Damsels in distress? The transformation of Spider-Man’s leading ladies

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Zendaya attends a photocall for "Spiderman: No Way Home" at The Old Sessions House on December 05, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05: Zendaya attends a photocall for "Spiderman: No Way Home" at The Old Sessions House on December 05, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images) /

Looking for a prime example of how the representation of women in film has changed in just two decades? Look no further than Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane “MJ” Watson in the Spider-Man trilogy of the early aughts vs. Zendaya’s Michelle “MJ” Jones in the most recent big-screen adaptation of the Marvel comic.

Like millions of other movie fans, I have been giddy with excitement ahead of the release of Spider-Man: No Way Home. It was made mostly during the height of the pandemic, and fans were on pins and needles awaiting updates on the film for over a year. Needless to say, news of a definitive release date (December 17th) came with a collective sigh of relief throughout the fandom.

As an elder millennial, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was an integral part of my high school experience. Rumors had been swirling on social media about the return of the two former live-action Marvel Spideys in No Way Home, and feelings of nostalgia rushed over me as more and more alleged “leaks” flooded social media. To prepare for the release date, I figured a rewatch was in order to reacquaint myself with past characters. What I experienced was pretty jarring.

2002’s Spider-Man was pretty much what I remembered, with one major exception: Peter’s crush Mary Jane Watson, who is supposed to be just barely out of high school, spends much of the film sopping wet, helpless, and (I’m pretty sure) braless. She existed mostly as a sex object over which two male leads would fight, having no real backstory besides being Peter’s attractive, mysterious next-door neighbor for whom he had pined for years.

Re-watching the film with my 35-year-old eyes was a wake-up call. I felt a bit sad for the 15-year-old version of myself; riddled with anxiety, body issues, and low self-esteem. I felt angry that this overly-sexualized version of a teenage girl was so normalized that at the time, I didn’t register it as problematic.

2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man introduced a new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and a new leading lady – Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). In the ten years since the first film’s release, major strides were made as far as Spidey’s main squeeze was concerned. Gwen was smart. Smart. She gave tours of her high-tech science lab wearing knee-high socks and a short skirt… which… who does that? Still, we didn’t once see her nipples and her clothes stayed dry throughout the film. I considered it a major improvement from Kirsten’s Mary Jane.

In 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, the difference between Zendaya’s version of MJ compared to Kirsten’s is night and day. Granted, this MJ being less “classic beauty” and more “bookish oddball” was part of her character and not just a stylistic choice. Still, the portrayal marked a drastic move toward equality in how women and girls are represented in film. It’s a shift that happened relatively gradually, and I didn’t even notice it until re-watching the movies back-to-back.

So, why the change? The mid-2010s saw a huge push toward gender equality with the Me Too movement. Women were stepping up in droves to bravely reveal personal accounts of abuse and inequities in Hollywood, and the conversation quickly became mainstream. Girls around the world were making it known that they would no longer stand for being seen as sex objects. Additionally (and thankfully), the idea of sexualizing a high school girl may have been acceptable in the early 2000s, but today’s audiences would be a lot less accepting of content that is, quite frankly, super icky.

I’m happy for young girls who, just as I did, will be filing into theaters to see No Way Home. Unlike the teens of the early 2000s, they will see a version of MJ that won’t do subconscious psychological damage to their self-esteem and self-worth. It’s exciting and refreshing to see Marvel, and Hollywood in general, move toward a more realistic and respectful representation of women and girls in film.

Next. Peter opens a multiverse of problems in Spider-Man: No Way Home teaser. dark