I'm a neuroscientist, author, and martial artist. Comic books got me into martial arts, martial arts got me into science. In my day job my research helps to improve function and empower people with stroke and spinal cord injury. I want to empower everyone with knowledge so I also write about science and superheroes. My first 3 books are "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero", "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine", and "Project Superhero". My 4th book, "Creating Captain America" will be out in 2018. I live in Victoria, BC, Canada, where I work at the University of Victoria and teach martial arts.
Our Dr. E Paul Zehr looks at the recent trends and developments concerning Wonder Woman at the United Nations.
Wonder Woman: Ex-Amazonian Ambassador for the United Nations
Wonder. The very word inspires admiration and amazement. With Wonder Woman we have one of the most powerful women in comics. If you want to inspire people you often need to stretch their thinking. To get them to consider old ideas or preconceptions through a different lens. To think new thoughts. Comic books superheroes can inspire us and a superhero like Wonder Woman–who was the star in Batman v Superman–represents a powerful and inspiring female character. Wouldn’t it be great to use her to promote equity and inspire young girls?
The UN thought so, until they didn’t.
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Wonder Woman was unveiled as an honorary UN Ambassador back in October. At the time a backlash already started from certain UN staffers who were unimpressed by the selection. They cited all manner of issues about Wonder Woman’s back story, her physique, etc. as evidence for why the character should be rejected. Some walked out during the presentation. Now, the UN has quietly dropped Wonder Woman. Friday December 16 was her last day of “work”. There are lots of arguments–some completely legitimate–as to why you might not want a fictional superhero character as an honorary UN Ambassador. A major issue is always finding a role model who is all inclusive. Since that is impossible, it’s a huge opportunity missed and I suggest it’s all down to a failure to understand opportunity.
While writing my first attempt at a fiction-non-fiction hybrid book “Project Superhero”, I thought a lot about roles, expectations, and inspirations for young girls and women in our society. To write the book I was forced to view the world from the vantage point and eyes of my 13 year old female protagonist Jessie. In so doing I gained a different appreciation for inequities between men and women that continue to exist. During my initial writing this was a smaller part of the narrative but it began to exponential increase as a focus in the experiences with Jessie. She explores different female superheroes–including Wonder Woman–but eventually lands on Batgirl as an icon to identify with. This is largely because as a “human” Batgirl is someone with skills and abilities that Jessie could imagine achieving for herself.
In Project Superhero Jessie finds lots of examples of women doing great things, one of the discoveries that Jessie makes is that women aren’t often given the same initial opportunities or expectations as are men. Wonder Woman well represents this idea of stepping outside expected roles, having courage, and fighting for your beliefs. Jessie notices that traditional comic book writing and illustrating has often had few women taking active roles. She is inspired by this to make a difference herself because she uses her imagination to identify with the characters.
And that’s a key issue here–imagination and target audiences. The target audience for inspiring girls and women was surely not the UN staffers. It was those outside of the UN and it’s established hierarchy that were meant to be accessed by this initiative. Whether or not the UN insiders identified with Wonder Woman is entirely beside the point. It is for the others who would not normally be drawn to the UN or its initiatives that Wonder Woman was a great, high profile, and inspirational choice. Don’t like her origins? Talk about the growth of her character across time and where she is now. Don’t like what she does? Point out–as does writer Phil Jimenez on twitter–that Wonder Woman’s alter ego Diana Prince is actually a UN Ambassador in many story lines. Wonder Woman was a perfect foil for exploring these and other issues around female empowerment.
If you truly want to tap into new areas and those not engaged in what you are doing–as we assume the UN was–you have to step outside your own comfort zone and enter the world of those you want to reach. The UN tried, sort of, for a brief while, to make itself relevant in a very modern way. Then they stopped because those who were already on the inside and onside applied pressure. This is a critical issue for communication, actually, and one I’ve written about for science education. If we really want to have successful messaging and make real change, we have to approach the problem from the perspective of our target audience. This is often different from our own and creates it’s own critical challenges.
Unfortunately the UN chose to do the simple and relatively easy thing here and back down.
Again, a super opportunity superbly missed.
Ciao for now.
(c) E. Paul Zehr (2016)