Earlier this week I wrote an article on my site about the superficial critiques coming from naysayers over Zendaya’s casting in the role of Mary Jane Watson in the film Spider-Man: Homecoming. After a period of exasperating sighs and side eyes once I was done writing, I stumbled onto another article on The Root from Jason Johnson, who makes the case for why Zendaya is not the progress we are looking for. According to Johnson, Marvel’s casting of Zendaya is pandering and giving black women and people of color a false sense of progress.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Full disclosure: I know Johnson, and we tweet to each other all the time. We’ve met and hung out together at Dragon Con, a multigenre fiction gathering that takes place annually in Atlanta. He is an awesome guy, knows his comics and is one of the coolest blerds I know.
However, we don’t always see eye to eye on some issues, and this article is one of them. I know there is a large contingent of people out there who are not too fond of racebending. Racebending is when a canonical white character is replaced by a person of color. In this case, Mary Jane Watson, who has always been white, will be played by Zendaya, a black woman.
I understand that most people (and I’m one of them) want to see new original black characters. When Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, was created by Brian Michael Bendis, the character underwent a lot of criticism. There were fans of Spider-Man who only wanted Peter Parker, and there were Miles Morales fans who wanted him to be more than just a 2.0 version of a costume worn by a nerdy white kid from Queens, N.Y.
I completely empathize with wanting more for characters of color. However, Johnson’s critique can’t see the forest for the trees. To discern the big picture here, we need to understand that having a black character or character of color represented in a major Marvel property like Spider-Man is kind of a big deal. It was not so long ago that hashtags like #MarvelSoWhite and public scrutiny over Marvel’s obsession with white guys named Chris made it evident that the studio had a bit of a diversity problem.
Now let’s get back to Mary Jane Watson. Is she a superheroine? No. Is she a sidekick and just a girlfriend? No. Is she more of a prolific character in the Marvel universe than the examples used by Johnson, like Pepper Potts and Jane Foster? Absolutely!
Let’s be frank here: Most people knew who Mary Jane was long before this film was announced, and even before the live-action 2002 Sam Raimi film was released. Spider-Man is far more popular than Thor and Iron Man combined. From comics to animation to video games and merchandising, Spider-Man’s imagery and legacy are embedded in the fabric of pop culture. Basically, if you are alive and breathing, you know who Spider-Man is. As for those other Avengers? Not so much.
So Mary Jane is not going to be treated like other love interests of other superheroes. She plays a significant role in this universe, and I feel strongly that Zendaya’s casting was calculated and intentional based on the spirit of who M.J. is and not just because Marvel wants to bring in a black audience. Marvel has never had an issue with bringing in black dollars. The Avengers still holds up as one of the top-five-grossing movies of all time. Marvel has broken box-office records with each release, and needs no help bringing in more moviegoers. So the “bring in black dollars” argument is null and void.
Mary Jane is actually an integral part of Peter’s story. She’s his colleague, his girlfriend and, later, his wife. Many of Spider-Man’s run-ins with villains like Green Goblin, Venom, Mephisto and others were the catalysts behind Peter’s relationship with M.J. She is the link between Peter Parker and Spider-Man. So to refer to her as a side character diminishes who she is as well as her comic book history.
Johnson would rather see racebending occur with the superheroes themselves and gives examples like Captain America and Iron Man. I’m not certain if those characters will ever be racebent, but if they, in fact, are, you are arguing for racebending while condemning it at the same time. So what exactly is your position here?
If the concern is not seeing enough marginalized superheroes, then keep in mind that Black Panther comes out in 2018 and Captain Marvel in 2019. And yes, while we all wanted the second incarnation of Captain Marvel Monica Rambeau, who is black, to play the role, the fact that we finally have a female-led superhero film from Marvel is damn near a miracle in itself. If Marvel really wants to get innovative, I would like to see a live-action Ms. Marvel film featuring Kamala Khan come out next, along with Lunella Lafayette getting her movie adaptation from the Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur Marvel series.
Also, let’s not dismiss other black women with roles in upcoming Marvel properties. Tessa Thompson is playing Valkyrie in the next Thor film, which is a very big deal. The Dora Milaje, Black Panther’s all-female guard, will be featured in the new Black Panther film. And Simone Missick is playing Misty Knight in the upcoming Luke Cage series premiering on Netflix Sept. 30.
We have no idea what is to come from having Misty Knight finally featured in a live-action show. However, knowing what we all know about Marvel’s seamless connectivity between its TV and movie universes, if there is ever an opportunity to do a Fearless Defenders series or movie, we will have two black female defenders. That’s right. The Fearless Defenders was a book published back in 2013 that featured an all-female team with both Valkyrie and Misty Knight as its leaders.
I am a huge critic of Marvel and I’ve been very public about my opinions, but I think Marvel, slowly but surely, is trying to get it right with its diversity problems. Marvel still has a long way to go, especially with the Iron Fist and Doctor Strange castings, which have been incredibly problematic to fans within the Asian-American community.
At the end of the day, representation does matter. Black men will get to see themselves reflected through T’Challa in Black Panther, and white women will get to see themselves reflected through Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel. However, for us as black women, it is just as much of a win for us to get Misty Knight, Valkyrie and the Dora Milaje as it is to have a black Mary Jane Watson.
Jamie Broadnax is the managing editor and creator of the online community for black women called Black Girl Nerds. Broadnax has appeared on MSNBC’s The Melissa Harris-Perry Show and The Grio's Top 100. Her Twitter personality has been recognized by Shonda Rhimes as one of her favorites to follow. In her spare time she enjoys live-tweeting, reading, writing and spending time with her beagle, Brandy.