Today, histrionic arguments about representation, feminism and righteousness are happening all around the globe: perhaps now so more than ever, with the ‘Gamergate’ video game issue playing out and Anita Sarkeesian receiving death threats for her ‘Feminist Frequency’ series.
Recently I found myself in my dormitory in Beijing, watching Spiderman 2 with a friend and taking note of one particular character: Mary Jane.
The character, played by Kirsten Dunst, was fiery haired, empathetic as could be, wistful, beautiful and softly spoken. It’s hard not to be taken by Dunst’s portrayal of the now famous comic book girlfriend.
Mary Jane appears at the best of times to provide the movie’s viewers with a spear of hope. She’s whimsical, beautiful (of course, how could she not be?) and has some complex interests: acting and the arts, for example. She’s the kind of girl I thought I wanted to be. I wanted to be feminine – I wanted to be, well, wanted. I wanted to be someone’s Dream Girl. Mary Jane is a likeable character, yes, but she is exactly what I expected. She was what I expected when I saw the film at the age of 13.
I realised that had Doc Ock and Spiderman been on screen this year, this movie would have been panned for these exact things. The audiences would have torn it apart.
So … how far have we come? Has consumer demand and criticism made any impact on the way film-makers address their characters?
Representation is important. There are multiple studies that confirm that the kind of people we see on screens affect us deeply, influencing the way we see ourselves and others. When we see an image of what we’re supposed to be, over and over, that is ultimately what we will become. Stories are a powerful form of authorising gender and regulating them. By repeating the same stories, through constant repetitions and layering, we create ideals that are harmful and two-dimensional.
We base our entire value system on our media if we, as viewers, are not careful or critical. For that reason, we need to be portraying not so much ‘strong’ female characters but real ones. Girls who have agency, girls who make their own decisions, and women who have personalities that are just as deep and affecting as the men. We need characters that are relatable in every sense. If that means showing women as imperfect, great. Maybe that means they’re not wearing lycra, lolita-esque outfits or a skimpy uniform 24/7. Strength can be shown through vulnerability as much as it can through bodily strength and typically ‘male’ attitudes of stoicism. The film world needs young and feisty females who face adventure bravely, face challenges and solve problems on their own, and ‘use connections to, and relationships with, other people as ways to develop a sense of spirit,’ as Karen Karp and her co-authors argue. They need to be relatable.
Was Mary Jane relatable? Maybe, in some ways. But her presence always was a plot device. She was more of an idea than a character. She existed to spark action, to be the damsel in distress – and perhaps this is not surprising.
In comparison to Mary Jane, Emma Stone’s performance of Gwen Stacey in The Amazing Spiderman (2012) feels like a breath of fresh air. Or a gust, perhaps, blowing away the old cliches and sweeping the room clean of pre-conceptions. Emma is often charming and relentlessly funny. She’s smart, she’s on top of Peter Parker’s game, and is often bailing him out of situations. She is tasked with taking on roles and doing them with confidence, she problem solves and does it well, and is seen as a real human in action. She’s not a scarlet haired Barbie doll.
It makes the Peter Parker of the new millennia look like a geeky ‘nice guy’ fantasy in comparison – Gwen Stacey is clearly more adept intellectually, emotionally and sometimes even physically.
In the many conflicts that occur in The Amazing Spiderman, Gwen is present, and she is as useful a sidekick to Spiderman as Robin is to Batman. Considering that Gwen is just a ‘normal’, without any superpower, this is impressive. Gwen is awesome, smart and capable – and so should even be the hero herself.
Which is where Gwen Stacey begins to fall apart, doll part by doll part. The signs point to Gwen being more capable than Spiderman, which is exactly why in any other narrative, she would have been the main character. With Spiderman portrayed as a bumbling, over-emotional fool, we become aware of the lack of movies with leading female characters, as opposed to girlfriends. It becomes all the more obvious that the remake, The Amazing Spiderman was probably unnecessary – why don’t we have a Wonder Woman movie instead?
Gwen Stacy’s brains, her moves, her talent, kindness and style all get negated. Instead of being the main character who is talented, powerful and flawed, she exists merely as a vessel to pass those qualities on to the men in her life, duh! She doesn’t get to keep those for herself. She doesn’t ‘deserve’ the spotlight. Her existence as the female lead almost becomes negated by the events that occur after her introduction as the ‘capable woman’.
What message does this give to young girls? Does it say that, even if you’re more of a Gwen Stacy than a Mary Jane, you will always be merely an adjunct to a man’s personal life, his creative life, his business life? That this is farthest you’ll reach no matter how amazing you are? A piece of arm candy? Someone’s ego boost?
Gwen mentors Peter Parker and teaches him and becomes his girlfriend over the course of the first film. But it’s Spiderman who becomes the ‘chosen one’, even though his personal qualities and attributes certainly don’t make him initially deserving of the title. But all he has to do is ‘man up and take responsibility’ because she finally gave him the courage.
I want to see a movie where the girl is the chosen one all along.
At the end of the movie, Gwen’s death comes across as cheap and unjustified. She once again becomes a plot device: all she is now is the object in Spiderman’s past that gives him the depth the film-makers wanted. It feels like a robbery. Is replacing one movie trope, the blithering damsel, with ‘tragic dead girlfriend who exists as a dark fragment of a character’s past’ progress?
In death, Gwen is even more of a guide. One of the scenes that closes the film – Gwen addressing her peers in a speech at a graduation ceremony – makes this clear. Peter Parker looked to her for guidance, he looked up to her as a mentor, and he idolised her.
In the ten years since the first Spiderman, it’s become clear we need ‘real’ girls to look up to, and although Gwen Stacey’s presence in The Amazing Spiderman is flawed, the movie is still a step forward, statistically, at least. She has more airtime, she speaks more often, and is shown with more agency.
That hint of progress comes from fan interaction. Think of newer movies like Maleficent, which got good reviews and did incredibly well at the box office. Maleficent reassures us that taking a different spin on a familiar, male celebrating story can lead to success.
The audiences demand it! Give us our girls – the girls we want to be and want to see.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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