If you do a quick Google search of the innocent words “Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane,” you probably won’t find out much about the personalities of these females. Instead, some of the first things that will pop up are articles that debate which girl is better for Peter Parker and a bunch of sexualized fan art where the girls are falling out of their tops as they embrace each other. While the fan art can be very troubling, the articles can be even worse. They commonly list generic details such as Gwen and Peter both studying science or Peter choosing to marry MJ before naming a winner. The discussion around these two women rarely deals with who they are as people and often transforms the debate into a catfight where one woman victoriously wins Peter Parker. Ultimately, the way fans pit Gwen and MJ against one another for the prize of being Peter’s true love not only reduces their worth, but also diminishes Peter as a character.
At its core, I don’t believe the argument over Gwen and MJ is an inherently bad thing. Relationships help drive stories and are interesting to read about, especially competitive ones. On top of that, both women have impacted Peter in numerous ways and have distinct personalities that influence their relationships. Gwen is drawn to Peter’s intellect and the interests they share whereas MJoff superficial before transforming into a more thoughtful individual determined to go after what she wants. They both are women with solid attributes that can be utilized when discussing whom is the best match for Peter; the problem comes about when the debate devolves into people saying one is hotter or more fun than the other. Knowing that Gwen is a bombshell and MJ can party doesn’t enhance this discussion in any substantial way. It’s objectifying and has no purpose.
The odd thing about this whole dispute is that Gwen and MJ are rarely rivals in Amazing Spider-Man. Rereading the short period of time where the two competed for Peter’s affection reveals that there was no great love triangle that everyone speaks of. Peter doesn’t constantly jump between the two girls and they don’t fight over Peter as if he is some reward to be won. Admittedly there are times when there’s tension between the two women, such as Amazing Spider-Man #82 where MJ and Gwen make comments about both wanting Peter, but they frequently feel lighthearted and without any real malice.
By the time Gwen dies in issue #121, she and MJ are good friends who respect one another. They have a relationship outside of Peter and they would pursue that friendship whether Peter was around or not. Even when MJ and Peter fall in love, she’s still Gwen’s friend. This is reinforced in “Sins Past” when we learn that MJ knew about Gwen’s affair with Norman Osborn well before her husband did. MJ wants to protect Gwen, and they have a bond that shouldn’t be broken by fans trying to decide who is better. They aren’t adversaries competing for the end prize of Peter because they are individuals with lives that don’t revolve around him and his love.
In the end, the debate over Gwen and MJ usually isn’t a question of who truly brings out the best in Peter, but rather a question of which fantasy readers prefer. Is it “The Blonde Girl Next Door” or “The Fiery Redhead”? If all Peter shallowly cares about is which girl is sexier, then he really doesn’t deserve either of them. It’s a superficial, juvenile argument that adds nothing to my understanding of Spider-Man. When all we focus on is who is the better girl, these women become no more than an extension of Peter Parker. In the future, I’d prefer to see conversations about Peter’s relationships that use substantial facts and don’t turn the women into interchangeable objects. I think that’ll be the best way to really understand Peter and the women in his life, because they all merit better treatment.