“What Race Is a Spider’s Girlfriend? Comic Book Movies, Race, Gender, and Casting”


It’s become a recurring and sad media ritual: a casting announcement is made about an upcoming big budget franchise movie; various internet trolls respond indignantly with varying degrees of mockness about how supposedly “controversial” the casting is, usually in terms of race; and bingo, we have more material for the Facebook “Trending” column. The latest incident involves Spider-Man: Homecoming, the latest (third!) and, as The Onion AV Club puts it, “Avengers-friendly” reboot of the venerable Marvel comics character. It’s the news that (maybe) the role of Mary Jane Watson, the long time ambiguously requited love interest of Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, will/could be played by Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman, the 20-year old Disney star and pop singer.

On the face of it, this news seems pretty unsurprising. A major comic book franchise aimed at a youth market casts a popular young performer in a major role? The role of a young woman is to be played by . . . a young woman! The controversy, if we want to call it that, is Zendaya’s racial identity. She proudly and openly identifies as a young black woman, which again should be not surprising (many, many people also identify as young black women). But in a situation similar to the casting of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I and II (which I covered earlier this year in “‘But Hermione Isn’t Black! Is She?’ What Race and Casting Are Really About”), a Twitter skirmish broke out about the appropriateness of casting a “non-white”—and to some, non-“redhead” (more about that designation later)—actor as Mary Jane (if that is indeed who she is portraying—more about that as well later), a completely imaginary character who has existed mainly as a series of pen and ink drawings since first appearing fifty years ago in Amazing Spider-Man.

Mary Jane Watson as she "really" looks.
Mary Jane Watson as she “really” looks.
Or is this how she "really" looks?
Or is this how she “really” looks?

A quick glance at a sampling of the tweets condemning the possible casting decision suggest they are not really worth arguing with, since many seem to be using racial (and racist) provocations as a way of getting attention. But would that they were or could be seen as similarly ridiculous by major media companies.  One of the reasons for the uncertainty over exactly what role Zendaya would be playing in Spider-Man: Homecoming had to do with the typical PR-generating atmosphere of maintaining top-secret level security regarding information about the production. Top secret, that is, except for strategic “leaks” of information meant to whip up interest in the movie’s fan base. But as The Onion also reasonably speculates, news that Zendaya was (may be? could be?) playing Mary Jane could also have been a trial balloon from the production company to see what fan reaction is to this potentially “risky” decision.

That this casting could be seen as “risky” is ridiculous—as are claims that Hollywood “political correctness” lies behind the decision to have Zendaya play the role of Mary Jane Watson. As always, it’s financial correctness that has the most impact on any casting decision in a production this big—in this case, a studio wanting to take advantage of the popularity of a young media star to bring attention and potentially new audiences to yet another rebooted franchise. Ask people in the casting industry and you will hear just how risk averse major productions are, and just how often “risk” translates into any casting choice or role description that strays outside of the most tired and stereotyped constructions of race, gender, age, sexuality . . .  pick your own favorite demographic variable. The web site Cast and Loose documents example after example of casting notices that like this one, followed by the poster’s wry hashtag commentary:


The comment #ThingsOnlyBrownHairedPeopleCanPlay helps bring our attention to a qualifying descriptor—“Brown hair”—we might easily miss. But really, why does this character have to have “brown hair”? Why is this such a crucial component of someone who “Hates conflict and would rather blend into the scenery than talk to anyone”? And in case you think Cast and Loose is nitpicking here, the sheer volume of casting notices that routinely describe characters in terms of race, hair color, and other bodily attributes just as a matter of course, even for the most generic of roles, shows how just ingrained this thinking is.

Take this casting notice, for example, looking for babies:


As the heading commentary to this notice along with the selectively bolded text implicitly asks, why do the mother and baby have to be white (the notice itself uses the pseudo-scientific sounding euphemism “Caucasian”)? The explanations that leap to mind aren’t flattering: this is for a country music video, and country music fans want white babies; the song is based on the sisters of the singers, so the actors have to look like the sisters. But the notice doesn’t say the song is about how special the singers’ sisters’ babies are, but how special babies are. (Especially babies with blue eyes?) “But if they don’t use a white baby, then the video will be about race!” And there we come back to a core problem: the equation of “whiteness” with “faceless.”

Except, to go back to the earlier example, if the “white” person is a redhead! Or has brown hair! Hair color and texture forms its own weird quasi-racial code system, hair color meaning more than just, well, a color. The “brown hair” character above is “kind and very quiet. Hates conflict and would rather blend into the scenery than talk to anyone. A bit forgettable.” That’s certainly not a red head! Or, in the contemporary UK-inspired parlance, a “ginger.” A ginger like Mary Jane Watson. Who started as . . .  a drawing. And, as you’ve probably already thought of, and as the multi-billion dollar hair care industry will point out, hair color is mutable. Brown today, red tomorrow. Hair itself, or course, is equally replaceable; the use of wigs and skin caps is pervasive in movies and TV. So the designation of hair color in any casting notice is potentially beside the point, especially if the production features hair and make-up professionals.

In my earlier post about Hermione Granger, I made the obvious yet still underappreciated point that fictional characters are, in fact, fictional—make believe—and that all acting involves one person pretending to be another person, and watching acting—or reading novels and comic books—also involves an act of imagination that allows us to become emotionally invested in that make believe, as if that make believe were “real.” One of the reasons we can do this is that in fact what we think of as “real”—our perceptions of race, gender, ethnicity, class—are also imaginary, which doesn’t mean that they don’t matter or aren’t connected to economic and material reality—unequal distributions of power and resources are undeniably real—but that the categories themselves are all human inventions.

Race and gender are representation systems, as are comic books, as are novels. All major cultural information systems—like movies and TV—are representation systems, systems that both reinforce but also by their status as “fiction” make us aware of how unstable these systems are. Those casting notices featured on Cast and Loose are perfect example, reflecting how automatically productions of various kinds fall back on tired old stereotypes. But all it takes is a web site to call our attention to these notices—with a little bit of sarcasm added—to make us realize how arbitrary these demographic descriptors are.

In the end, we kind of all know this already.


Consider the response to the casting of Zendaya as Mary Jane, and then consider how little comment was made during the first two reboots of the Spider-Man franchise over the ages of the actors cast in the role of the high school student Peter Parker.


Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven—twenty-seven—when he first portrayed the too-young-to-vote-and-drink Peter Parker, and Andrew Garfield was even older—twenty-nine—when he took over.


There was, in fact, some notice taken when Tom Holland was cast for this third go-round. At twenty-one, he’s the closest yet to an actual teen-aged Peter Parker.







But here’s the thing. These age differences—even when we notice them—still don’t prevent us from engaging with the story. In fact, casting twenty-something as teenagers is so commonplace on movies and TV that it’s actually kind of startling when, say, the then fourteen-year-old John Francis Daley was cast as the also fourteen-year-old (make believe) character of Sam Weir on the cult classic TV series Freaks and Geeks.

14 year old John Frances Daley with the 24 year old Linda Cardellini as his big sister--and fellow high school student
14 year old John Frances Daley with the 24 year old Linda Cardellini as his big sister–and fellow high school student

So Zendaya can become Mary Jane Watson simply by casting Zendaya as Mary Jane Watson. In fact, I’ll end with an even more “daring” claim: we could cast Zendaya as Spider-Man and Tom Holland as Mary Jane Watson, and through the miracle of acting it would also work. After all, both Zendaya and Holland would be actual human beings portraying other human beings. As Aziz Ansari has pointed out, in animated movies we can easily identify with talking bugs and fish. How hard could Spider-Man be?