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.
Though we all love comics for their exciting stories and interesting characters, part of what makes them so unique from regular books is the art. It isn’t just a literary journey we take when we open up a new issue, but a visual one as well. Over time, the artistic representations of these characters have changed to freshen them up and keep them relevant. Though the looks of some haven’t drastically transformed since their debut, Mary Jane Watson is one woman who has gone through many changes since her first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #42. While she can be either conservatively or flamboyantly drawn depending on the artist, MJ is generally a representation of male desires that make her visual importance more significant than her personality.
There are many moments, particularly during the ‘80s and ‘90s, where Mary Jane is not much more than a sexualized Barbie doll. The MJ that appears under Erik Larsen is one that has big lips, big hair, long legs, and a chest that emphasizes her tiny waist. Her body is perfect and is showcased in pajamas, short skirts, and tank tops that highlight her nipples. It’s all very over-the-top and unbelievable. There is not one panel in which she appears where she isn’t dolled up or on display. While her body and her outfit don’t immediately detract from her self-worth, Mary Jane does not consistently flaunt herself this way because she wants to, but rather because this is what guys want to see her in.
There are numerous examples of artists, from Larsen to Todd McFarlane, who fashion Mary Jane in a way that reflects male desire and it often overshadows anything else she does. When I go back to issues like #349, I hardly pay attention to a word MJ says and I zero right in on the image of her in a nightie. It’s unrealistic to believe that Mary Jane should always have her hair done, lounge around in ways that accentuate her assets, and appear as the ideal woman. Peter has his ups and downs; he doesn’t always have every hair in place, and MJ should be drawn with the same respect. She has a number of significant plot points throughout arcs like the “Clone Saga,” but having her prance around in barely-there outfits takes away from a lot of the worth she has outside of her looks. She’s a fantasy that all guys should want, not a real woman, making her hard to connect to.
While there are a number of issues with the way MJ is often represented in comics, there are instances where her appearances don’t completely cancel out her personality. When we first see her in issue #42, she upholds a lot of the standards of beauty; however, her body isn’t the only thing emphasized. In the iconic panel where we finally see her face, her words are just as important as her beauty. We all remember how she tells Peter to “Face it, tiger…” and not just how great she looks. Instead of molding her so that we don’t look at anything except her body, John Romita, Sr. allows us to see her as a person too. Sure, that person is a bit of an annoying party-girl at the beginning, but she isn’t solely classified by her visual depiction.
That being said, she does still look like she stepped off the cover of a magazine with her beauty underscored by tight outfits. She has no visual flaws, which is a representation of everything a guy may want and a woman can’t live up to. It immediately disconnects her from many female readers who realize MJ’s there for the guys, not the girls. She’s a pretty thing for Peter to covet who lacks agency outside of their relationship. Though Romita’s art isn’t as hyper-sexualized as Larsen’s, Mary Jane is categorized by her good looks and is set up as a plaything for Peter, illustrating how this idealism and the problems that come with that have been with MJ since her beginning.
In her more current arcs, she still sports a big chest, but seems like more of an individual and less like a sex object. Camuncoli’s interpretation of Mary Jane is not perfect, but it’s an improvement from the issues where her chest is practically its own character. We’re able to focus on MJ’s words and actions instead of how hot she is. She can still strike a pose and has her model figure, yet she is also willing to tone it down. If she was walking down the street in New York, she wouldn’t necessarily be falling out of an outfit only meant to draw attention to her body. Camuncoli doesn’t depict an erotic Mary Jane to the point where her sexuality is all she is. Moments where MJ is trying to be sexy come across as such because she isn’t sexualized all the time. I can’t imagine a book will ever come out where MJ isn’t a bombshell, but now she also has agency and the potential to stand alone. It’s leaps and bounds more realistic than other’s interpretations of this bold redhead who is so much more than her body.
Ever since her first full appearance in 1966, Mary Jane has appeared as an unattainable ideal. Still, as the times change, she’s very slowly beginning to appear as a real person. The artists who render MJ are giving us a visual that we can use to relate to one of the most important females in Amazing Spider-Man, though that visual shouldn’t come at the expense of her personality. MJ can be beautiful yet she can also be relatable, which are two things that don’t always intersect in the comic universe. As time goes on, I’d love to see more growth and find artists willing to turn away from the cookie-cutter busty females that I find in most of the comics I read. With art that emphasizes a range of realistic bodies, characters like MJ can become so much more than bodies to lust after.