Stop Hiding Behind Canon: Mary Jane, Zendaya and Why Colourblind Casting Is Needed

The following was pitched to and commissioned by Flickering Myth

Shhhh. Listen closely and you can hear them. They’re sitting in a dark room, hiding behind their keyboards spewing racist bile claiming it’s all about “respecting” the source material. That’s what the angry do nowadays. It seems with every hint of a possible race-bending announcement a small section of the internet shout as loud as they can to make sure the world knows how wrong they think the decision is.

The latest target is Zendaya, the female lead of the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming. When she was first cast in March it was reported she was playing a character named ‘Michelle’ but aware of studio secrecy tactics — looking at you Christopher Nolan and J.J. Abrams — it was assumed ‘Michelle’ was a ruse. Connecting the dots and the fact both names start with the letter ‘M’, fans concluded that ‘Michelle’ equals Mary Jane Watson. Yes, after flirting with Gwen Stacey for two films, it’s possible Peter Parker’s girl next door has moved back in.

When the assumption was picked up by The Wrap, some people started losing their minds. “Mary Jane can’t be black!” some said. “Why can’t they stick to the source material?!” others shouted. And, here in lies the problem with pop culture. By wanting filmmakers to stick to canon, racists and misogynists are allowed to claim veracity for their views. It’s not canon, so it can’t be allowed.

And, I get it. I get it. If Jon Watts was suddenly to make Spider-Man the result of his father’s genetic tampering and negate his everyman, could-have-been-me status then I would be losing my shit along with all the other non-racist fans as well. But, we can safely assume that the genetic tampering thing will NEVER happen… wait a second, they did that in The Amazing Spider-Man 2and it was stupid. Canon is important but a character’s race is not.

Mary Jane Watson, Zendaya and Colourblind casting
MJ’s only defining physical characteristic is her red hair, and with the miracle of hair dye, you no longer need germanic roots to achieve this look //©Marvel //source: Flickering Myth

Now, for some characters it is. Black Panther’s race is integral to his identity but he is not defined by it. He is awesome because he is awesome. MJ’s race doesn’t matter. MJ’s only defining physical characteristic is her red hair. That’s it. Her hair colour doesn’t change her character and it’s not what made her popular. MJ was able to usurp Gwen because she was sassy, smart and cool. Those are not characteristics reserved for white people.

To quote James Gunn, who eloquently put the smackdown on complainers on his Facebook page, if a character is only iconic because of their skin or hair colour than that character is “shallow and sucks”. MJ can be any ethnicity and as the US 2014 census reveals, Queens, the film’s location, and Spidey’s turf, is one of New York’s most diverse boroughs. Watts has already said he wants to reflect this and casting a mixed-race actress as MJ is the perfect way to reflect our diverse world.

Zendaya is an untested actress, with her major roles being in the Disney Channel shows Shake It Up and K.C. Undercover. But, she won the role through an assumingly extensive audition process and if she is playing MJ, I’m sure she will do a good job. Marvel rarely put a foot wrong when it comes to casting.

Hopefully, you’re reading this article and thinking it’s a waste of web space. It’s 2016. It’s obvious that a character’s skin tone doesn’t matter and that this piece will fall into the neverending sea of thinkpieces that arrive every time a race-bending casting happens. But, if the myopic protesters continue to shout and tweet, people still need to remind them that no one cares about them. These characters were created 50 years ago and they need to change. You wouldn’t run onto a modern battlefield with a musket. Changing canon in 2016 to reflect modern times is fine; getting upset because a race of a character has changed in 2016 is a bit pathetic.


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