(In my ongoing politics-and-comics beat, the story that Mary Jane Watson was going to be played by a black actress, given the unfortunate history of racist fan reactions to black actors and actresses playing various comics characters, caught my eye, and I wanted to share my colleague’s thoughts on the matter. – Steve)
Aside from the fact that some black people have red hair.
Aside from the fact that red hair dye exists and lord knows an aspiring actress is probably going to care a lot about fashion
Aside from all of that, if you’ve actually read Spider-Man over the years you’ll know that Mary Jane isn’t just a redhead.
Here are some of her defining traits:
She’s outgoing, ambitious, creative, artistic. Not particularly intellectual but she’s certainly no dummy. She’s not shallow.
She’s an actress both on and off the stage often putting up a confident and carefree facade even at times when she’s full of fear and doubt.
She wishes she was as carefree as she pretends to be.
Recent canon established that she grew up poor — that’s how she ended up living with her grandma and not her parents.
All along, Marvel Comics had intended Peter to end up with Gwen Stacy, the “good girl” as his one true love. Mary Jane had just been added as a plot twist to bring Peter’s romantic plot-lines some tension. Mary Jane was written as a more independent woman and they realized that this made MJ a more interesting and dynamic character in their stories. Stan Lee said “we finally decided to let Peter end up with her, but it was … as though the characters had taken over!”
Back in the Silver Age Marvel’s characterization of the Gwen Stacy/ Mary Jane Watson / Peter Parker love triangle often veered towards a sexist Madonna/Whore complex. Gwen Stacy was the shy, studious “good girl” and MJ was the outgoing party girl.
Fans responded that way to Mary Jane too. Yes, she’s a hot redhead but they also liked her because she had a fun personality and seemed like someone you’d want to grab a drink with.
So why are certain fanboys today reducing her to the color of her hair?
Some writers haven’t actually conveyed her personality in their work. Sometimes they just write her as Peter’s dream girl with no inner life. Many artists have reduced her to her looks. Or her thong. And her trademark red hair IS legitimately iconic.
But countless writers have written her with a pretty damn consistent personality, not just in decades worth of comics but in many cartoon shows and movies.
Our sexist culture and the generally fetishistic nature of a lot of super hero art explain why certain readers don’t notice MJ’s personality even when she is well written.
So if you think that the only thing that matters about MJ is her hair you are reading the wrong comics. Or maybe you are objectifying the real women you interact with too.
Maybe do something about that?
Addendums: I haven’t read a new Spider-Man comic in years. But if Slott et all have completely erased her personality since I last picked up an issue, that would sort of prove my point. But I suspect she’s still the same old MJ fans have loved for decades.
Also, Rob Wilson tweeted me that the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series played the study-party dichotomy without making it “Madonna/whore Complex” and did an admirable job calling out Peter on his BS. That sounds like great progress.