The internet has been an uproar since yesterday and the announcement that, young black actress, Zendaya would be playing the role of Mary Jane-Watson in the upcoming Marvel Cinematic Universe film Spiderman: Homecoming. In some cases the revelation was met with praise, and in others... not so much. “How can they take my white redhead supermodel and turn her into a… a black girl!? That’s not Mary Jane! She can’t be Mary Jane, she doesn’t have red hair! Black people can’t have red hair!” Yes, some of these quotes are verbatim.
The first thing I want to address to my fellow die hard comic nerds, is this dutiful loyalty to the elusive “canon.” You gotta let it go. These movies aren’t canon and while they need to draw from the source material heavily to be successful and representative, we aren’t looking for panel-to-screen carbon copies. That would be boring, uneventful, and in some cases just a bad decision all together. Not to mention these characters were created in what, the 60’s 70’s? What skin color dominated then even moreso than now? Right.
Alternate dimension representation of characters happen all the time. Why should it matter now since it’s Mary Jane? You weren’t mad when Gwen Stacy showed up in college instead of high school. You weren’t mad when a white woman was cast in Ghost in a Shell. Also, if you know anything about the different earths (such as the default Earth-616, or the Ultimate Earth-1610, prior to Secret Wars) you’ll be glad to know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the right to do pretty much whatever it wants, as it has been dubbed the title number Earth-199999.
Let me list some of Mary Jane’s character essentials. Mary Jane is extremely attractive. I don’t mean in the sense of “she’s a comic book comic character and they are all drawn with the counters of a goddess” attractive. I mean Mary Jane throughout High School, College, and beyond was always the “Most Attractive” superlative, and went on to become a Supermodel as a result. Mary Jane is also a D-list actress who never quite hits her stride, often traveling between New York and L.A. with a fitful uncertainty of exactly what she wants to do with her life. Mary Jane loves Peter Parker. Even when she doesn’t know that she does, she definitely does. What is not essential to Mary Jane’s character is race. Nothing about being white defines her, whatsoever. I like white Mary Jane too. And she’s still in the comics. I think I’ll also like black Mary Jane, as long as she nails her role. Besides, Dan Slott, Marvel’s definitive “Spider-Man” writer of the last 10 years or so, said it himself.
Heroes & great characters come in every color
& they are for EVERYONE.
There's nothing about Peter Parker or Mary Jane
that HAS to be white.
— Dan Slott (@DanSlott) August 19, 2016
I’ve also run across this idea, from a few users on twitter saying that the character was senselessly “Black washed.” That’s not possible. You cannot black wash, or “any-other-race-than-white-wash” a character. I’ve answered this before, but I’ll be brief. In comics, white characters have been the default representation of characters, period. Other marginalized races have struggled to make it on the page and to the center of the spotlight, and to take any of those characters and make them white, would be basically “defaulting” them and taking a fat one on that character’s representation of that particular race, whatever it may be. So no it is not racist to make Mary Jane black, but it would definitely be racist to make a character like Storm or Arana (Spider-Girl), white.
Finally, this last point about black women not being able to have red hair or not “looking right”, first of all is a racist comment, and secondly, isn’t true. Black women can pull of any hair color, and have done so naturally, and with color dyes, and look beautiful while doing it. If you don’t think so, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.
At the end of the day, I’m happy about the casting decision. After decades of marginalization, black people and other races are starting to see more representation. I don’t know if a light switch turned on or the checks started adding zeroes with the addition of more black characters, but there has definitely been some recent noteworthy changes in reference to diversity. To some extent this Mary Jane decision does seem to feel a little like pandering, due to the huge “Keep Iris Black” campaign after Candice Patton’s portrayal on the CW series, and the character’s advent on the big screen, but is it really pandering or more just odd to finally see these changes happening? Diversity is happening people. Let it. We need this.