David Uzimeri on Twitter complained thusly:
legitimately sad shailene woodley won't be mary jane because i'm still annoyed by the nerds saying she wasn't hot enough
— David Uzumeri (@DavidUzumeri) January 21, 2014
And I had heard nothing of this, mostly because I tend to ignore nerd news about casting unless people make a fuss about it somewhere I might read it (e.g. not Ain’t It Cool News or one of the myriad websites that wish, for some reason, that they were Ain’t It Cool News). So I Googled “Shailene Woodley not attractive enough to play MJ” and confirmed for myself that, yes, this was a nerd thing. And there are two points I have to make here, and then I’m going to ramble for a bit.
Firstly: by any reasonable standard, Shailene Woodley is really very pretty. Quite lovely. Definitely good-looking. And so forth. The idea that she is not attractive enough to play Mary Jane in a Spider-Man movie is just kind of weird.1
Secondly, though, is the thing that caused this: the ongoing idea that Mary Jane has to be otherworldly levels of hot, which is the root cause of people being stupid and saying that a beautiful young actor is somehow not beautiful enough to play Mary Jane; Mary Jane must be played by someone who is the ne plus ultra of beauty, beauty dialed up to eleven, beauty of the gods. And typically I find this is because people have no idea who Mary Jane is, as a character, besides “she’s super hot” – which explains why, then, that people have to have Mary Jane played by a goddess in human form. If the only quality you assign to Mary Jane is hotness, then a Spider-Man movie where Mary Jane is only very pretty would be like a Batman movie where Batman doesn’t fight crime.2
Of course, this is stupid. Granted, I say that as someone who is a big Mary Jane fan – Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane is one of my favorite comic books ever – but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong. Mary Jane is best when she’s defined by her toughness, not her hotness. Just after Civil War and just prior to the Mephisto marriage reboot, Matt Fraction wrote a great Amazing Spider-Man annual that was basically the pro-MJ argument summed up: she’s tough and she’s smart and once she picks her side (which is Peter, obviously) she is there. (“He’s my husband. You’re just some guy.” That line is a fucking hammerblow, Thor should be envious of that line.)
Emphasizing MJ’s hotness as being somehow a superpower is also, I think, one of the key reasoning flaws behind why the “Peter/MJ marriage doesn’t work” argument is such bunk; one of the key elements of that argument is that Peter is meant to have a hard life (undeniably true, he’s a fortitude-based character, his hallmark is that he endures hardship on all levels, that’s what it is to be Spider-Man) and that being married to MJ somehow undoes this because she is beautiful. I am not being reductionist in any way when I say that’s the argument: numerous people have said precisely this very thing,, that Spider-Man having a hot wife undoes the character, as if somehow “hot wife” means “everything right in the world” or for that matter that being hot somehow requires a character to have no burdens in life.
Just because MJ has been an actress/supermodel in the past does not mean she has to continue being these things. J. Michael Straczynski gets a lot of crap for his comics work, and some of it deserved, but one thing his era of Spider-Man brought to the table was that MJ could have a failing career and this would not in any way harm the integrity of the character because, surprise surprise, being pretty doesn’t guarantee anything. JMS’ MJ was trapped in a failing Hollywood career and towards the end of his run was considering becoming a drama teacher, which isn’t a bad job but is hardly the ideal of glamorous-as-hell. (As an aside: JMS’ idea that Peter should be a high school science teacher was brilliant, the single best thing he contributed to Spider-Man, and Marvel shouldn’t have walked away from it because having underappreciated overworked Spider-Man be, in civilian life, in the most underappreciated overworked job there is? That’s just perfect.)
True story: the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, and I don’t mean “to me personally in a loving kind of way” but rather “objectively, we are talking Botticelli’s Venus times a kajillion,” worked in a video store. I mean, this woman was stunning, literally jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I remember this not just because she was amazing looking but because one time, when I was renting a movie3 this schlub in front of me asked her why she wasn’t a model and she shrugged and said “I tried, but it’s all who you know.” Which isn’t surprising because that is how everything works.4
And there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for MJ as well. Plenty of physically beautiful people fail because that is how life happens; only a small subset of people get to be glamorous and everybody else gets shut out, even if they are a perfect 10. Hell, if the whole Shailene Woodley flap teaches us anything it is that people will discount astounding prettiness for whatever reason they choose.
- Still not sure what all of this says about Kirsten Dunst. [↩]
- This sentence was originally going to be “a Superman movie where Superman doesn’t fly” but then I realized that any discussion of Superman movies, by law, now requires people who hated Man of Steel to come out and say that they hated Man of Steel. [↩]
- FOR THE KIDS: there used to be stores where you would rent movies for money, like, you would go walk to the store and physically borrow a movie from them. [↩]
- Or maybe she was bullshitting this guy to get him off her back, that’s possible too, because being beautiful doesn’t mean you have to live a life specifically designed for beautiful people. [↩]