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Ignoring protests, U.N. names Wonder Woman honorary ambassador

  • In this image released by Starpix, actress Lynda Carter, who starred in the 1970s series,"Wonder Woman," left, and actress Gal Gadot, who stars in the upcoming film, "Wonder Woman," appear at a United Nations event naming the super hero character as an Honorary Ambassador For the Empowerment of Women and girls, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, at the United Nations.  (Marion Curtis/Starpix via AP)

    In this image released by Starpix, actress Lynda Carter, who starred in the 1970s series,"Wonder Woman," left, and actress Gal Gadot, who stars in the upcoming film, "Wonder Woman," appear at a United Nations event naming the super hero character as an Honorary Ambassador For the Empowerment of Women and girls, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, at the United Nations. (Marion Curtis/Starpix via AP)  (StarPix©2016)

  • Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television, listens during a U.N. meeting to designate Wonder Woman as an "Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls," Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

    Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman on television, listens during a U.N. meeting to designate Wonder Woman as an "Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls," Friday, Oct. 21, 2016 at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The United Nations celebrated Wonder Woman's 75th birthday on Friday by naming the comic book character its new Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Woman and Girls, despite frustration from both inside and outside the organization that the spot should go to a real — and less sexualized — woman.

The ceremony at the Economic and Social Council chamber, was marked by some 50 U.N. staffers who silently turned their back to the stage, some with their fists in the air.

The super heroine's image will be used by the U.N. on social media platforms to promote women's empowerment, including material about gender-based violence and the fuller participation of women in public life (using the hashtag #WithWonderWoman). The push, hoping to reach young people, is backed by DC Entertainment and Warner Bros., which produce both comics and films featuring Wonder Woman.

But an online petition, started by U.N. staffers, asked the Secretary General to reconsider the appointment, saying, "The message the United Nations is sending to the world with this appointment is extremely disappointing." As of Friday afternoon, it had more than 1,000 signatures.

The event brought together actress Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman in the 1970s TV series, and Gal Gadot, who has taken on the role in the forthcoming "Wonder Woman" film.

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Carter was born Lynda Jean Cordova Carter in Phoenix, Arizona, to a father of English and Irish ancestry and a mother of Mexican descent.

Lynda Carter in a still from the TV series Wonder Woman. (Photo by Warner Brothers/Getty Images)

Carter gave a moving speech about how Wonder Woman embodies the inner strength of every woman, and she was the only one in the ceremony to acknowledge the protesters, urging them, "Please embrace her. To all those who don't think it's a good idea, stand up and be counted."

Afterward she said, "It's OK that not everyone agrees, but get over it and say, 'What else is new?'" 

The actress noted that she has weathered criticism of the role for years. 

"In the beginning, in the '70s, it was, 'Well, she's objectified,'" Carter said. "It's like, 'She's too tall, she's too this, she's too this.' 'Oh, she wants to be a feminist?'"

Honorary ambassadors — as opposed to goodwill ambassadors like Nicole Kidman and Anne Hathaway — are fictional characters. The U.N. previously tapped Winnie the Pooh to be an honorary Ambassador of Friendship in 1998 and Tinker Bell as the honorary Ambassador of Green in 2009. But the protest on Friday seemed to unnerve many of the U.N.'s press officers.

Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment, gave a speech in which she argued that stories — even comic book stories — can "inspire, teach and reveal injustices."

As for Gadot, she said after the event, "I'm the kind of person who always looks at the half-full glass. I care for the people who care and I'm here for a wonderful cause today." 

She added, through a thin smile: "That's all what my focus is."

But among those thinking the glass was half empty was Shazia Z. Rafi, who previously headed an U.N. affiliated non-governmental organization and is now managing director of the consulting firm Global Parliamentary Services. She argued that the choice of Wonder Woman was tone deaf at a time when real women are fighting against sexual exploitation and abuse.

"I think it's a lot of rubbish that you can appoint a cartoon female to represent gender equality in this day and age, even if it is to reach younger women," said Rafi. "I'm not against cartoons. I think cartoons have a value. But that is not the issue."

Rafi said there were plenty of real heroines that could be the face for gender equality, including Nadia Murad, who has become the public face of the thousands of Yazidi women and girls who remain in sexual slavery, and Malala Yousafzai, who defied the Taliban to demand that girls be allowed to receive an education.

The Wonder Woman appointment came after many women were dismayed that another man, Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, was chosen to be the next secretary-general. More than 50 countries and many organizations lobbied for a woman to be appointed, and seven of the 13 candidates to replace Ban Ki-moon on Jan. 1 were women — but none placed above third in the six informal polls.

Rafi, who had campaigned for a woman to be appointed the world's diplomat-in-chief, called it, a "slap in the face of all women who work within the U.N." She said the decision to name Wonder Woman as an ambassador was effort to appease disappointed staffers.

Rafi and the petition also takes issue with Wonder Woman's skimpy outfit, arguing that the whole world might not embrace a scantily-clad character in a shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots.

"This whole issue of taking a cartoon figure who is clad in a bustier, with cleavage, high-cut shorts — a sort of muscled version of a Barbie — and saying, 'This is what represents gender equality,' is incredible. It's culturally insensitive. It's insulting," Rafi said.

It is not the first time the United Nations has partnered with a large media company. In March, the U.N. appointed Red, the leader of the "Angry Birds" mobile game characters, as an envoy to tackle climate change. That campaign is in partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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