Zendaya as Mary Jane Is A Big Screen Story We Don’t Get Often Enough
Sitting down to write about Zendaya’s casting as Mary Jane Watson, I actually thought it would be simple. I settled down with a notebook full of facts and told myself that with it my words would crush all the angry fans and turn away the naysayers; I ended up hitting backspace more times than I ever have before. But that was then. I’ve quite literally kicked away the notebook and closed all my browser tabs to acknowledge something: it’s not about the facts, it’s about the story.
The anger about the change in Mary Jane’s appearance has nothing to do with facts, numbers, or statistics, because at the end of the day that’s not why people love comic books and movies. The truth is, it is and always has been the story that draws us into different worlds. Pieces of my story have been explored and brought to the big screen, but black women are told with every box office blowout that we don’t belong there unless we play a stereotype, a sidekick, or a prop. But classic and time honored characters? No way!
Argument after argument against the casting has been formed on the basis that the character has been the same way for fifty years. Well, who cares? Do you really think that things should stay the same for fifty years? Before you answer, be sure to remember that interracial marriage wasn’t allowed in 1967. The amount of time that something arbitrary or wrong has existed does not change its worth. Mary Jane being white is in no way crucial to her character. If you really want everything to be the same, that’s probably because your story has been told countless times, and you’re experiencing a change that you didn’t expect. White voices aren’t the only ones being heard anymore. The center of the discontent around Zendaya is that things are getting better for women of color; what’s overlooked is that this doesn’t mean it’s getting worse for others.
A black woman playing Mary Jane is beyond important, and it’s the stories of real people that prove that. Like the story of a girl who loves to write any chance she gets. She dives into comic books with zeal and pure joy. Every letter, every panel, the tiniest details from the cover to the final page are a breath of fresh air, but nothing new. Nothing that looks like her, save for a few characters far enough from the spotlight to be allowed. She clings to her Storms and her Misty Knights, because they are glowing pools in an unnecessary drought. She has been told that white is the default and she is the other.
That girl is me.
The next story is that of outrage. The mantle of Iron Man is being taken over by Riri Williams, a fifteen year old genius, who happens to be a black girl. The initial glee was stolen by the realization that this story would come from Brian Michael Bendis, a 49-year-old writer who happens to be a white man.
The outcry was so quick because it seemed that even if our stories could be told, we couldn’t be the ones to tell them. It was quickly pointed out that a black woman had never written for Marvel in all of their 77 years. The outrage led to progress that should have come a long time ago: Roxane Gay was hired to write for Marvel Comics. Commenting on her new position she tweeted, “It doesn’t make sense that I am the first, in 2016. But I won’t be the last.”
The last is a story of fame. A teenage star applauded for her beauty and talent, but more often berated and attacked. She was accused of not being black enough due to her mixed parentage. Those same parents were then criticized for their looks. Day after day insensitive comments are thrown at her for reasons from her hairstyle to the color of her skin, and she handles it all with grace and poise; she takes a stand regardless of the hate that’s bound to come, and she accepts the roles that might not be too happily accepted, like the role of Mary Jane Watson. Her name is Zendaya Coleman.
All of these stories are important, all of them should be told. So let’s tell them and embrace them. On July 17, 2017, Spider-Man: Homecoming will debut and Watson will be played by Zendaya Coleman, so, to paraphrase the famous Mary Jane quote, “Face it tiger, we all just hit the jackpot!”