The Lost Mary Jane: Spider-man Casting and Looks in Movies

So, P.Z. Myers has finally noticed a controversy over a potential casting of Mary Jane in the next Spider-man movie, which from what I’m reading there has been dropped because they aren’t going to put Mary Jane in that movie. Anyway, Myers is going gung-ho over comic book fans being “sexist scum” (his words from the title) because many of them are saying that the actress tapped to play Mary Jane — Shailene Woodley — isn’t sexy enough for the role. (BTW, isn’t it a bit problematic that he refers to her as the “actor” in his post).

Anyway, hearing about this for the first time (I don’t tend to keep up with movies and didn’t like the first movie of that incarnation all that much), and looking at the images of the actress, I have to say that … I agree with those fans. As summarized in screechymonkey’s comment, Mary Jane Watson, as a character, has always been portrayed as sexy and fiery in terms of looks, at least in the mainline comic series (Ultimate has done that differently). I was worried that Kristen Dunst wouldn’t be “hot” enough to play Mary Jane in the Sam Raimi trilogy, and was pleasantly surprised when, in my opinion, she was. Woodley is definitely attractive, but she’s very pretty and very “cute”. She isn’t “hot” in the sense of being sexy, so her looks naturally bias her towards cute characters, girl-next-door characters, and more particularly “every person” characters. She’s best suited for roles, then, in my opinion, where you really have to believe that you could meet her on the street, that women could think that overall she could be them and men think that they might see her on the street.

Now, I have little doubt that Woodley can pull off sexy if she tried really hard. But even looking at the red carpet photos, her natural look is pretty rather than sexy, and that likely would always bleed through. But Mary Jane, in the main universe, was someone who’s natural look was sexy, where even dressed down the sexiness was still there. Mary Jane, dressed down, was still sexy. Woodley, dressed up, would still be cute. So Woodley’s looks, naturally, work against that sort of character.

Which, then, reveals the fear of fans, because with that contrast the fear is that either they’ll try to force Woodley into that type of role/image and fail at it, hurting our suspension of disbelief — ie everyone will wonder at her being treated as being so incredibly sexy when what we see on the screen isn’t — or that they’ll change the character into a girl next door rather than what she was. And comic book fans don’t like it when you fundamentally change the characters they love, which isn’t necessarily unreasonable. I know it annoys me when a reboot or reimagining of a series changes the things I liked about the series or characters in the name of “modernizing” it, and it can seem like a betrayal to fans if you finally make a movie about one of their beloved characters … and turn the character into something that is that character in name only.

The same sort of considerations occurred in casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the upcoming Man of Steel 2. There was a lot of criticism over how slight she was, and that she didn’t look the part. And I can see the complaints. Wonder Woman is not the sort of character who fights by avoiding getting hit, but by standing in the front line as a “tank” and getting hit, taking hits for other heroes, and essentially winning fights by hitting them harder than they hit her. Thus, she really has to have a presence that says that she can take a hit and a lot of them without really flinching, and has to do that even when you compare her physically to Superman and Batman. If Batman looks more able to take a hit than Wonder Woman is, you’ve done bad casting. So either you introduce a contradiction between what the character looks like and what they do and how they act and are treated on screen, or else you change how the character acts to make how they look match the character. Neither are good.

So, then, in general discussion over how an actor or actress looks are indeed important in considering the casting of a character, and so unlike as is asserted in the comments it shouldn’t just be about acting ability. There’s a lovely discussion about the Wonder Woman controversy and casting based on physicality here, which makes this excellent point:

We should campaign for realistically written, believable and compelling female characters played by actresses who can suitably represent them in every aspect of who the character is, not just one or the other. With so many actresses out there, we shouldn’t have to sacrifice acting skill for physical credibility, or vice versa.

So acting ability doesn’t trump the argument unless you argue that you can’t find a more muscular, taller, and more physically imposing actress who is also an equally skilled actress. If you indeed can, then it’s quite right to criticize the casting of someone who doesn’t look the part into the part. I’m quite sure that we could find an actress who fits a sexy Mary Jane better than Woodley does, if that’s what they’re going for.

Another problem with the casting, BTW, is that Mary Jane is the love of Peter’s life, and she’d be going up against Emma Stone directly, where you could see both of them in the same movie. Emma Stone is just far more attractive than Woodley is, in pretty much all ways. Not only is Stone sexier than Woodley is, she’s also prettier/cuter than Woodley is. The risk with this Gwen Stacey/Mary Jane Watson competition which canonically ends with Gwen Stacey’s death is that we want this to end with Mary Jane being considered the love of Peter’s life, and not just the woman he settled for because Gwen died. If we compare these two actresses in term of looks, Mary Jane loses. And considering that the first movie gave Gwen a very ideal personality for Peter, it’ll be hard to make Mary Jane the better woman for Peter without derailing at least one of the three characters. In the comics, this worked better because there was a lot of time between Gwen’s death and Mary Jane’s introduction, and they could string the relationship out more, and Peter had the chance to date other women as well, which pushes Gwen into the background. The movie series is not going to have that time. Making it feel like the main canonical woman of Peter’s dreams is his second choice is not a good thing, as I’ve briefly mentioned before.

Now, recall at the beginning of the post I said that I find Woodley attractive. But a lot of the comments about her are saying that she’s ugly. Why are people saying that, which I consider to be uncalled for? I have two theories:

1) It’s standard Internet overstatement rhetoric: instead of saying that a movie was mediocre you say it sucked, instead of saying that an actress is average you say she’s ugly, and so on and so forth.

2) Tying back to something I’ve talked about before, they are conflating their personal standard of attractiveness with an overall or objective view of attractiveness. I can certainly see why some people wouldn’t find Woodley’s looks appealing to them. If they prefer that sexier look and attitude, then she’s going to leave them cold. I happen to like prettier looks, and so at the very least won’t find her unappealing. Objectively, she’s not ugly and is attractive, but objectively she’s also not the top of the list either. So the people who will find her incredibly attractive are those that happen to like the sort of look that she naturally has, and if you don’t like that look you may not find her attractive at all. And so the comments about ugly, under this, seem to express more that they don’t find her attractive, and think she should be.

Now, in discussing how well she’d fit the role I think calling her ugly is going way too far, and that the comments should focus more on how she doesn’t have the right sort of attractiveness for the role. But I consider those comment more a sign of the mean-spiritedness of the Internet rather than a sign of sexism. Judging her by her looks when her looks wouldn’t be relevant would be a sign of sexism … but her looks are relevant to the roll, and so that part isn’t sexist. So the meanness is, to me, just general meanness and not sexist in and of itself, and the part that would actually be sexist isn’t because looks can indeed and should be relevant to casting decisions.

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