Spidiversity is an ongoing feature that explores a diverse range of issues in Spider-Man media, including gender, race, sexual orientation, and disability. It is published on the second Wednesday of every month by Jaleh Najafali and the fourth Monday of the month by Alex Nader.
With the recent reboot of the Spider-Man films and release of Edge of Spider-Verse #2, Gwen Stacy has been getting a lot of buzz from fans who just can’t get enough of her. However, she has not always been treated this thoughtfully and there are a number of writers who have utilized Gwen in troubling ways. However, no development in her history is as flabbergasting or reductive as the events that unfold in “Sins Past.”
In the oddest attempt at knocking a character off her pedestal, Peter learns that Gwen had sex with Norman Osborn before she died. Even more bizarrely, she procreated with him, which means that they probably didn’t use protection. Personally, I can’t think of anything seedier than unprotected sex with an Osborn, but this story is so much more than just a gross, unbelievable affair. There are a number of negative repercussions, including two of the most unnecessary villains that Spider-Man battles and, even more importantly, a complete devolution of Gwen Stacy. Throughout this arc, Gwen’s past is revealed to strip away her redeemable qualities and ultimately transform her death into a penance for her sins.
In order to stitch this shaky story together, Amazing Spider-Man #512 provides us with a flashback to what happened before Gwen’s death. While this flashback is a means of depicting Gwen’s feelings and actions before she died, it doesn’t accomplish this and houses one of the most irritating comic panels I’ve ever come across: Gwen telling MJ that she just couldn’t walk away from Norman’s magnetism and strength. This line takes away Gwen’s independence and turns her into a weak girl who quickly melts when a captivating man is around. In the panels that illustrate their sexual encounter, Norman is the dominate individual and Gwen becomes this vessel that he utilizes for his own purposes. This act perpetuates a number of stereotypes about women, including ideas about the passivity of women and their desire for a powerful male. If Gwen had shown the strength to refuse Norman, she would have been a much more liberated, empowering woman than the one who is presented to us. Instead, she is reduced to a footnote to Norman’s quest for more children.
I may not agree with the decision to couple Norman and Gwen and believe this arc really diminishes her character, but what I find significantly more troubling is this new spin on her death. She no longer dies because she associates with Spider-Man; she dies because she unknowingly slept with Green Goblin. As Peter realizes throughout “Sins Past,” Norman was intent on killing Gwen no matter what. Throughout his life, a huge cornerstone in Spider-Man’s story after the death of Uncle Ben has been his part in Gwen’s death. Nevertheless, with her affair coming to light, Peter is absolved of his guilt because it is evident that her own poor choices lead to her demise. The blame is taken away from Peter and shoved onto the girl who broke his heart. Gwen is punished for having sex, she is punished for making a mistake, and her death is now her own fault.
All of the elements that run throughout this arc build up to the inevitable denigration of Gwen. She transforms from a character with a lot of potential into just another example of the increased suffering women go through in comics. There are no negative repercussions for Norman; in fact, he has the opportunity to raise these kids and influence them in ways that Gwen never has. Even Peter does not suffer too much when this past is revealed. When he discovers Gwen’s secret, he is filled with rage, but he has moved on to a happy relationship with MJ. Unlike her male counterparts though, the only thing that Gwen gains from this is a cheaper death and a number of angry readers who want to label her a slut. This is another story written for the boys because it crushes the ideal of Gwen and gives them fodder to denounce her. Fans can call her a whore or talk about how Peter deserves better and it is somehow justified by Gwen’s supposed crime. Peter’s the jilted lover who does the heroic thing by trying to save her children; Gwen is the girl who shamefully made him a cuckhold; and Norman is the man who’s still able to get everything he wants. They each become cliché tropes with the ultimate loser being the female who made a bad decision.
Since her death, Gwen has often been romanticized as the pure high school girlfriend and lost love, and this arc certainly attempts to turn this unrealistic ideal on its head; nonetheless, this story doesn’t make her relevant to women, it just forces her out of the place of wholesomeness in which she is generally put. There’s a duality that pulls at Gwen after this arc: that of the dream girl and that of the harlot. Yet, neither of these views is productive for the role of females in comics as both are naïve extremes. Classic characters like Gwen should be developed by editors to push them in new ways, but “Sins Past” is a peculiar misstep in this endeavor.
Luckily, the recent emergence of Spider-Gwen may be a sign that females will finally be treated with the equality they deserve. As Marvel acknowledges the need for strong female characters that readers can appreciate just as much as Peter Parker, fans are just now beginning to get fun, interesting leads like Spider-Gwen. There’s still a lot of room for improvement and “Sins Past” may develop into a teaching moment to spark more resilient females for the future.