The Daily Evergreen

Zendaya is your new Mary Jane Watson, deal with it

DANIEL ANDERSON | Evergreen movie columnist

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Actress Zendaya has been announced to play the iconic love interest to Spider-Man, Mary Jane Watson. She will be the first African American actress to play the character, and that news doesn’t sit well with some fans.

If fans can deal with a fictional world of super soldiers, a giant green monster, Norse Gods, ant-sized men and sorcery, they can and should learn to deal with this.

To paint you a picture of diversity in the entertainment business, I’d basically just have a white canvas. In an article from NPR, they highlight a research study on diversity in entertainment conducted by the University of Southern California.

The USC study analyzed gender, race, ethnicity and sexuality from more than 21,000 employees of movie sets, including actors, actresses and behind-the-scenes workers on more than 400 films and television shows from Sept. 2014 through Aug. 2015.

The study found that 33.5 percent of speaking characters in movies and television shows were female, despite the fact that women comprise 50 percent of the American population, and 28.3 percent were non-white, even though they make up 40 percent of the American population.

I’m all for diversity in the entertainment industry as long as it does not disturb or belittle characters with significant factors of identity to them. For example, Marvel superhero Black Panther is an African king from a fictional African kingdom. He is also the first major black superhero in comic’s history. Don’t even dare to try and change his character to something else other than his origins. His history is a part of his character and his identity — changing it would be sacrilegious.

Marvel Comics has become a trailblazer for diversity in their modern storylines. Kamala Khan, or Ms. Marvel, became the first Muslim character to head her own comic book back in 2013 from Carol Danvers. Love interest to Thor, Jane Foster assumed the titular mantle becoming the first ever female Thor. The newest Iron Man storyline features a teenage African American girl, Riri Williams, at the helm instead of Tony Stark, under the alias Ironheart.

On the other hand, fans outraged with the Mary Jane Watson casting seem to be vehemently upset by the fact Zendaya does not have red hair like the comic character.

None of this is to say the original Mary Jane should be done away with. Comics always have had multiple authors throughout time with their own unique takes on the character.

Multiple comic stories of the same character can be written by different artists and be running independently of one another. This includes different and unique canons ranging from the comic books to the television shows to the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

We have yet to see Zendaya act in this role, she might be amazing or she could be terrible, but race has nothing to do with her abilities as an actress nor does that fundamentally take away from Mary Jane as a character. It is my hope that the character will be done justice in being her own person and not merely reduced to a love interest like Kristen Dunst in the 2003 Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy.

Even when the new Spider-Man film was announced, many fans were hoping to see Miles Morales, an African American teenage Spider-Man, be the main lead instead of the original Peter Parker. Casting Zendaya as Mary Jane will help Marvel transition their diversity efforts from white pages to the silver screen.

More importantly, comics are stories, and like any good story, they are meant to be relatable. This means evolving and reflecting the attitudes and times we are in now. The famous debut cover of Captain America punching Hitler in the face was published months before the U.S. officially entered World War II. That was something relevant to people of the time and a part of the reason superheroes can inspire so many.

The power and effect of seeing someone similar to you do something you never thought possible cannot be understated. I smile at the thought of a young African American girl seeing Zendaya up on screen and maybe saying they can do that too.

The superhero genre is meant to instill lessons of courage and standing up for what is right; that should include racism and sexism. In a society still afraid to see women, especially women of color, be given any kind of power, people should take a cue from their favorite superheroes and stand up for positive change.

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Zendaya is your new Mary Jane Watson, deal with it