Warning: SPOILERS for Amazing Mary Jane #1
Mary Jane Watson might be best known as 'Spider-Man's girlfriend,' but she's making it known that's not all she has to offer. The actress debuted in her first-ever solo comic series this week, Amazing Mary Jane #1, and in just the first few pages calls out poorly-written female characters, beginning a fight for better representation.
The first issue begins with Mary Jane acting in a big-budget superhero movie, fighting several of Spider-Man's most famous foes. Something doesn't feel right as Mary Jane's dialogue quickly comes to a halt, when despite being a costumed superhero she calls out: "Oh no! Help – I've been restrained! Someone, help me" (even though she's supposedly portraying a totally capable hero herself). When the scene cuts, Mary Jane grabs a member of the production team to voice her frustrations. Though Marvel's movies have passed the Bechdel test more and more, Mary Jane feeling that she's playing "just... the girl. You know?" articulates a bigger problem for women in comics. The place where the term 'fridging' began, after all.
As it turns out, Mysterio is behind the writing of such vapid ladies. Since he promises the movie is not part of some wicked scheme, Mary Jane has a solid chat with the villain. And offers the villain, who's supposedly making the film to honor a woman he failed, some advice on how to write women correctly.
She first questions why the script requires her to fight in a squeaky, latex catsuit--a direct dig at the famously risqué costuming of female comic book characters that tends to prioritize "sexy" over "functional for fighting." Marvel characters like Black Cat (soon getting her own movie), Madelyne Pryor, Black Widow, and even Emma Frost have fallen victim to the same problem. Their costumes, though fashionable, do not always make sense for what their purpose is: fighting.
The real mic drop, however, comes when Mary Jane calls out how underdeveloped her own character is. Mysterio claims that her purpose is helping the main character (who is based on himself) to "self-actualize," fighting alongside him only because she's in love. This trope of female characters being contingent on their male romantic interest is another fault of many comic books. From Jane Foster (who recently received a new role as Marvel's Valkyrie) to Sharon and Peggy Carter, to Pepper Potts, and Mary Jane herself, many early versions of now well-rounded women were completely focused around the man they were dating. And in her first issue, Mary Jane asks for an end to the trend.
Her advice is to flip the script, and with a simple rewrite, prove the character's already-existing bravery and strength (that isn't based on romantic interest). Aforementioned character Emma Frost saw a similar treatment until Powers of X #5 when her plot finally departed from her boyfriend and focused on her strengths.
A key feature of the comic is that its starring character is a woman--and it's written by one too! Leah Williams has written plenty for Marvel (including Emma Frost issues) often focusing on the company's most famous female characters. From Gwenpool Strikes Back to Fearless #1, Williams has a track record of writing leading ladies in an entertaining and insightful way. And anyone curious about how deep she'll be pulling from Marvel's history need only look to Gwenpool's love of Marvel's 'eye candy' heroes.
Though the debut issue of Amazing Mary Jane focuses on bringing attention to sexist tropes that often arise out of female characters being defined by their boyfriends, it doesn't ignore Mary Jane's relationship with Peter Parker, a deep and detailed history even fans might not know. But while there are scenes showcasing Mary Jane and Peter's relationship, the issue makes it clear: Mary Jane is her own person outside of the relationship, possessing strong opinions and tenacity. She's exactly the kind of woman she wants to see written.
With so many female characters, including a range of extremely powerful female Avengers, Marvel has plenty of super-powered women that fans can admire. But it's interesting to see that Marvel's own characters are also sick of latex catsuits, perilous cries for help, and men defining the comic book universe's capable women. Though Mary Jane's origin story was born out of a joke, it is clear that she means business--and is looking to Marvel to grow in its development of female characters.