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UN drops Wonder Woman: Do comic-book ambassadors fit into UN campaigns?

Honorary UN ambassador Wonder Woman will be dropped from her role on Friday. The move follows protests about sidelining gender equality issues by appointing a voiceless 'mascot' to the post.

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United Nations staff stand and turn their backs, top, in a silent protest, during a UN meeting to designate Wonder Woman as an Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. The character's role at the UN will end on Friday, possibly as a result of this and similar protests.

Bebeto Matthews/AP/File

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Wonder Woman’s abrupt departure is raising questions about the role fictional characters can and should play in United Nations campaigns.

The DC Comics cartoon character was appointed Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls on her 75th birthday in October. Wonder Woman has long been considered a feminist icon (her creator, psychologist William Moulton Marston, was reportedly inspired by the suffrage movement) and she was expected to be the face of a year-long social media campaign promoting gender equality.

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But UN staffers were disappointed by the selection, and a petition by “concerned UN staffers” asking the UN to reconsider the choice garnered 45,000 signatures, possibly causing Wonder Woman’s early departure as honorary ambassador. Her role ends on Friday.

Wonder Woman’s appointment, the protests, and her recent exit have all contributed to an ongoing conversation about the involvement of fictional characters in real-world issues. To be sure, the UN and others have effectively used fictional characters to raise awareness - and change behavior – on important societal issues. But in this case, why Wonder Woman backfired may reveal the limits of this approach. 

“It is to be commended that the UN understands that stories – even comic book stories and their characters – can inspire, teach and reveal injustices,” Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. Consumer Products, which produce Wonder Woman comics and films, said in October, the UN News Centre reported.

Wonder Woman is not the first fictional character to be tapped for an “honorary ambassador” role by the UN. Winnie the Pooh served as Honorary Ambassador of Friendship in 1999, and Tinker Bell (of "Peter Pan" fame) became Honorary Ambassador of the Green in 2009 to help promote awareness of the environment among children. Red, the leader of the Angry Birds, was also appointed Honorary Ambassador for Green during an International Day of Happiness campaign that focused on the link between happiness and addressing climate change.

According to the UN, deploying fictional characters as ambassadors encourages engagement with the UN’s work by people who may not feel connected to it.

“We are trying to reach new audiences and young people who do not follow UN news or read the [organization’s] reports and resolutions. Young people who get their world views … from pop-culture icons such as Wonder Woman,” stated a UN official quoted by the “concerned UN staffers’” petition.

Social media outreach – using the hashtag #WithWonderWoman – was one way that UN officials hoped to increase engagement. DC Entertainment is also working to produce a special Wonder Woman comic book focused on women’s empowerment, in the six official languages of the UN. (Though Wonder Woman is no longer a UN ambassador, Courtney Simmons from DC Entertainment told Reuters that the book is still planned.)

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Fictional characters may also serve as role models. Shortly after the death of Leonard Nimoy, Jessica Ball, a postdoctoral fellow at the US Geological Survey, wrote about the role that his "Star Trek" character Spock – and other fictional scientists – played in her development.

“I knew, of course, that [fictional scientists] could only ever be caricatures of real people who existed somewhere in the world, but it was easy to find aspects of them to aspire to.... They did important work, and some even saved the day. I wanted to be that,” Ms. Ball wrote.

The UN has also successfully employed this fictional role model. In what Time magazine termed “an effort to thwart public defecation” in India, UNICEF created a character, Mr. Poo, who dances and sings about using toilets. The character apparently persuaded more than 1 million people in 2014 to sign a petition to start using toilets even though there remains resistance to using public toilets.

Fictional “honorary ambassadors” in general aren’t necessarily problematic for opponents of Wonder Woman’s appointment. What they object to is putting a fictional face on such an important issue.

“For something that is this important, you need a woman or a man who can speak, somebody who can travel, somebody who can champion these rights, somebody who is able to have an opinion, somebody that can be interviewed…,” explained a UN protester to The Guardian.

There are plenty of real women who could have filled the role, critics noted. And context matters: Coming on the heels of the selection of António Guterres as the next Secretary-General over any of the seven women shortlisted, choosing Wonder Woman was seen as an affront.

“This role is too important to be championed by a ‘mascot,’ ” the petition read.

There were also concerns about her body image: The petition suggested that Wonder Woman’s appearance, "scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee high boots – the epitome of a 'pin-up' girl," overshadows her original feminist message. And some worried that the character was too old to resonate with the demographic the UN hoped to reach.

But don't tell Lynda Carter. The actress who played Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series, says the character continues to empower women.

“Wonder Woman helps [bring] out the inner strength every woman has,” she told a Girl Scout group in October, according to Time magazine.