The Toronto Star by Shari Graydon 14 December 2016

She’s a kick-ass heroine, the only famous female superhero in a pantheon of dudes, and her creators were inspired by birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Despite that level of awesomeness, I’m with the almost 45,000 petitioners who thought Wonder Woman’s moonlighting as honorary UN ambassador wasn’t the best use of her talents.

Appointed two months ago as part of the UN’s desire to focus on the need for global gender equality, the DC comics character was supposed to help challenge female stereotypes and fight discrimination and violence against women and girls.

Finally on the verge of her own dedicated blockbuster movie, it wasn’t her fault that her recruitment coincided with saturation news coverage of a certain presidential candidate who managed to make the sexual objectification of women central to his campaign.

Unfortunately, in that context, Wonder Woman’s thigh- and cleavage-revealing wardrobe made it especially difficult for many American women to see her as an effective counter to the stereotypes she was hired to fight.

To be fair, it must be admitted that her flashy apparel was also likely to distract from her campaign for justice in countries where modest dress is especially valued. Politicians of all persuasions who seek to curry favour with observant Catholics, Jews and Muslims regularly don long sleeves, kippas and head scarves. But such gestures of respect would be tricky for an icon represented in two dimensions and only one outfit.

A headline this week alluded to the political nature of Wonder Woman’s task. In response to the UN’s decision to relieve her of her duties after they’d barely begun, The Guardian declared, “One less woman in politics.”

Well, um, no.

Wonder Woman — and this seems to be something the UN also missed in deputizing her in the first place — is not actually a woman. Like Anne of Green Gables, Scarlett O’Hara and Hermione Granger, our voluptuous fighter is a fictional character. As such, her heroic exploits have enormous capacity to engage, entertain and inspire.

But even elementary schoolchildren easily grasp the difference between fiction and reality. And as much as they might love storybook heroes and cartoon characters, most kids are not naïve enough to count on them to make the world a safer, more equitable place for, you know, actual people.
Back in 1992, when female role models made prominent through media were few and far between, a Canadian researcher asked 10- to 12-year-olds to name their heroes. While the boys in the study listed dozens of athletes and actors, musicians and heads of state, the girls struggled to name three. Wonder Woman was one of them. But tellingly, they cited not her fearlessness, but “the sparkles on her dress” as the source of their admiration.
In the decades since, pop music alone has served up dozens of internationally recognizable proponents of “girl power.” And yet as strong and talented as Madonna and the Spice Girls, Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé undoubtedly are, they’re still selling strength in a compromised package — one reinforcing the notion that female power depends on its capacity to earn a “10” on the scale that matters most.
In the meantime, young activists from Craig Kielburger to Malala Yousafzai have given kids an appreciation of what’s possible when even citizens not even old enough to vote speak up against injustice, draw attention to the abuse of human rights, and mobilize others to act. They’re as likely as the rest of us to take inspiration from actual, versus virtual, heroes.
For millions of women and girls around the world, the consequences of gender inequality remain unspeakably dire. Child marriage and female genital mutilation are, in many countries, government-condoned; sex slavery and systematic rape are normalized as inevitable.

In this context, although a superhero’s projectile tiara and lasso of truth may be tempting accessories, real leadership and genuine action are critically needed.

I’m sure the UN didn’t intend to trivialize the seriousness of these issues when selecting Wonder Woman as its honorary ambassador. The international body explicitly recognizes that women’s equality is essential to “fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanities at large.”

But given such high stakes, it feels more than a bit patronizing to appoint a comic book mascot to the task.

Putting in place the policies and programs necessary to deliver on the UN’s stated equality goals is a daunting challenge. The job will require moral courage, intellectual substance, an uncommon capacity to persuade, and — this is important — a physical presence.

If the international body were genuinely serious about tackling gender inequality in the real world, it could start by electing an actual woman to lead the organization.

Shari Graydon is the founder and catalyst of Informed Opinions, a non-profit project of Media Action amplifying women’s voices for a more democratic Canada.