Zendaya Coleman is everything that anybody black, brown or biracial could look for in an admirable tween pop star. She’s talented; her Disney Channel show, K.C. Undercover, is a campy mashup of The Proud Family and The Famous Jett Jackson; and most importantly, Zendaya is unmistakably, irrevocably and proudly black as hell—and don’t you dare suggest otherwise.
Consequently, the announcement that she’s been cast as Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s long-term love interest, Mary Jane, in Spider-Man: Homecoming next year has given many people all sorts of excitement and feels. I am not one of them. Casting Zendaya as Mary Jane is another example of Hollywood expecting black dollars at the box office, but disrespecting black consumers and fans on the big screen.
First, let’s make it clear what we’re talking about in casting Zendaya as Mary Jane. Mary Jane Watson has been a mainstay in Spider-Man comics since the 1960s. She has always been the wild hot girl who dreamed of modeling and acting her way out of her working-class Queens, N.Y., neighborhood and dating every hot and rich guy she could along the way. While Peter always liked her, they’ve had an off-and-on relationship from dating to marriage to dating to “it’s complicated.”
Mary Jane has always been, in every incarnation of print comic, TV show and movie, a white woman. So for many, casting Zendaya in the role is great progress. And why not? Zendaya looks like Mary Jane Watson and certainly has more on-screen pizzazz than drab Kirsten Dunst did in previous movies. However, let’s not go overboard in our excitement. If Natalie Portman (Jane Foster in Thor) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts in Iron Man) are any indication, Marvel superhero girlfriend doesn’t necessarily lead to greater Hollywood screen time or an increased role in every subsequent sequel.
More importantly, Zendaya's casting is yet another sign that makers of Hollywood sci-fi fantasy action films will “racebend” a character (change a character’s race from what it was in a book, film or cartoon), slap themselves on the back for being progressive and expect black fans to be satisfied, while pretty much maintaining the status quo. Racebending is fine so long as it’s for girlfriends and sidekicks, but the movies are still white-boy fantasy adventures in which the lead remains a straight white male no matter what. And that unfortunate fact can’t be separated from the choice to cast Zendaya as Mary Jane.
There was never a doubt or even a conversation about casting anyone other than a white man as Iron Man, Thor, Captain America or the Incredible Hulk. Even though Iron Man was black in the early 1980s, the first Captain America was a black man, and Thor as a Norse God could be anybody.
This goes further than just Marvel movies. In Green Lantern, Ryan Reynolds was cast as the lead despite the fact that for most millennials, John Stewart, former U.S. sniper and architect, was the most recognizable Green Lantern. Despite literally dozens of great actors of color who could and should have played Iron Fist in the Netflix series, we’re being given the same old white guy with “Asian skills,” a modern-day Tarzan trope. Heck, the current Spider-Man in comics is Afro-Latino, but Marvel and Disney barely gave lip service to the idea of casting Miles Morales as Spider-Man over Peter Parker.
So when do we actually see racebending? When a straight-white-male lead needs an exotic girlfriend and Hollywood wants to “diversify” (i.e., grab more cash) from a minority audience. In CW's The Flash, Iris West is cast as a black woman; in Legends of Tomorrow, Hawkgirl is played by a mixed-race woman; in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok Valkyrie, a blond-locked goddess of the North is being played by very black Tessa Thompson.
Progress seems to come only in one form and on one side. This kind of casting also reinforces the equally problematic “Your princess is in another castle” attitude among white men, which trickles down to men and women of color who are consuming these films. A black woman can be a damsel in distress so long as a white man is validating her beauty and value as someone worth saving. Not an Asian man. Not a black man. Not a Latino man. And not another woman (we’ll get to the LGBT topic in a moment). Straight white men are still the ultimate arbiters of value in these films. The plot is always “White male nerd is ignored, abused or mistreated, saves the day, gets the girl: now with BLACK GIRLS!!!”™ Gay leads, women-of-color leads and men-of-color leads need not apply.
This is key because at this point I’m sure there are some glass-half-full Richonne-shipping fans out there screaming, “Hey, it’s progress; WOC are getting roles they were previously not even considered for!” and the more insidious “Why is it whenever a black woman gets ahead, some black man or woman with a think piece has to slam her progress?” To that I say, you can have two diametrically opposed feelings at once. I can support Zendaya getting work and criticize the system that limits the kind of genre work she can get. And more importantly, is it really progress for WOC, MOC and the LGBT community?
Marvel can toot its own horn about casting the female lead star for the Captain Marvel film, but there’s no black woman being looked at as the star, despite the fact that Captain Marvel was black for most of Generation X’s life. On The Flash, DC Comics can suddenly decide that Mr. Terrific, a black male superhero who has been around for decades, is gay, but in the comics and the movies, DC will double down that Wonder Woman, who basically grew up on the island of Lesbos, has eyes only for Superman? Constantine on CW can be the sexy British male lead so long as they erase his open bisexuality from the comics. The Wasp can be an Asian-American scientist in the comics for a decade, but when cast in Ant-Man, she’s back to being a white woman. Zendaya’s casting just props up more white men in power, and falls far short of a daring casting decision.
The African-American pop-culture consumer has never been more powerful than in 2016, so why be satisfied with crumbs when studios expect us to pay for a whole cake? Go out and see Zendaya in Spider-Man: Homecoming next year if you want, but tweet to Marvel that you want a Miles Morales cameo as well. Get on a message board and say you want Monica Rambeau as Captain Marvel or the female Robin to finally get on the big screen.
It took 14 Avengers/Marvel films and over a decade before a black woman got more than three lines in a Marvel movie; we’re owed more than that as consumers. Let’s not pretend that a black woman being cast as a white-male-validated crush is true progress.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.