judgment. Men live their lives as men not as women.

When you feel compelled to “tone down” the sexually charged caricature image of a woman in an effort to avoid “the wrong stereotype of what a woman should look like,” you are heading into troubled waters. In choosing a one or, at best, two dimensional cartoon character as an aspirational role model for girls and women, the United Nations has reduced girls and women to something less than fully human and asked them to aspire to that less than human image.

In the world of Wonder Woman, women aspire to peace and not war. Women do not carry weapons or fight for themselves but only for others. Women are nurturers not combatants. Women are pacifiers and peace-makers – the very attributes that hold women back from achieving success in business, gaining access to capital, or being taken seriously on the public stage. Women – in the United Nations version of Wonder Woman – don’t even have legs. They are incomplete.

In her original incarnation, William Marston insisted that in every episode Wonder Woman be tied up or otherwise bound by the [male] villain. Marston contended that this was homage to the suffragette movement and women chaining themselves together but that image is far different from the image of a [male] villain tying up or otherwise binding a woman to an object. The iconography of a woman in bondage is complex and violent. It can’t be denied that this imagery plays into dominant-submissive fantasies and calls to mind acts of violence against women, including rape and human trafficking. While we may be more aware of these images and their meanings today, the imagery was as titillating in the mid to late 20th century as it is today. Perhaps, more so, given its forbidden nature.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics approached the United Nations to “sell” Wonder Woman as the Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Girls and Women as part of the celebration of her 75th Anniversary and the launch of its movie (scheduled for release on June 2, 2017). Much like the original public relations work done by Wonder Woman in 1941 designed to combat the backlash of too Germanic looking and weapon-carrying male superheroes, the United Nations finds itself in need of its own PR campaign with women. Foregoing the opportunity to name the first female Secretary General to the United Nations from a stellar candidate list of seven women, including a former Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres was selected for the post. Women were outraged.  

A female cartoon superhero will not soothe the ache symbolized by the United Nations indifference toward placing women in powerful positions within its own organization. Women do not aspire to be cartoon characters any more than men do. Would we name Spider Man as Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Boys and Men? I don’t think so.

Women are not children. Girls need real role models – role models who are complex, flawed human beings capable of great achievement and great mistakes. Women and girls need role models who look like them, think like them, behave like them, and struggle like them. Women and girls do not need false idolatry. The media is already full of these images. Frankly, the United Nations should know better.

As a cartoon character, Wonder Woman is perfect. She can run in go-go boots and a bandeau top and never experience sore feet or aching (or sagging) breasts. Her hair is never out of place and her make-up is never creased by perspiration. Through the magic of movie making, the cartoon character now comes to life in the form of a beautiful, leggy actress propped up by a personal chef, a personal trainer, personal stylist, a hair and make-up team, and air-brushing. Though, she likely makes less than her male superhero counterparts. The Wonder Woman of television and the movies is no more real than the cartoon version. She is unobtainable.

And, that is the problem.

Using an unobtainable image of a woman to serve as a role model and aspirational leader for girls and women is dangerous and irresponsible. Intentionally or unintentionally, the United Nations has reinforced the very “wrong stereotypes” it claims it sought to avoid. The U.N. is paying homage to a male-idealized version of a woman and it is asking women and girls to join in. Would it not be better to offer a real woman as a warrior for peace and justice, as a symbol of female power and fortitude, as an emblem of constructive consternation? Is it not the complexity of being human that makes human achievements so inspiring? If this is true for men, then why can it not also be true for women?

In my own country, the United States, the persistence of the double standard could not be more evident. The presidential election process makes clear that the double standard is deeply rooted even in the most developed nations of the world. Our electorate demands Hillary Clinton (and other female candidates) be free from sin and to be the best example of her gender before it will support her candidacy for President of the United States.

We repeatedly turn a blind eye to the indiscretions of men. We proffer ridiculous excuses for their behavior or brush them aside with a variant of the “boys will be boys” explanation. Worse, far too often we blame the women in their lives for their indiscretions. Despite these failings, we do not disqualify men to hold the highest office in the United States. We do not require them to be the best example of their gender.

Whether you agree or disagree with her policies, Hillary Clinton is a real human being. She is flawed. She has inspired millions around the world, her achievements are as great as her mistakes, she is complex and sometimes difficult to love but she is real. If Hillary Clinton is elected President of the United States, the United States will have elected a flawed woman to the most powerful position in the world – in the same way that the American electorate has elected flawed men to this position 44 previous times in its history.

Serena Williams is real. Sylvia Plath is real. Beyoncé is real. Aung San Suu Kyi is real. Margaret Cavendish, Elizabeth Garret Anderson, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou and Michelle Obama are all real women. Wonder Woman is a fantasy. The most important thing we can do to empower girls and women is to recognize and celebrate the achievements powerful, complex and, sometimes, controversial girls and women. It is time to move beyond the fantasy and toward reality.

Jennifer Gilhool is a self-described recovering anxiety-ridden workaholic. She is also the Founder of the Gender Economics Lab, an attorney, former Fortune 50 executive, author, and speaker.

Jennifer Gilhool is the founder of Gender Economics Lab, a professional, focused thought leading coaching and consulting practice that cuts through popular myths about gender in the workplace. GEL distinguishes its solutions by assuring both male and female workers that smart gender literacy rewards participants with career growth and rewards companies with higher margins. GEL goes far beyond compliance issues to deliver business value for all stakeholders. Learn more at www.gendereconomicslab.com


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