It looks like the new Spider-Man movie finally has its female lead. Insider reports from Spider-Man: Homecoming project say Zendaya will be playing Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker’s love interest and eventual girlfriend. This is just awesome for so many reasons.
First, it’s a step forward for increased representation of people of color — particularly women of color — in Blockbuster movies. Casting Zendaya (who is biracial) in a prominent role is a huge deal at a time when non-white characters are getting whitewashed left and right, fromTilda Swinton playing a formerly Tibetan character in Doctor Strange to Scarlett Johansson as the Japanese Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.
Also, it’s still very rare to see a woman of color, especially a black woman, as part of a successful couple on screen. Zendaya’s Mary Jane will hopefully work towards changing that. The character is a primary long-term love interest rather than an exotic object for the white hero to pine over/sleep with/get betrayed by before he kicks her to the curb for a good, pure white woman. As an offbeat, independent woman outside of Peter Parker’s social circles, Mary Jane shakes up his world starting from her 1960s debut, but out of his surprisingly numerous romantic partners, she’s the one who lasts.
They date for years before getting married and having a child (well, almost; Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin secretly has Mary Jane poisoned in order to kill her baby, because comics), and even now the classic Spider-Man couple is Peter Parker + Mary Jane Watson. And soon, the cinematic face of that female comics icon is going to be a black mixed-race woman.
Of course, racists are less than thrilled, because Mary Jane is white in the comics. How dare an actress of color portray their pure white heroine? It would be like a white actor playing Martin Luther King Jr., they argue, conveniently forgetting that King was a real person and not a fictional character from a story about a man who gets bitten by a radioactive spider. They’re also curiously silent on the elderly Aunt May being de-aged by several decades so she can be played by the decidedly not elderly Marisa Tomei.
— Jonas Sulk (@AbrissErik) August 18, 2016
But screw ‘em. Mary Jane’s whiteness isn’t an integral part of her story. What’s integral is her personality: her free-thinking approach to life and her willingness to assert herself, even back in the male-dominated ’60s. Even though she may not have superpowers, she’s an icon in her own right. When Zendaya appears as Mary Jane in Spider-Man: Homecoming, it’ll make the statement that cultural icon status is for women of color, too.