Since the news landed, comic book fans have buzzed about the reported casting of 20-year-old actress Zendaya as Mary Jane “MJ” Watson in the new Spider-Man adaptation, “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
The film will highlight the life of teenage Peter Parker (Tom Holland), as he navigates life in high school as the undercover superhero known as Spider-Man. Naturally, it’s assumed that MJ is Peter’s love interest in “Homecoming.”
While some fans were optimistic about the casting decision, others were outraged. However, it seemed the outrage only stemmed from Zendaya’s race: MJ is white in the comics, while Zendaya is mixed. It wouldn’t matter if Zendaya was the greatest actress in Hollywood – some diehard fans would still have an issue with her ethnicity and hair color, simply because it’s not how they envisioned movie MJ in their heads.
Differing from the “originals” has become an issue within fanbases and movie/television adaptations; attempts from filmmakers to increase diversity have been declined by fans because they’re too concerned about the appearance of a character, rather than character’s traits and how they develop the plot. When you ask these fans “Why does it matter what this actor looks like or what race they are?” you’ll hear a response like “that’s not how it was in the original.” Anyone with a computer can cause a ruckus on social media, without realizing how they can impact the actors themselves, as well as other people of the same race.
However, when characters of color are played by white actors, you won’t hear a peep from these fans. Many claim “it’s not about race,” but clearly, it is.
In 2015’s “Aloha,” Emma Stone plays a woman of native Hawaiian descent, even though the public knows Stone is clearly Caucasian. This caused a clash between Stone’s fans and others who weren’t afraid to call filmmaker Cameron Crowe out on his blatant whitewashing in the film.
Another memorable whitewashing moment was the casting directors of “Pan” (2015) choosing white actress Rooney Mara for the role of Tiger Lily (classically Native American) in the Peter Pan adaptation.
At least we’ve moved past blackface, but Hollywood casting directors must improve their decisions and consider the consequences of excluding racial and ethnic minorities from their casting.
Some filmmakers are taking it into their own hands to encourage diversity and casting actors of color as traditionally white characters. The difference here is that it honestly doesn’t matter if the original character was white – MJ’s character development had nothing to do with her race! On the other hand, in films like “Aloha” where the character’s plotline does consider their race or cultural background, that’s when it’s inappropriate to change the race of a character, especially to white.
You may think that if using actors of color for white roles is okay, then using white actors to play characters of color should be too. However, people and actors of color have faced an incredible amount of racism and prejudice in Hollywood and the film industry, and when there’s a chance for some diversity, filmmakers have to take it. Truthfully, there are enough movies with all white casts and maybe a token black character here and there.
Additionally, changing “traditionally white” characters gives actors of color more opportunities for work. Just look at the film industry: most actors in many films are white, so that leaves talented actors of colors to fight for the remaining roles of non-white characters. By widening the opportunities, actors of color have more options to make a living.
The point is, Zendaya is perfectly capable to play MJ, and we are incredibly excited to see her shine! Zendaya has received critical acclaim for her roles in Disney Channel shows such as “Shake It Up” and “K.C. Undercover,” and though this would be her first big role in a blockbuster film, Zendaya has already made a name for herself in Hollywood and shown she can handle a serious role.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is scheduled for release on July 7, 2017.