By Vanessa Friedman / New York Times News Service
LAST October Wonder Woman turned 75, and she got a bang-up party that took place at the United Nations in the Economic and Social Council chamber, and the special guests included Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment (the company that owns DC Comics, which invented Wonder Woman); Lynda Carter, who embodied Wonder Woman in the 1970s television series; Gal Gadot, who stars in the upcoming Wonder Woman film; and United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Ban, as it turned out, also had a present of sorts for the character: She was named an honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls and for gender equality, a.k.a. Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: 17 Goals to Transform Our World. She will appear in a social-media campaign and other initiatives.
On one level, this makes sense. Wonder Woman is the epitome of the woman who needs a man the way a fish needs a bicycle. (She appeared twice on the cover of Ms. magazine.)
She is self-sufficient and strong, and fights for equality and justice. She is not derivative of a male character the way Supergirl or Batgirl is, and she does not disguise herself as Catwoman does. In the new Wonder Woman movie, which opens worldwide this June, she says to her male costar, “What I do is not up to you”.
And, certainly, she brings the organization’s cause to a whole new audience, said Maher Nasser, the Outreach Division director for the UN Department of Public Information.
(The organization realized the advantages of teaming up with the comic-book world this year when Red from Angry Birds became its honorary ambassador for the International Day of Happiness; all honorary ambassadors are fictional characters, as opposed to, say, messengers of peace, a category that includes celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Charlize Theron and Jane Goodall, or goodwill ambassadors, who include Anne Hathaway, David Beckham and Shakira.)
It makes even more sense when you realize that in 1943, Wonder Woman ran for president. (It was “1,000 years in the future,” the 1940s comic book said, but, still.) And she was renominated by Ms. magazine in 1972. Bringing her back to speak for what she believes in seems more relevant than ever.
Except for one thing.
As Nasser put it, somewhat delicately, the “outfit issue”. Specifically, what he said was, “We are not unaware of the outfit issue”, the issue being that Wonder Woman does most of her power work, as we all know, in a star-spangled strapless bathing suit and knee-high boots, with a healthy amount of cleavage and leg on display. Her clothes have not, to put it mildly, caught up with her politics—or many other people’s, for that matter. (In the new film, she appears to wear a sort of loincloth-like skirt, too.)
In the end, the UN determined that, “You have to look beyond the superficial to her actions,” Nasser said. And Carter noted that the character is “so much bigger than what she wears.”
But in the era of Donald J. Trump, when the issue of objectifying women because of how they look is foremost in every conversation, the outfit issue—and the related body-image issue—cannot be so easily dismissed.
Indeed, Wonder Woman’s workwear is a look straight from the Miss Universe stage—as it used to be when Trump owned the pageant. (He sold it last year to WME-IMG, the entertainment and sports giant.) After all, even Miss Teen USA ended its swimsuit competition last year, transforming it into a gymwear segment, the better to celebrate strength as opposed to va-va-voom. Paula Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization, wrote in a letter to state directors that was later quoted in The New York Times, “This decision reflects an important cultural shift we’re all celebrating.”
Except Wonder Woman is not.
This matters because, like most superheroes, she is inseparable from her clothing: It is her immediate signifier, the representation of all about her that is special and unique (and kick-butt). And that clothing unavoidably indicates to everyone that part of the source of her power is her babeliciousness, as defined in a particularly retrograde way.
The reason Steve Trevor, her original love interest, falls for her is not just that she can defend herself and him, gallop into battle and choose not to kill her enemies. It’s because, let’s be honest, of her looks—when she takes off her glasses, stops being that dowdy Diana Prince in a buttoned-up shirt and blossoms into her barely clad self.
She may not be using her sexuality as a weapon (she has bracelets and a gold lasso for that), but it’s nonetheless making a statement.
Which raises the question, even accepting that she is an exaggerated character in an exaggerated world: Is that really the message we want to send about female empowerment to our daughters in an era when there are a number of fully clothed, notably powerful female role models?
On the one hand, allowing girls to revel in their physicality and femininity is a good thing. I’m not saying they should dress like nuns or adopt a Pantsuits R Us mentality. They should own their womanhood and all that is special and different about it. You can argue that refusing to apologize for or hide your body under a sackcloth is a feminist act.
But most women, I’d guess, would not choose to display their allure while wearing a star-spangled maillot and cape, which is to say an outfit that no one could actually wear to work, unless she were working as the impersonator of a comic-book character.
Carter is unapologetic about the look (“I never felt objectified as Wonder Woman, though I have as Lynda Carter,” she said in a recent phone call), but she acknowledges that, though she owns two classic costumes, she has not put one on since she hung up her cape in 1979.
Pointedly, when she appears as the president on Supergirl this season, Carter wears a long baby-blue jacket, skinny black trousers and pumps. “Smart, strong, easy, comfortable,” she said of the look, adding that she based it on Hillary Clinton and the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi.
Image credits: DC Entertainment/Warner Bros.