or: the many amazing fantasies of spider-man
Before anything else is said, it is important for this essay to offer a clear preamble, so to avoid anything becoming misconstrued. So please:
- This essay is not aiming to apologise for, to condone, or to do anything other condemn the thick dribbling degenerate racism of the commentary against the rumours of Mary Jane Watson, a traditionally white character, being portrayed on-screen by a not-white actual person.
- This essay is going to suggest that there is a spectrum of vitriol involved, that while all this negative commentary may end in a racist position, it may not begin from a racist position. It is hoped that this exploration of the psychology of the ongoing engagement with the Spider-Man property will prove interesting and not destructive.
- This essay is not going to investigate what is and what is not racist. That can prove reductive and, in the context of this conversation, damaging. Indeed: beyond this preamble, the term will not be addressed further.
- To that point, the last mention of race will be here: Spider-Man operates traditionally as a white man’s fantasy. There is a lot being done to open the property up to broader audiences – diversity in characters and audiences is ostensibly the major goal for this decade of comic books. There is resistance to evolution, as there always, but ultimately this noise will fade into brooding silence until there’s nobody left to brood.
- Finally: this essay does not aim to make excuses for the outcry and outrage. This essay aims to explore the narrative function of Mary Jane Watson, the interaction of her with the audience, and the ongoing truth that she is rarely seen as an actual character. This is a discussion of power fantasies, fetishes, agency, and the ongoing combat between the evolution of comic book narratives and their fragmented audiences.
Now look at this picture:
1. Power Fantasies, Wish Fulfilment, and the Sexual Gratification of the Social Outcast
Peter Parker was a scrawny high school kid who was bit by a radioactive spider and, as a result, overnight became super strong, super agile, and super sexy. It wasn’t long after that before the best girl in the whole school, Gwen Stacy, fell in love with him. When that relationship, um, ended, Peter Parker ended up with literally a super model who was, by design, the sexiest woman imaginable. They got married and lived happily ever after until they didn’t anymore (we’ll talk about that soon) and then Peter Parker ended up single and went on dates with Captain Marvel (alpha female of the Marvel Universe) and then he met Cindy Moon, a girl bitten by the same spider as he was, with more-or-less the same powers as he does, and anytime they see each other they literally can’t help but have sex with each other.
Peter Parker, from humble beginnings, has had a pretty spectacular sex life.
Cindy Moon also runs around wearing a skin tight made from her own spider webbing, but, um, I think that’s a different essay.
There’re a few things operating here, on a conscious level or otherwise, that all lead to a single constant piece of Spider-Man commentary: Peter Parker is relatable.
I, personally, fuckin’ love Peter Parker. The character is so important to me that it’s work breaking the tone and voice of this whole essay. I grew up on Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons and toys and books and the reason we are enjoying this glorious period of superheroes being the cinematic and cultural zeitgeist of the western world is because Sam Raimi made a Spider-Man film a reality. Spider-Man is the single most functional superhero out there and honest to God if he were never spat out onto a page by Stan Lee’s passive genius then I’m not sure comics from Marvel and DC would have gotten TO the nineties, let alone through them. Spider-Man is important and really close to all of his readers for all kinds of reasons. I really want to stress my own affections for the character, because it makes what I’m about to say a bigger deal, I hope.
Spider-Man, Peter Parker, has a great capacity for spectacular story-telling. On a really grand scale, a good Spider-Man story can say so much about people. At its core, at its best, Spider-Man is about a guy who punches other guys because the world falls apart if he doesn’t. He’s the perfect portrayal of the superhero metaphor, and it’s no accident that he’s so strongly associated with that one bloody line — and that line isn’t arbitrary. It’s the single truth that guides Marvel Comics, to a point, with every character using that piece of Parker wisdom to some extent to guide their behaviour. It was never even said and it was the throughline of the most recent Captain America film, just because Spider-Man was in it for fifteen minutes.
But, as Spider-Man has the capacity for great things, so does the property have a great capacity for some horrible, horrible things.
To break the essay a second time and bring myself back into it: I was built like Peter Parker before the spider bite (and I probably still am built that way, but it stung a lot more in high school) and I could see the appeal in becoming, suddenly, and with zero effort, desirable to women. And, let’s be honest, any male reader of Spider-Man who can’t admit to their own attraction to Peter’s many sexual partners is a very special kind of liar. Mary Jane Watson, in particular, is by design everything you want in a woman. And, if she isn’t everything you want in a woman, the character is designed to make herself what you want.
I’m not uncommon. Remember: Peter Parker is relatable. He’s an outcast who becomes a hero – who remains an outcast while he’s a hero – and he’s constantly battling the public perception of himself and his attitudes and his behaviour. Superheroing, at its worst, is a metaphor for reading superhero stories. Ironman wasn’t always the charismatic leader of a cinematic revolution, after all, he used to be little more than obscure C-Lister in the great Marvel Pantheon of heroes, known to only the select few – the nerds and the geeks – before these pieces of counter culture became the true culture.
And we need to mean that in the adolescent through to adult sense. Traditionally, these stories are for children, but the children who latch onto them and hold onto them into adulthood are typically the people who need them. We’re dealing with sweeping generalisations here, but we’re also trying to explain away the sweeping toxicity of the audience of adults, so we need to deal with sweeping terms to address sweeping behaviours.
So let’s picture the little thirteen-year-old boy who stays scrawny until he’s sixteen, while the other kids grow arms and chests. For this kid, Spider-Man is a pretty attractive concept – maybe he can get girls like that too! If only he had that sort of instant power, that sort of instant beauty. There’s a neurosis to it, almost a pathos to it.
Peter Parker at his absolute worst is an audience surrogate for lonely young people who grow up into lonely older people. Or, sometimes, older people who stop being lonely but don’t become any better for it, those odd burned people who let the worst of high school inspire their terrible ongoing behaviour… the type of person who posts nonsense on twitter about Michael B. Jordan being the Human Torch. And this is where Peter having all these wonderful girlfriends and wives and sexual partners becomes potentially toxic – because in a weird way they become the sexual partner of the reader.
We want to blame the reader for this, and it’s very easy to do this, but not every reader is savvy – or even aware of how they’re being manipulated – so while, yes, a reader might take a good Spider-Man story and take away from it these bad aspects, it doesn’t preclude the very real possibility that some stories are just bad. For instance:
Say what you want about how this story was written, and the story can give whatever excuses to Peter Parker and the narrative it wants, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s something innately insidious about taking a character wife away – without any consequence of any legal or emotional or religious kind (you know, the consequences typically associated with divorce by the masses; also, funny that the deal was brokered by literally the Devil and still managed to totally avert the religious connotations of wedding and divorce, but we digress) – literally by magic so that Pete can pursue other sexual partners.
It cannot be considered for a single second that the Spider-Man readers at this point, in vast sweeping majorities, were all of the appropriate age to be married – with or on the onset of children – and maybe reconsidering the merits of the contract. There’s a cynical beauty in an audience surrogate like Peter Parker getting away with a desirable behaviour (divorce) without any of the real-world consequences of it (you know, being divorced); it gives the reader a way to live out that action without actually suffering for it. To a point, that’s what entertainment is for but, but I think more and more we’re seeing the proof of this audience/author inserted fantasy fulfillment is toxic.
The throughline of One More Day was that it was designed by Marvel Editorial to make Peter Parker more relatable. He’d lost something in being married, something that audiences couldn’t relate to. He wasn’t Peter Parker anymore.
I really want to use this essay to burn this word forever: relatable.
Peter Parker has real humanity, but every time a concerted effort is made to make him ~more relatable~ something, or someone, gets left by the wayside. The regression of One More Day is just the most glaring example of it. But it was more than the undoing of years of Spider-Man stories, it was the devastation of a whole character, relegating a woman in a man’s story to little more than a prop that can be discarded and traded away to save a more valuable prop.
This is where we start talking about Mary Jane Watson. We understand why so many readers are so close to Spider-Man, and we’re beginning to understand why they’re so close to Mary Jane and his many other sexual and romantic partners. But it’s more than the audience surrogacy that makes audiences so protective of characters like Mary Jane Watson and the way they look and I think that comes from a place where these characters are actually little more than the way they look.
Anytime this essay is compelled to describe Mary Jane Watson, words like beautiful and gorgeous and “ostensibly the prettiest girl in the Marvel Universe” are thrown around and it becomes pretty clear that Mary Jane is designed to serve a certain function. She’s an ideal point of sexual gratification for readers, sure, but any pretty girl can fulfill the narrow narrative purpose, whatever physical attributes they possess. So why is it that there’s outcry against a girl possibly portraying Mary Jane Watson but not looking exactly like she does in the books?
This girl is still pretty, and she can still be used to show Peter Parker “batting above his weight / social class” so she can still position the audience into a point of fantasy and sexual wish-fulfillment (which is weird because this story takes place in a high school… but in case it wasn’t clear in the above section, but of the problem with the people who have a problem with this casting rumour / news is that they are still exactly who they were in high school. So there’s that.). So why the guttural knee jerk reaction? Why the outrage?
This is where I talk about me again and point out that my own instinct here is to feel a little bit disappointed that we’re not seeing a, well, first off, an adult, but also an adult who is a fully formed fully gorgeous with a body sculpted from a Greek Goddes and red hair that normal plain people just simply don’t have. I’m disappointed that the films won’t be giving me that and I can’t help but feel I’d be less disappointed if this girl was Gwen Stacy instead.
So why is that happening to me? I don’t have particularly strong feelings for the character (I’m on Team Cindy Moon personally) and race-bending is mostly a made up problem that normal and reasonable people don’t give much thought about — so why was my first response to the rumour “oh no that’s a shame”.
I think it’s all about that red hair.
I don’t think, historically, there’s a whole lot to Mary Jane Watson. I think, once there was a whole lot to her, once she started being her own character, Marvel Editorial turned her into a prop and traded her away to the devil to save Aunt May from dying. I think that story is the root of all Spider-Man’s contemporary problems – or if not the root, at the very least demonstrable of them.
Mary Jane Watson can be seen as a symptom of the overall poor treatment of female characters by comic books – and to really harness that sentence and what it means we need to look at Mary Jane Watson as exactly what she was created as; an objectified red-head fetish personified only as far as to provide a dialogue with the male protagonist.
When you look at the character as little more than walking fetish, it’s suddenly abundantly clear why there’s a pushback against the change of the things that make fetish function. In this case, take away the red hair and you’re left with a very different fetish – or ideal – and the character stops functioning for people.
This is a terrible, terrible, truth. Mary Jane Watson is the most iconic Parker girl because… because of her red hair. Hey so I guess it makes a lot of sense, right?
3. The Good News
Once I realised the flaw of the Mary Jane Watson, once I realised the root cause of my own dissatisfaction with the rumour, I was suddenly filled with hope. Spider-Man has come a long way since One More Day – it has repaired a lot of the damage, and the Peter Parker we saw in Captain America: Civil War was actually amazing. I think taking away the thing that makes Mary Jane so recognisable, where that thing is also the thing that makes her so dull and disposable, is the first step in making the girl a really good character. I think this is Homecoming’s way of telling us it’s dedicated to a good story and that it’s not interested in mining the source material for imagery — which is a really important point to make because it draws distance between what we deserve and what we’ve had before. Cas in point:
Respect for the source material is important, but so is knowing where to the draw the line. I’m hopeful.
4. Where I break my promise and use the word Racist again.
So why is there all this specifically racist outcry?
The first answer (and the easy answer) is because people are racist. And racist people are loud.
The second answer (and the complex answer) is that people become racist when they’re confronted with fears or attitudes internally, by their own selves, that they don’t understand and can’t contextualise. A lot of racism in Australia, while totally genuinely disgusting, is being exacerbated by fears of weakening economies and failing confidences in markets and employment opportunities. That is to say: things are happening in Australia that people can’t understand or rationalise, so they allow their fears of these things to force their focus toward misguided and ignorant racially charged attitudes.
fear of losing jobs -> refugees arrive -> refugees are taking our jobs
It’s all about drawing connections between unrelated issues, solving cognitive dissonances incorrectly, and then going onto the internet to spit out racist vitriol over twitter and blog comments sections and Facebook. This what I think is happening here.
Audiences have been positioned to expect a red-headed Mary Jane Watson for decades and decades and now they might not be getting one. Responding to that is perfectly understandable. But, unfortunately, the people who are really speaking out don’t have any way to contextualise their dissatisfaction without being totally racist idiots about it. Let us all condemn them because they should be condemned, but let’s do it with a teaspoon of sugar because right now Marvel isn’t blameless for their contribution to Mary Jane Watson being little more than a set of tits with red hair.