Thoughts on a 21st century Mary Jane Watson

Yesterday I was relaxing on my couch, scrolling through Twitter when I saw a tweet that said Zendaya had been cast as Mary Jane Watson in the 2017 Spider-Man movie. 

I quickly looked at a few other sites to confirm, and then I checked the overall casting thus far.

Even though I knew that this was a Peter Parker Spider-Man, Zendaya being cast sent my heart into overdrive because I had a hope that perhaps I had been mistaken and that the 2017 Spider-Man was a diverse enterprise featuring Miles Morales.

I felt my stomach drop when I confirmed that it was a Peter Parker film. 

Then I got unspeakably angry. 

This has absolutely nothing to do with Zendaya or her playing Mary Jane. In fact, I’m so excited about her being cast. My issue is that this casting, to me, is simply an example of a systemic problem of race and turning Black female bodies into currency. 

Marvel is going to get so many “Diversity Points” for casting Zendaya. However, I do not find putting a Black woman in a role that has decades of a white history of white feminism and sexism to be true diversity, when if Marvel was actually making a true attempt at diversifying, a better idea would have been to produce a Miles Morales Spider-Man. An Afro-Latino Spider-Man canonically exists in the Marvel universe, and his narrative and legacy are that of a POC. Miles Morales has a separate legacy from Peter Parker as Spider-Man, therefore he is able to be an iconic hero with an POC identity. But instead, I have to be content with a Black woman portraying a role with the weight of a white identity attached to it. 

Simply put, this is a case of ignoring narratives of POCs that already exist. This is a case of white artists wanting to “diversify” but not putting in real work to make that happen. This is a bandaid on a problem, not a solution that will help us heal.

My second issue is this: there seems to be this interesting pattern of casting Black women as the superhero girlfriends. While I am all for representation, critically speaking, this is nothing but a commercial ploy. DC announces that Kiersey Clemons will play Iris West, which gives DC a “diversity point,” but Marvel then counters with Zendaya as Mary Jane and Tessa Tompson in a role in Thor 2. This looks like a power play to prove that Marvel can continue to outmaneuver and outsell DC commercially, while strategically appealing to Black audiences. However, these industries are doing this at the expense of WOC, making their presence in movies, their physical bodies, cultural and commercial currency.

Then, as if that were not enough, this plays into the age old idea that white men can date whoever they want with no serious repercussions. Americans would rather see their precious white Spider-Man with a race-bent Mary Jane Watson over a Black Spider-Man who already exists in the Marvel Universe. And Miles, of course, can’t date anyone. 

I want better.

I want roles written for people of color, instead of sticking them in roles originally created for white characters. As much as  I love a Black Mary Jane, in addition to a Black Mary Jane, I want a Black Spider-Man movie. I want us to be truly innovative with our roles, especially in our treatment of Black women. Even some of my favorite black film makers and writers fall victim to existing tropes originally created for white women. Bianca, from Ryan Coogler’s Creed, while different enough from most renditions of Black women on screen, can be classified as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who’s purpose is to help the male protagonist think critically about his life and therefore better it. Granted, I believe Coogler does excellent work in pushing the boundaries of that classification by writing her as disabled and independent and an active pursuer of her own ambitions, but that does not take away from the fact that I see Bianca’s character as firmly rooted in the Manix Pixie Dream Girl. The same can be said of Nikia in Dope. 

I want better.

As a self-proclaimed Black Superhero Girlfriend, you best believe I LOVE these fantastic Black women getting to portray some of my favorite characters on screen. If we’re being honest, all I’ve ever wanted in life was a Black Lois Lane. But really what I want is a superhero girlfriend who is written as Black to make me feel the same way I do about Lois Lane. 

I want us to not skip over the diverse narratives that already exist in preference for shading in a white character.

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