The United Nations this week decided to cut short the ambassadorial career of one of its most powerful ever appointments: Wonder Woman.
In what must count as a rare setback for the 75-year-old Amazonian, also known by her birth title of Princess Diana of Themyscira, or Diana Prince for short, was appointed to much fanfare in October as a global role model representing empowerment for girls and young women as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Actors Lynda Carter and Gal Gadot, who have portrayed the superhero on screen, were in attendance at UN headquarters to add some corporeal heft to the occasion.
That appointment, however, was met with strong criticism from certain quarters, including many UN staff members, who began a petition to protest against the selection.
“A large-breasted white woman of impossible proportions, scantily clad in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots,” the petition pointed out, maybe didn’t strike the right tone of female empowerment. Nearly 45,000 people agreed, and within two months, her ambassadorial role was curtailed.
Perhaps more pertinently, there was also the undeniable whiff of tawdry promotion in this deal – Wonder Woman will be getting her own blockbuster movie release next year, starring Gadot, so the appointment came across as more opportunistic marketing stunt than an opportunity to fight for gender equity.
But quite apart from hiring a comic book character, what exactly does the UN get out of these celebrity (and occasionally fictional) ambassadors?
From Angelina Jolie (Special Envoy to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to Leonardo DiCaprio (UN Messenger of Peace), via the unlikely figure of Spice Girl Geri Halliwell (UN Population Fund Goodwill Ambassador), the list of celebrities lending their star wattage to worthy causes is as glitzy as an Oscars after-party.
A hint at the impact these celebrities can have on mainstream attention was demonstrated this week when a study showed that Jolie had boosted by a third the numbers of people in the US seeking tests for cancer-related genes after revealing she underwent a double mastectomy in 2013.
If Jolie – coincidentally long linked with the role of Wonder Woman – can raise awareness on one issue, it stands to reason she can raise awareness on others, even when it’s harder to measure the impact. The UN, one suspects, knows all too well the shallowness of the public’s attention span.