Female Love Interests Through the Spider-Verse: How Gwen Stacy Broke the Refrigerator

By Jackson Ingraham and Sarah Fung

Spider-Man in the Movies

Raking in almost $6.35 billion in live-action films since 2002, Spider-Man has been one of the most iconic franchises in the MCU. Viewers have seen the evolution of Spider-Man from the first release of The Amazing Spider-Man comic series in the 1960s to its most recent live-action film Spider-Man: Far from Home in 2019. Alongside the growth of the Spider-Verse, a more subtle growth in feminist themes lies prevalent in the most recent film adaptations. The increasing presence of feminist themes in the Spider-Man universe can be identified in Spider-Man’s different love interests and the agency each character develops throughout time.

(Spiderman Trilogy: Pocket Lint)

Throughout this essay, the transformation of the Spider-Man franchise will be analyzed from the early 2000 films to the most recent films in the 2010s. The image above shows the change in Spider-Man actors from Tobey Maguire in 2002-2007, Tom Holland in 2017 and Andrew Garfield in 2012-2014. The essay will study themes of representation, female agency, and male-centric storylines to show changes the Spider-Man franchise has made to become more feminist.

Who Really is Gwen Stacy?

Throughout this essay, the transformation of the Spider-Man franchise will be analyzed from the early 2000 films to the most recent films in the 2010s. The image above shows the change in Spider-Man actors from Tobey Maguire in 2002-2007, Tom Holland in 2017 and Andrew Garfield in 2012-2014. The essay will study themes of representation, female agency, and male-centric storylines to show changes the Spider-Man franchise has made to become more feminist.

The images above show the lack of progression in depicting Gwen from the comics to the live-action; viewers see no change in representation for Peter Parker’s love interest over the span of almost 30 years. Gwen, played by Emma Stone, time and time again is depicted as a white, slim female with blonde hair. In Spider-Man 3 the jazz club scene highlights Gwen’s emphasized femininity through Peter Parker’s usage of her to show off in front of Mary Jane. In addition, highlighted throughout the series is the lack of agency females have in the Spider-verse starting with Gwen and her role as object-like to build the character of Peter Parker. With little agency as the love interest of Peter Parker, Gwen is not only an example of lack of representation but also emphasized femininity to contrast the superhero qualities of Spider-Man throughout the comics and trilogy.

Stuffing Gwen in the Refrigerator

Taking a closer look at Gwen Stacy in Spiderman 2 featuring Tobey Maguire, the death of Gwen occurs as a result of Spider-Man’s inability to stop the cogs in a clock tower as they are fighting the Goblin. Throughout Spiderman 1 and 2, Gwen Stacy resembles the classic trope deemed “Women in Refrigerator”, a term used to describe the suffering or death of a woman to build onto and kickstart the development of a male protagonist’s storyline.

The theme of a female love interest’s death or suffrage is present not only in the Spider-Verse but throughout the MCU in Deadpool, Green Lantern, etc. Gwen’s death ultimately affects Peter Parker in strengthening his resolve to fight the villain and adds to the hyper-masculine superhero persona. The trope Gwen takes on is used over and over again in the media to highlight the humanity in superheroes as seen in the images above but does nothing to strengthen the role of females. When looking at the Spider-Man franchise in the most recent years, the underlying theme for feminism has kickstarts when the character of Gwen begins to develop her own storyline. After almost fifty years of the classic female trope in original comics and films from the early 2000s, a visible shift begins to occur in the 2018 release of Into the Spider-Verse for the role of Gwen.

In Comes Into The Spiderverse (2018)

(Into the Spider-verse: Spider-Gwen)

The Sony Pictures animated film left a massive impact on fans of Spiderman worldwide. It raked in $375.5 million dollars at the box office and somehow dethroned Disney for the Oscar. One of the main reasons for its success was the change in characters. Our protagonist is Miles Morales, a loveable teenager from an African American/Puerto Rican family. Another change of pace for the spider-verse is Gwen Stacy’s portrayal. As we have discussed, up to this point she has only been used as a plot device to further a male-centric story. While she is a supporting character, that is all she really is. She is not tied to Miles, she works in the same way as the  other supporting characters, and as Melly Ridaryanthi and Noel Ethelbert Jinguli say, “Even when the film hinted at a romance between her and Miles, she was not portrayed as being caught up with the affection side of their relationship.” Gwen’s story is her own, and in the end, she returns to a universe where she is the hero, not a male love interest.

(Spider-Gwen: Gwen Stacy Cover: Marvel Comics)

Gwen’s character has every opportunity to grow into a story not revolving around Peter Parker or her death. The creators of this new arch are focused on breaking away from the trope and empowering her a female Spider-Woman to take center stage

A new face for MJ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Into The Spider-verse is not the only film recent to break molds. The MCU has begun to create stories with women protagonists, such as Captain Marvel, Wondavision, and Black Widow. While these are great steps forwards and have all received huge success,  what does this mean for females in male lead stories? The two Spiderman films connected to the MCU, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home both feature MJ (or in this case Michelle) as Peter Parker’s love interest. Not only is she the first black love interest in a Spiderman film, but she is also a strikingly different character than the MJ of the comics.

(Spider-Man: Homecoming – Zendaya as MJ: Reddit)

In Homecoming, she is almost nonexistent from the plot and goes about her way as any other supporting character. Peter’s affection towards her is evident, but MJ is never directly interested in Peter or the plot as a whole. There is a completely different girl that takes center stage as Peter’s crush, which turns MJ’s character into a setup for the next film.

(Spider-Man: Far From Home: Vox Media)

In Far From Home, Peter and MJ are much more affectionate, ending the movie (before the huge cliffhanger) together. Nonetheless, she continues her role as a love interest under her own motivations and direction, not haphazardly falling into the villain’s plot. The notion that MJ of the original Spiderman comics can be a more independent, black woman is very new, but hopefully, a trend that will carry over into other films. 

Gwen and MJ in the future

While the love interests of Peter Parker did not start writing their own story, they are gaining agency. Originally written as a character meant to die, Gwen Stacy has transformed into her own protagonist. The creator of Spider-Gwen, Jason Latour, has said he’s inspired by the origins. It is empowering to reclaim a character and place her in her own story. We could even see a Spider-Gwen movie one day, something Sony is rumored to have in development.

(Spider-Gwen Fan Trailer: Youtube)

As seen in this cheesy fan video, people are crossing their fingers the rumors turn out to be true. It will be exciting to see what the MJ of the MCU turns into, or if they will introduce their own version of Gwen Stacy. Regardless, there is no telling how she will look or who she will be, but we know that if this trend continues she will have a story of her own.

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