As I’ve mentioned before, my son is obsessed with Spider-Man, and I’ve gotten a couple of the Essential volumes to read to him. We just got volume 2, actually, which is fairly entertaining as these things go — not something I want to read all of, but it doesn’t make me want to stab my eyes out the way reading the Lee-Kirby X-Men does, or any of the Justice League stuff from the 30s.
Anyway, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen the original strips with Mary Jane…and man is she an embarrassment. Stan Lee is always preposterous when he tries to get down with the youth, or when he pretends he’s ever spoken to a woman. Mary Jane, who hits on both of these writing weaknesses, reads like some sort of refugee from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, if, you know, the characters in that movie had their personalities replaced by middle-aged marketing copy-writers, rather than by plants. “C’mon Petey — let your hair down! They’re playing our song!” “Those crazy thread [that’s the Rhino’s costume, folks] break me up!” “It’s a real happening, man!” “It’s Spidey! Oh isn’t he the dreamiest!” “Don’t trip daddy-o! I’ll baffle that baddy with my bralessness while you skidoo!”
All right, I made that last one up. But you get the idea; she’s supposed to be free and spontaneous and exciting, but she sounds like…well, like some middle-aged guys idea of what a blow-up fantasy hippie might be.
It’s not exactly a news flash that Stan Lee’s hand with the female characters is somewhat thumb-fingered. But I couldn’t help thinking as I was reading this about the Mary Jane statue controversy of a year or so back. For those of you who missed it, some guy made a fairly ugly statue showing Mary Jane carrying Peter Parker’s laundry and discovering his Spider-man suit. Various feminist fans of Mary Jane went ape-shit about how icky it was to sexualize this character in this way.
And yes, for those of you who were paying attention, I said “feminist fans of Mary Jane.” Unlike Dirk Deppey, I actually like Andrea Dworkin, and think that the way male sexuality is expressed in this culture actually does have something to do with the oppression of woman (Dirk summons the spectre of gay porn as a refutation of the possibility that sexual desire can have inherently sexist content — as if gay porn somehow transcends gender assumptions about femininity and masculinity, or as if gay men can’t be sexist in ways linked to their own sexuality and desire. Though none of this makes anti-porn laws a good idea — but I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah….) So I’m sympathetic to the argument that the statue’s conflates of sexiness and domesticity is sexist — not horribly sexist, not surprisingly sexist, not the most sexist thing I’ve seen in, say, the last 48 hours, but still — sexist.
But what’s baffling, especially in light of these early Mary Jane comics, is that — you know, Mary Jane was always a sexist caricature. She’s probably more sexist in Stan Lee’s writing, in fact, than she is in the statue. I guess you could argue about whether the subtext of free-wheeling easy lay is more or less sexist than the subtext of fetishized domesticity…in any event, though, you’re not talking about a character who’s an icon of female independence.
So what gives with the outrage? If you’re the sort of person who’s going to find Mary Jane sexist, why weren’t you disillusioned with her a long time ago? I mean, even if some other writers have made her more of an independent woman, there is this history of the character being a preposterous brain-dead male fantasy. Surely, were you a feminist, this might give you pause before you pledged her your undying loyalty.
Of course, virtually everybody who reads mainstream comics has an emotional committment to some character or other who, over the course of their career, is completely emotionally, logically, and morally incoherent. That’s the way corporate properties work. The problem here isn’t that these feminists are hysterical, but that the genre of super-hero comics is. The thing about a corporate property is that it has no core; or, more crassly, no brand consistency. Mary Jane has been used by so many (often indifferent) people for so many (often completely idiotic) purposes, that there’s nothing there anymore.
Dirk excoriated the critics of the statue for their “inflated sense of entitlement.” But why shouldn’t fans expect creators to care at least as much about their creations as the fans do? Of course, in super-hero comics, that’s quite often not the case . The original creators have gone on to other projects long ago; the corporate-owned piece of property that’s left behind gets stomped on and spindled and twisted every which way for the stupidest of reasons, or for none. To fall in love with a character in a mainstream title is to be, inevitably, betrayed. When this happens, there tend to be howls of outrage (“Peter Parker’s not a clone!” “Mary Jane wouldn’t do that!”) which are both justified (the choices being made are, in these cases, almost uniformly lousy) and kind of ridiculous. Of course Mary Jane is treated with off-hand sexist contempt. All of these characters are treated with off-hand contempt. They’re corporate thralls, just like their creators — there to be abused and sneered at. The saddest thing about Mary Jane isn’t that that statue of her was sexist, or that she was sexist to begin with, but that there hasn’t ever been a consistent enough vision of her to make her really sexist, or really not sexist, or really anything. She’s just this hollow shell, beyond defilement and beyond contempt.
And speaking of pointless defilement and the hold of corporate entities on the infantile imagination — I’m making my first attempts to teach my son to read. He knows a few words (cat, dog, go), but we really made huge strides when I taught him to read “poop.” Suddently we had all sorts of amusing narratives (“Cat poop on bat,” “rat poop on hat.”) Best of all, though, was the first super-hero story he has ever read unaided — “Hulk poop on X-Men”.