Mary Jane Watson, the colleague and girlfriend of Peter Parker, is more than just her hair color. Frankly, anyone who argues for the fact that her hair color is relevant to the story and her appearance should remain canon, is not only a hypocrite and quite possibly racist; but they have not spent one iota of a second picking up a Spider-Man book or have completely glossed over who and what Mary Jane represents in the Spider-Man and Marvel universes.
So let’s begin a little bit about Mary Jane’s origin story shall we? MJ meets Peter Parker back in the 1966 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. She is a green-eyed red-haired girl who immediately lets Peter know he’s won the jackpot. She’s a fireball the minute that we see her on the page and it is foreshadowing of things to come of who this woman really is to Spidey. Mary Jane, unlike Lois Lane and perhaps other love interests of superheroes; had her own agency and didn’t like to be tied down in a relationship. MJ is a free-spirited kind of girl. In issue #183 of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter proposes to MJ and she rescinds his proposal. Mary Jane was interested in dating more guys and being free to find them. This personality quirk of Mary Jane, is a significant and an important part of who she is. She wasn’t just someone who was the apple of Peter’s eye.
Many of the fanboys and critics on social media desperately making a case for why Mary Jane should be white focus on one thing.
Her hair color. Her green eyes. Her freckles.
Okay. Aside from how this character looks, since it’s pretty clear the backlash is scrutinizing her physical appearance, is this question. Is there anything pertinent to having red hair, green eyes, and freckles that would take away or erase any of MJ’s idiosyncrasies? Her carefree attitude towards men and relationships? Her willingness to get out of a relationship with Harry Osborn because she noticed his mental instability and got out while she could? Outside of relationships, what about MJ’s skills? Mary Jane Watson is an accomplished and professional actress, dancer, and model.
Guess what? So is Zendaya.
The one thing about this casting that is different from previous live-action iterations of Mary Jane, is that Zendaya playing her is in fact encompassing of canon comic book MJ. If we look back at previous actresses who have played her, none of them were the triple threat that Zendaya in fact is. Also it debunks the argument about hair color, since every actress who has played her (in live-action), was never a true redhead.
Live action Mary Jane Watson doesn’t go back as far as Spider-Man himself. The first time we saw a live action Spider-Man was in the Super Spidey Stories hosted by The Electric Company. Spider-Man was featured in various skits and only communicated by cartoon speaking bubbles on screen. The Electric Company was a children’s program in the early 70s best known for helping with kids with their reading comprehensive skills. In 1978, Marvel licensed out Spider-Man to Tokusatsu television series produced by Toei Company. The Japanese live-action show deviated from the comics and renamed many of the canon comic book characters. Our first live-action Mary Jane was portrayed by Japanese actress Rika Miura.
She was the girlfriend of Takuya Yamashiro (who is Peter Parker) and plays the role of a newspaper photographer. The next time we see Mary Jane is in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man released in 2002. The most notably known incarnation of Mary Jane is played by blonde-haired blue-eyed actress Kirsten Dunst.
In the 2012 film, The Amazing Spider-Man, red-haired actress Elena Satine (who does in fact look like comic book MJ) campaigned heavily for the role, before producers decided to feature the love story arc between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. In the film, Gwen Stacy is played by actress Emma Stone. Although she usually wears her hair with an auburn tone, Stone is a born blonde. By fanboy-physical appearance-comic book accuracy-logic, seems it would have made sense to cast Dunst as Stacy and Stone as Watson.
Actress Shailene Woodley was cast to play the role of Mary Jane Watson in the 2014 Amazing Spider-Man sequel. However, due to the writers wanting to focus more on Gwen and Peter’s story, all of her scenes were cut out. Here’s an interesting factoid about Woodley. She is multiracial. Her maternal grandfather had African-American ancestry, and Shailene’s maternal grandmother has Louisiana Creole (including African, French, Spanish, and German). One could easily argue, well we all have multi-ethnic ancestry in our family history, so what’s the big deal? Woodley clearly looks Caucasian so why should we care?
Because let’s cut through the BS and get to what this conversation is really about. It’s about the fact that Zendaya, a Black woman, is playing the role of Mary Jane Watson and that a contingent of people are angry and unaccepting of seeing a Black woman play this character. They would rather have MJ read as white in a live-action role (or look as white as can be) then to focus on her character and MJ’s character development as a whole. It should be more important to these alleged fans who care so much about the accurate portrayal of Mary Jane Watson; to be concerned more how she is depicted in this story and that it aligns with her personality, her skills, her desires, and completely embody the character as it was originally written, than her mere physicality.
So let’s call this what it is. Your critique is that Mary Jane Watson is Black and NOT because of her hair color. Besides, if this is something that is such a concern for comic book fans, then where is the outrage over a brown haired Grant Gustin and Ezra Miller playing the blonde haired Barry Allen? Or when Chris Evans played Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies? Or blonde-haired Val Kilmer playing the brunette Dark Knight Bruce Wayne? If we want to get into more problematic redheads we can also bring up Famke Janssen and Scarlett Johansson who were not born with red hair and look nothing like their comic book character counterparts.
If you don’t think Zendaya is right for the role, because of her acting skills then say that, but to everyone out there making this an issue about hair coloring and eyes and matching freckles, then please stop talking. Your racism is showing.