The Surprising, Subtle Feminism of the Spider-Man Trilogy
Bear with us.
Hear me out: I’m looking forward to the Spider-Man reboot. I really am! I know it’s not the most worthwhile endeavor in the world, but I’m sure the MCU will do right by the character, and I’m happy to watch that all happen. You go, Uncle Ben! Die onscreen a third time! And now continue to hear me out: I hope the new movie reaches the heights of progressiveness regarding its female characters that the original Spider-Man trilogy did. No, really!
This isn’t to say Spidermans 1-3 are perfect paragons of feminism or anything. They’re not. They’re really not. The trilogy’s cast is overwhelmingly white, and only one of the movies (Spider-Man 2) scrapes by a whisker past the Bechdel-Wallace Test. But they did pull off something that, even ten years later, most superhero films fail to even touch on: thoroughly demolishing the idea of male entitlement to a woman. Even if she’s the love interest. Even if she’s hot. Even if she’s dated you before! Nice guys in the Spider-Man trilogy don’t necessarily finish last, but Nice Guys certainly, definitely do.
“But doesn’t MJ end up with Peter Parker in the end anyway?” I hear you cry. Well, actually … no? Sort of but not really? Let’s go back to the beginning and work from there. Allll the way back to when the first Spider-Man movie was released, a time when Nickelback was still popular and James Franco wasn’t a jerk:
Pretty much the first thing we learn about Mary Jane Watson in the Spider-Man movies is that she has a shitty life. A lot of female characters in superhero movies have shitty lives (that’s a whole other article) but hers is poverty-and-abuse shitty, rather than brainwashed-and-murdery shitty. That’s not a better narrative, but it is a more relatable one, unfortunately.
“You’re trash; you’ll always be trash!” we hear MJ’s father scream at her as she walks to school. “You’re as stupid as your mother!” we (more indistinctly) hear him shout from inside the litter-strewn Watson house. It’s not really surprising, considering what she has to deal with, that MJ puts on a bubbly, shouty party-girl mask when Flash Thompson turns up in his new car. Peter Parker sees all this and assumes that MJ is just really into cars. Because Peter is an idiot.
Actually, Peter’s not exactly an idiot, but he has got a definite Nice Guy streak to him. It’s pretty benign, but it’s there, because Peter doesn’t really seem to see MJ as a person at all. Aunt May tells him that the first time he ever saw her, he asked if she was an angel, which everyone knows is not exactly a good foundation to build a relationship on (see also: Star Wars). Plus he spies on her through her bedroom window, which is gross/weird, and of course, he doesn’t seem particularly up for letting her make her own decisions, which she calls him out on by the end of Spider-Man 2.
Spider-Man 2 did lots of things right by MJ, but perhaps the thing it did rightest was the mirroring of its opening and closing shots. At the beginning, we see a pretty, photoshopped, smiling version of MJ (from her modeling campaign) that Peter is staring at as he internally monologues about how much he loves her. By the end of the film, MJ’s face is filling the screen again, but this time she’s wracked with fear and worry and maybe even a little regret, rather than smiling demurely. The false image Peter had of MJ has gone, and it’s been replaced with a real woman.
That real woman is one of the most flawed in the entire world of comic book movies, incidentally. She cheats on people, she ditches John Jameson at the altar, she’s insecure, she’s petty, she’s closed-off and she’s really messed up. Her home abuse has followed her around to the point where she can’t even read a mildly critical review of her acting without getting depressed and angry.
MJ: The review!
MJ: They hated it. They hated me.
PETER: Well, they can’t hate you.
MJ: “The young Miss Watson is a pretty girl, easy on the eyes, but not on the ears. Her small voice didn’t carry past the first row.”
PETER: That’s ridiculous. I was right there.
MJ: You were in the first row.
PETER: Yeah, but that’s…listen. You were great. That’s a critic, this is something you’re gonna have to get used to. Believe me, I know. Spider-Man gets attacked all the time.
MJ: This isn’t about you! It’s about me. It’s about my career.
PETER: I know, and I’m just saying, you can’t let it bring you down. You just gotta believe in yourself, you pull yourself together, and you get right back on the horse.
MJ: Don’t give me the horse thing! Try to understand how I feel. [pause] It’s just…I look at these words, and it’s like my father wrote them.
Sound like MJ’s being a little overdramatic? Well, that’s what emotional abuse can do to you: completely destroy your sense of self and your ability to handle criticism. There’s another (sadly deleted, but it shows up in Spider-Man 2.1) scene in the trilogy that demonstrates how absolutely soul-destroying MJ’s home life was, too, where she says, “John loves me. My father used to say, ‘You’ll never be worth anything. No man will ever want you.'”
MJ fights frantically to be seen as someone above her “station” and desperately jumps around from relationship to relationship. She’s a complicated character, all right, but the movies never treat her, her motivations, or her dreams, with anything other than respect.
She deals with classism, too. “Don’t tell Harry … he’d think it was low or something,” MJ says to Peter when he finds her working in a crappy diner. When Norman Osborn later calls her a gold-digger, loud enough for everyone to hear, she’s so (rightfully) pissed off that she ditches Harry over it. If there’s one thing that sets MJ apart from a lot of superhero movie women, it’s that she seems to face sexism, classism, and/or both on an almost daily basis but simply isn’t in a position to do much about it. She can get angry—and she does—but little else.
This brings us to another interesting aspect of the Spider-Man movies: how in them, evil is very often inextricably tied up with misogyny. The thing that really sets Peter into kill mode during his final smackdown with the Green Goblin is when Norman makes a sexual threat against MJ. Then there’s an earlier moment at the Thanksgiving dinner, where Norman spends a few seconds leering at MJ’s chest before he gets around to his sexist humiliation of her, and MJ notices, and she’s clearly very uncomfortable indeed. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it was there for a reason.
We’re meant to be on MJ’s side, and appalled by Norman’s behavior, throughout all of this. “Doesn’t feature victim blaming” is a phenomenally low bar to set for a movie, I know, but it still comes as a bit of a breather. A woman in a movie trilogy wearing low-cut tops, portraying herself as sexy, dating at least one new man per movie, and she’s not slut-shamed? Well, it’s more than most actual female celebrities ever get. It’s nice to have a movie float the Totally Radical idea that women are not, in fact, responsible for creepy men wanting to have sex with them, or responsible for the violence that those men sometimes do when that sex is denied.
Which brings us to Gwen Stacy!
I can’t praise enough what Spider-Man 3 did with Gwen. For all its flaws, it achieved something none of the other Spider-Man movies did, which was to not only drag Gwen Stacy out of the fridge but then smash the fridge with a massive hammer labelled “MEN, STOP TREATING WOMEN BADLY.” It’s true that we don’t really get to know this variation of Gwen very well as a person, but she has a very important function in the story and that function is, essentially, to destroy any idea that the way Eddie Brock/Venom and Peter behave towards women in this movie is okay.
Oh, Venom. One of the most common complaints about Spider-Man 3 was that Venom was portrayed as a whiny little git rather than a black-suited blood-spilling badass, but I’m not complaining at all. Granted, I wasn’t that much of a Venom fan anyway, but as a villain, Spider-Man 3’s Venom is absolutely top-notch: he’s an entitled, misogynistic dude with superpowers. What could be scarier? Nothing, that’s what.
Eddie Brock spends a good portion of Spider-Man 3 basically stalking Gwen without her knowledge, but the interesting thing is the way her agency is portrayed in this. She and Eddie went on one chaste date and she isn’t really interested in him, yet…
EDDIE: Excuse me, miss. [takes out camera] May I please see that gorgeous smile?
GWEN: [giggles] Hi, Eddie. [poses for him]
EDDIE: You’re so beautiful. This is front-page stuff.
GWEN: I’ve got to practice. I’ll see you later, okay?
EDDIE: How about tonight?
GWEN: Not tonight.
EDDIE: What about that amazing- amazing night we spent together?
GWEN: We had coffee, Eddie.
She’s still nice to him! She still strikes a sexy pose at him when he turns his camera on her, even! She does everything women are told not to do (for fear of “leading on”) when turning down a guy who’s practically obsessed with them. And yet she’s not blamed for Eddie’s later actions! (Yeah, we’re back at it again with the “very low bar” thing, but still.) It’s not even just that: this version of Gwen is sexual, after decades of her being held up as the Good Girl of the Spider-verse. She’s a model, she kisses Spider-Man in front of a crowd, she puts on a very sexy dance performance with Peter at the jazz club. Eddie seeing her with another man is the catalyst, more or less, for his transformation into Venom. “You made me lose my girl, now I’m gonna make you lose yours!” he snarls at Peter. (Interestingly, it’s right at this point, right where Venom is speaking about women as if they’re property, that MJ drops a cinder block on his head.)
In a world where women who turn down men are literally blamed for any subsequent violence—and god, woe betide them if they ever put sexy pictures on Facebook or flirted with anyone in any way ever—the Gwen/Venom subplot is quite refreshing, really, especially
since this Gwen not only lives, but is completely fine at the end of the movie. Harry gets killed by Venom for Peter’s character development, not her! And Venom is punished for his actions when his own selfishness leads to his death.
Eddie/Venom is so damn detestable, and so appropriately dealt with, I love it. But he’s also kinda a foil for Peter right from the beginning, so observing the way Eddie treats women (terribly) vs the way Peter treats women is pretty fascinating. This is best shown, actually, in the most hated/laughed at scene in the entire trilogy:
Yep, that one.
Peter is not usually the type to catcall and annoy women in the street, I think we can agree on that. Aunt May raised him too well. But as soon as he gets hold of the Venom symbiote—which enhances the characteristics of its host—he basically turns into Douchebag McStreetHarrassment.
The women Peter interacts with whilst doing his strut-walk-dance thingy aren’t exactly admiring or impressed by him, they just look kinda freaked out. Some of them even speed up their walking, or turn around and go the other way. (We’ve all been there.) Peter doesn’t take the hint even after several women have done this: he keeps on and on demanding their attention, thrusting his crotch around out in the street even as they run right past him.
Oh man, is that an uncomfortable scene. But—especially considering how Peter is such an Everyman, such a good role model, such a stand-in for the male nerd audience—I think it was perhaps actually meant to be, just not for the reasons we thought.
After that Peter continues to be a dick to women, because all those misogynist Nice Guy qualities he had bubbling under the surface before are out and about and running rampant now. He makes his smitten next door neighbour Ursula bake him cookies, he goes out with Gwen purely to make MJ jealous, and he decides it would be a great idea to harass MJ at work as well. Oh, he never goes quite as far as Eddie—Eddie, like Norman before him, also makes a sexual threat against MJ—but the similarities are clear. The symbiote didn’t just give Peter a ridiculous haircut, it gave him a painful case of the Toxic Masculinities. Complete with violent streak when things don’t go his way.
It takes Peter accidentally hitting MJ to the ground during a bar fight to make him realize how much of an asshole he’s being—an act of (non-graphic) violence against a woman is the cog the whole movie spins around. Peter freaks out, removes the Venom symbiote in the pouring rain and goes home to take a shower. (I probably don’t need to explain to anyone the symbolism of the water.) And after that, after a badly CGIed supervillain fight and Harry getting murdered and Gwen not getting murdered…
Well, we’re back to the beginning. Peter had to ditch the toxic masculinity and see MJ as an actual person before he could ever have a relationship with her, but yet…there were consequences to his bad behavior, because MJ doesn’t actually necessarily take him back. Oh, it’s very much implied that she does—the last scene of the movie is her dancing in Peter’s arms—but on the other hand it’s a very sad, slow dance, and she did just get done singing a song about how she was never going to fall in love again. Does she? Doesn’t she? Who knows, but the ambiguous ending of the Spider-Man trilogy hinges entirely on whether a woman chooses to forgive a man.
The Spider-Man Trilogy has come in for a bit of a kicking as of late, and you could probably argue that it hasn’t aged well in a post-MCU world. It does however treat its female characters almost 100% with respect, and insist that its male characters do likewise. For a movie that reiterated again and again that with great power comes great responsibility, it’s good to realize that they also considered how men, with all their privileges, have a responsibility towards women.
Fingers crossed the new franchise borrows a little from this one, anyway.
Sarah Barrett is a blogger, writer, and hopeless geek who got into fandom at age twelve and never quite returned to the real world. She lives, works, and writes on Tumblr.
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