Mary Jane, Zendaya, race bending, and representation

If you haven’t heard by the recent rumor (that is most likely true) in the Spider-Man: Homecoming casting news, well I’d assume you live under a rock. In case, that suits you, I’m going to fill you in.

Zendaya (“Shake It Up” , “KC Undercover”) is one of the cast members of Spider-Man: Homecoming.  We’ve known for a while that she had been cast in the film, and the only thing we knew about her role was that she was playing “Michele”. To me, that was a code name, because if you don’t know anything about the audition process with Marvel they will often change a characters name with a different name. I.E. Simone Missick who is playing MISTY Knight in the upcoming Netflix show, “Luke Cage”, she was given sides to read for a character named “Missy”. When Simone was cast a few of the comic book movie news sites all reported her being cast as a character named Missy which most knew that’s code.

So what iconic character from the Spider-Man comics has a name that begins with an “m”? MJ. Mary Jane Watson. And this was the news that has dropped a few days ago, that in fact, Zendaya’s “Michele” is actually Mary Jane Watson. Yes, the famous red-head that ends up winning Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s heart.

Of course there was tons of excitement/joy , when the news dropped. But unfortunately, there was and still is racists complaining about Zendaya (who is biracial) as MJ. And there’s those who like to say, they aren’t racist, but want a white woman in the role.

Yes, the character in the comics has been a white woman ever since the character debuted in the 1960s.  However, is she a character that her being  (full) white is essential to her? I don’t think so.  Having  natural red hair is also not a trait only white people have; there’s plenty of  POC that have natural red hair. And also hair dye exists. Kristen Dunst who played MJ in the first Spider-Man franchise is naturally a blonde. She either dyed her hair or had a wig on for those movies, so why can’t Zendaya do the same? She clearly is. But also, red hair on MJ isn’t her defining characteristic.

Mary Jane Watson is supposed to be that really pretty girl in high school  who’s also fierce, witty, and charming. That is what’s supposed to be her defining characteristics. She’s supposed to balance out Peter, who is yes witty and charming in his own way, but he’s a total dorky nerd.

But obviously, there’s a bigger problem that needs to be discussed. Race bending when it comes to live adaptions of comic books. Iris West on  The Flash TV show, and also now in the DCCU film is played by black women, one of whom, is biracial like Zendaya. Valkyrie is appearing in Thor 3 and is also played by a biracial actress, Tessa Thompson.

Iris West, Mary Jane Watson, and Valkyrie are all three originally white characters in the comics, but now in live action, they’re WOC. Also Heimdall (Idris Elba)  and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) are originally white characters. However, those 5 characters, don’t have anything about them that screams why they MUST stay white in live action adaptions. Other than staying true to comic book material.

However, a lot of the people who are upset with the castings of MJ, Iris West, and Valkyrie, aren’t upset about the casting of The Ancient One in the upcoming Doctor Strange movie. The Ancient One is being played by Tilda Swinton( a white woman) who in the comics is originally a Tibetan old man. Why is there a problem with MJ’s casting? But not as much of a problem with The Ancient One?

Are comic book characters only allowed to be white? Yes there are existing POC comic book characters who have remained POC in live adaptions, but still, there are way more white characters in these adaptions than POC.  As well as the actual comics; but yes we’re seeing more diverse characters showing up in the comics and films. Still, there will always be more white characters than POC in the films, shows, and comics for a while.

Erasing an originally POC character and making them white is like adding another jelly bean to a bowl that’s already filled to the rim with jelly beans, when there’s a bowl of M&M’s that isn’t even half way filled.

I can understand the argument of keeping Danny Rand/Iron Fist white because he’s one of the white characters where his whiteness is brought up in his own comics. However, I also fully understood those who wanted to see the character reimagined as an Asian-American. I was fully on board with an Asian-American Iron Fist. However, Danny is a great character and yes his whiteness is often why he has certain enemies that he has, but one has to recognize his character still does fall under the mighty whitey trope. You just have to be able to understand and recognize when a character is still problematic.

Black Panther and Luke Cage are two characters where their blackness and where they come from is essential to their characters, so erasing their blackness would diminish the characters.  Making Mary Jane, Iris West, Valkyrie, Heimdall, and Nick Fury black doesn’t take anything away from their characters. Because what makes those characters special is their personality traits and their actions, not the color of their skin.

Representation matters. Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Simone Manuel are so important. They’re black girls who are proving that black girls can be swimmers and gymnastic champions.  I know to non black people, that sounds like such a funny thing to say, but for black people it means a lot. Black people for many reasons and most historical and racist, were made to feel that swimming and gymnastics aren’t meant for them. Also ballet!  When people see people who look like them or have the same sexual orientation as them, doing amazing and wonderful things, it makes people feel empowered.

With Valkyrie being played by Tessa Thompson, so many brown and black girls will see, this beautiful WOC being a warrior and a love interest. It’s very rare that a woman of the black diaspora gets be a badass superhero warrior and also a love interest.  That is extremely important.

Iris West being played by Candice Patton and Kiersey Clemmons is extremely important to black girls just as it is important that they get to see Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Simone Manuel, Serena Williams, and Misty Copeland. Stop trying to diminish the importance of this.

I do hope that more non black POC will get to have representation as well. We do have a long way to go in representation for all groups that isn’t white straight male, but we’re getting there.