So it was announced yesterday that singer/Disney Channel star Zendaya will play Peter Parker’s best-known love interest, Mary Jane Watson, in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Zendaya looks like this:
And Mary Jane traditionally looks like this:
…so as you might imagine, the Reddit thread in r/movies discussing this news included some strong opinions on whether or not Mary Jane’s race should be changed for the upcoming movie. Thankfully, at least so far these opinions (mostly) haven’t gone into strictly racist territory, but they do raise some questions about what’s essential to a character, and what liberties any retelling or adaptation can take.
One of the more interesting and rabid assertions I’ve seen is that, at a bare minimum, to represent the character, Zendaya will have to dye her hair red, Mary Jane’s hair color, which is of course something Kirsten Dunst did for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and sequels. (More on that later.) The argument is basically that red hair is such an iconic part of the character, it would at least be confusing to present her any other way. It would be, at least in some small way, like if someone made a Superman movie and just gave us this version of the hero without any explanation:
The point is at least understandable. Big-screen adaptations are generally supposed to use stories and versions of the characters that are core to that comic book because they’re presenting those characters and stories to a mass audience for the first time. Comic books can spin out weird offshoots and reimaginings much easier because they can assume their audience has a basic familiarity. Weird versions of established characters are fun in part because of the comparative difference, which is missing if you don’t have the baseline for how the character “should” be.
So back to hair color: IF red hair really is such an iconic trait of the character, it’s at least understandable why many people would insist that Zendaya-as-Mary Jane ought to have red hair in the movie. Though, as it’s been pointed out, not a hard problem to solve:
But what if we get a version of Mary Jane without red hair in Spider-Man: Homecoming? Can she still be a faithful rendition of the character?
What this drives us to is a debate over the impact of physical traits versus personality traits, and what characteristics can be considered superficial or at least malleable. And to start this part of the discussion off, I want to get back to the version of the character as played by Kirsten Dunst.
As has been pointed out by many people on many occasions, Dunst’s version looks superficially like Mary Jane, but often diverts from Mary Jane’s personality in the comics. Really, Dunst’s Mary Jane is some amalgam of Mary Jane and Gwen Stacy, much softer and more self-doubting than the stereotypically (or perhaps archetypically?) fiery redhead Mary Jane of the comics. Don’t forget, this is how Mary Jane’s first comics appearance goes:
Regardless of what Zendaya’s hair color ends up being in the film, this kind of bombastic confidence, a sharp contrast to the shrinking violet Peter Parker, is probably what’s most important about the character, and part of why it’s funny and a little disappointing that there’s some backlash now with this casing. We’ve seen Mary Jane on the big screen in an arguably subpar adaptation of the character, even if the character-called-Mary Jane that Kirsten Dunst played was a good character. Personality and worldview are motivating factors. They’re what make characters across genres similar to one another far more than physical appearance (although it has to be said, physical appearance can certainly influence personality and social position).
But let’s press on to one final example, one that blends both the importance of appearance and the importance of personality and illustrates why race-swapping a character sometimes can be a problem, but almost certainly isn’t in this case.
One redditor I saw, claiming that Mary Jane’s pale skin was as iconic as her hair (an argument I can’t appreciate at all, as compared to the way I respect – but don’t necessarily hold with – the argument about Mary Jane’s red hair is essential), sarcastically said something to the effect of, “Well why didn’t they just make Black Panther Asian, then?”
The response was pretty swift, and I’ll summarize it here. For the character of Black Panther, it’s essential to his personality, motivations, and backstory that he’s the hereditary heir to an African kingdom. Just like the character of Batman would invariably be different if he weren’t rich or if his parents weren’t murdered, Black Panther needs to be an owner-in-part of the African continent and all of the racial, national, and imperialistic tensions that go along with that identity. Skin color is in one sense superficial, but it connects to sociopolitical issues which inform and build the character.
So back to Mary Jane. She’s a New Yorker. She’s outgoing and confident. And yes, there are some social connotations that having red hair carry, in part because Mary Jane has pushed the cultural archetype of the fiery redhead since she leapt onto the pages of Spider-Man’s comic books.
And that’s probably where this entire debate gets most interesting, because there are some meaningfully different social connotations between a white woman who has natural (or reasonably realistic) red hair, and a black woman who has red hair that’s obviously not a natural color. And it raises the question: Does a black version of Mary Jane need to have red hair? Or does it actually impede a faithful expression of the comic book character?
I’m not here to answer that question. I’m just here to say that the entire debate, once removed from racism, actually prompts some great discussions about what liberties are granted when adapting a character and what ought to be considered essential.