“Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot.”
Those are the famous words spoken by Mary Jane Watson the first time Peter Parker ever meets her. Previously, she had been a running joke in the Amazing Spider-Man comic series, occasionally glimpsed from behind or otherwise obscured, but never full-on. Peter’s Aunt May spent many a strip trying to set him up with Mary Jane, and he always managed to wiggle out of it, assuming if May liked the girl, he wouldn’t be attracted to her. But when they finally meet, Mary Jane – MJ to her friends – is a smoking hot green-eyed redhead, tall and curvy and long-legged, with a confident party-girl personality.
She’s hot, and she likes to have fun. She’s the jackpot.
But it’s not quite a smooth ride for MJ and Peter’s relationship from there. Despite her being the iconic love interest of Spider-Man for fifty years now, MJ and Peter were originally part of one of comic’s’ most famous love triangles, with Gwen Stacy forming the third point.
Here’s the breakdown of what Peter had to decide between: both women were startlingly beautiful, but Gwen was steady, reliable, and incredibly intelligent – she and super-genius Peter connected on an intellectual level. Mary Jane was vivacious, confident, fun-loving and passionate. Peter couldn’t decide between the two of them.
Ultimately the decision was made for him when Gwen was killed by the Green Goblin, but you see the problem with the dichotomy being laid out between the two characters regardless, right?
It’s not Peter feeling like he needs to make a choice. Of course he does – he can’t keep stringing these two women along. It’s not even that there are two different personalities at play here – girls can be smart or strong or silly or confident or self-sufficient or stupid all at once, or one at a time, and none of those attributes take away from the fact that they’re humans worthy of respect and kindness.
No, the problem is the reason Mary Jane is the jackpot, the reason, I suspect, that she has continued to be held up as the “ultimate girlfriend” in both more harmless fan environments and the kind of nerd circles that have pinups of fictional characters on their walls and a worrying lack of regard for the humanity of real women.
MJ’s gorgeous, and she’s characterized by not much else. For a good long while, even as her character does develop and she becomes a much more three-dimensional being with hurts and secrets of her own, she’s a famous model, and occasionally a famous actress. She’s defined almost entirely by how she looks.
That’s a characterization that has spread outside of the range of comic readers, too. Ask the person you know who knows the least about comics or superheroes who Spider-Man’s girlfriend is, and you’ll probably get an answer like, “Mary Jane, right? The beautiful redhead.”
Again, the problem isn’t that MJ is beautiful. Women can be beautiful or shallow or care about absolutely nothing but their physical appearance without their value as humans being diminished. Nor is it that people know that she’s a redhead – striking features are easy to remember, and the last subject of this column is also famous for the colour of her hair. No, the problem is that all MJ is known for is her beauty, her sexual appeal.
The problem is that, a lot of the time, Mary Jane Watson seems to exist entirely for Peter Parker, and not as a character in her own right.
Take this infamous (and infamously stupid) cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #601 from 2009: MJ is contorted into a painfully impossible pose, all the better to show off her curves (at the time this comic came out, there was a hilarious selfie-trend of people, male and female, who looked at this picture and went what the hell, and dealt with it by attempting to bend themselves into the same position. Spoiler alert: no one could).
She’s staring out the window sadly as Spider-Man swings away. Everything around her, aside from a couple “girly” magazines to emphasize her preoccupation with appearance, is dedicated to Peter. A massive portrait of the two of them hangs over her head. A copy of The Daily Bugle with a Spider-Man headline lies on the coffee table. She – a fully grown woman who is dating if not married to Spider-Man – is wearing a Spider-Man t-shirt, one so low-cut and stretched by her improbably breasts that Spider-Man’s face is shaped, quite frankly, like a butt.
All that matters to this Mary Jane is Peter Parker and his alter-ego. Her life revolves entirely around him. She wears his symbol which seems uncomfortably proprietary to me regardless of which person in their relationship bought the shirt. We are given no hint of MJ as a character with a life of her own.
As a teenager – an awkward, badly-dressed teenager who never wore makeup and prided herself (if she ever felt proud at all) on her intelligence and the things she read, and who would turn around and walk the other direction if she noticed her crush in the school hallways (as a teenager who saw something of herself in geeky Peter Parker, in other words) – reading back through the comics and realizing this hurt. It hurt to see this character I loved shrink back into being not much more than arm candy, and it hurt that she was portrayed as such for a character that I liked to believe knew better than that when it came to women.
Spider-Man has always been my favourite superhero, since the 1994 cartoon series aired at the exact right time in my childhood for me to imprint on it. I like to believe that Peter Parker is good, is better, all the way down to his heart, not just when he’s in the spandex suit.
Of course, some of this hurt is just the same crap on a different day of life as a female geek. As so many explosions of violent misogyny online have shown us in the last five years alone, it still fucking sucks to be a female comics reader. The kind of men who lead Gamergate and who think that a diverse selection of books at the Hugo Awards is a direct attack on their boring and mediocre existence are the same kind of men who think that Squirrel Girl simply existing somehow undermines their tepid virility and non-existent alpha status. This kind of violently vocal readership goes a long way towards explaining why Mary Jane is so persistently objectified, as does the realization that these men aren’t just readers – after the “Nazi Captain America” clusterfuck of awfulness, I don’t think it will surprise anyone to hear that a lot of them hold some very prominent positions at Marvel.
But it wasn’t just the standard, grinding hurt of layers upon layers of nonrepresentation that hurt me as I worked my way back through the Spider-Man comics. It was a sharper hurt of having had that representation, only to get it yanked away from me.
Because the MJ of Spider-Man: the Animated Series was a rounded character. She made decisions on her own. She could take care of herself. She had motivations and goals and interests. Of course, the final season revealed that she was also a clone, but it didn’t really matter to me. What did matter was that, at eight or nine years old, I thought MJ was the coolest. I wanted to be like her when I grew up – not beautiful, but smart, and tough, and confident.
Reading the comics was like having a rug pulled out from under me, except that rug was a childhood hero. The Spider-Man films with Tobey Maguire didn’t help much, even if Kirsten Dunst went on the record as saying she was sick of MJ always being the damsel in distress. The Amazing Spider-Man films went with Gwen Stacy instead of MJ as Peter’s big love interest, and as much as I resented this choice at first, the fact is that the character that Emma Stone portrays, and the way she was written, is a lot more admirable than most of the representations of MJ I’ve been discussing here. Gwen Stacy is smart. Gwen Stacy has big dreams for herself. Gwen Stacy isn’t going to let her arachnid boyfriend get in the way of Oxford or anything else.
Gwen Stacy still, in the end, exists only to further develop Peter Parker’s character development. Gwen Stacy dies.
There it is again, all the fun of being a female with nerdy interests in this world. But the thing is, even if the rug got tugged out from underneath me, at least it had existed at all. At least the boom of fairly progressive and diverse cartoons in the nineties extended to me. At least there are storylines where MJ leaves Peter to focus on herself, or saves him from the villain, or – most recently – works as Tony Stark’s personal assistant, a position gained through her own competence.
Because being a female comics geek is nothing compared to being a comics geek of colour.
Sure, last year there seemed to be a brief surge towards correcting the white and racist sea of the Marvel Universe – Ms Marvel by G. Willow Wilson was still going strong, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay were announced as heading two new Wakandan-focused comic runs, Gabby Rivera became the first LGBTQ latina writer to helm a Marvel series with her America Chavez comic – but a good year isn’t much after decades of erasure. Nevermind the fact that these steps forward happened at the same time that the aforementioned horrorshow of “Captain America is actually a Nazi (well, Hydra, but he’s a Nazi)” was going down.
Superheroes and their mediums are supposed to show us the best of ourselves. Across the DC-Marvel divide, superheroes and the comics they’re in were first invented in times of distress in order to create hope. Superman can do great things but what matters is that he chooses to do them; what matters is that he’s kind. Captain America being made a Nazi is capital-B Bad not just for its reliance on shock-factor to make up for shoddy, lazy writing, but because he was originally created by a Jewish man while the Holocaust was happening to fight Nazis, to show that they could and should be fought. Spider-Man’s famous motto is “with great power comes great responsibility” not because it’s his powers that are important, but what he does with them.
All too often, comics-media creators either forget their own responsibility, or they just don’t care.
That’s why I and so many others were so excited when the rumour that Zendaya had been cast to play Mary Jane Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming starting. Despite Zendaya herself denying it, I still went into the cinema hoping she was just trying to throw us off the scent. And I came out more disappointed than I thought I would be that she’d been telling the truth.
Don’t get me wrong: I actually think Spider-Man: Homecoming is the best live-action Spider-Man film that’s been made. It’s funny and it’s full of heart, and even though Avengers: Civil War was a mess of a film, the brief appearance of Tom Holland made it clear even then that he understood the heart of his character (“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen, they happen because of you.”). He carries that understanding over into his own film, and imbues it with energy and earnestness, and I feel almost unbearably tender towards his depiction of a young Peter Parker.
Homecoming is also the first Spider-Man film to even sort of look like it’s happening in New York City; the main cast and the background characters alike are noticeably more diverse than in any other superhero movie we’ve seen lately. Both Peter’s crush, Liz Allan, and the MJ of the film are played by black girls, and Peter’s best friend, Ned, is Filipino.
The film’s not perfect, of course: I remain uncomfortable with the stereotype of a small-time criminal that Donald Glover plays even as his performance problematizes it somewhat, and, probably even worse, I also remain unconvinced that Liz wasn’t cast as a black girl to make it slightly less obvious that Michael Keaton’s character is her father. But it does a lot better than we’ve ever seen.
Also, the film gives us Zendaya’s Michelle, my favourite depiction of a teenage girl that I’ve seen in years. Michelle is smart but arty, an outsider at her preppy, science-based, super-achiever high school. She wears Sylvia Plath shirts and combat boots, and reads Of Human Bondage in gym class, and declines a trip up the Washington Monument because it was built with slave labour. She pretends to be cynical and unaffected by everything, but there are tiny moments – as much to do with Zendaya’s acting as with anything in the script – where the mask slips and we see that she’s a teenage girl who’s as scared and full of feelings as any teenager, and that she deals with them by building a wall around herself.
She is, in other words, utterly realistic, and not at all what a girl is “supposed” to be in this genre. She doesn’t exist for anyone but herself.
There are also several cinematic hints – her proximity when Peter and Ned are discussing Peter’s alter-ego; the way she notices Peter’s absences and withdrawal into himself – that Michelle knows that Peter is Spider-Man. So many things, from this likely knowledge, to her constant presence near Peter and Ned despite her protestation that they’re “losers,” to her slow softening towards others over the course of the film, are setting her up to be Peter’s perfect romantic interest in further instalments. This set-up delights and worries me in equal measure.
Because the Marvel team are a bunch of unimaginative cowards. At the end of Homecoming, Michelle tells the academic decathlon team that, “my friends call me MJ.” This could be a moment of revealing a completely new MJ into this new Spider-Man universe, but the film’s creators have all gone on record, after the film’s release, denying that Zendaya’s character is meant to carry on the fifty-year run of Peter Parker’s greatest love. Which, on its own, is not such a big deal: Michelle, like I said, is a great character.
What worries me is the likely motivations of this line being drawn in the sand. There was a huge outcry when Zendaya was first cast, with people insisting they “weren’t being racist,” but Zendaya wasn’t right to play Mary Jane because Mary Jane is a redhead, and Zendaya is, well, black. Yet again, I wonder what people think the word “racist” means, but I digress. I worry that Marvel is catering to the people who raised this outcry. I worry that Zendaya isn’t playing Mary Jane Watson not because Homecoming’s creators decided they wanted a completely new character, but because they also think that Zendaya can’t play Peter Parker’s soulmate – and that they think the type of character Zendaya does play, the prickly, guarded Michelle, also can’t step into that role of soulmate.
What worries me is the likelihood that Marvel, staffed as it is by the kind of white men who think Nazis are “edgy,” are going to completely ruin the breath of fresh are that is Michelle Jones.
Zendaya’s MJ wears famous women poets on her t-shirts, not Spider-Man. She brings a book along on school field trips. She does what she wants, and to make her exist entirely for a male character would change the very base of her own character entirely.
I hope the sequel to Homecoming will keep Michelle as she is whether or not she becomes Peter’s romantic interest, and I hope that our hapless superhero does develop a crush on her. Because unlike so many portrayals of MJ, unlike the Liz Allan of Homecoming, unlike even Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy, Michelle isn’t the perfect girl for the boy hero. She’s not going to wait around for him as he swings off, she’s going to get to work on her own stuff. She might not be the hero, but she’ll still be a character in her own right. •
Jacqui Deighton still considers London, England “home”, but currently lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is pretty okay with that. Her writing has appeared in One Week / One Band, Goblin Fruit and elsewhere, as well as winning some awards. She likes lip gloss, stompy boots, and cephalopods. Probably she was Remus Lupin in a past life.
Jacqui is a Shakespeare and Punk staff writer. GIRLisms, a column about girls and the worlds they hold inside themselves, is her brainchild.