Why Can’t Spider-Man Swing Both Ways?

Recently, Entertainment Weekly ran a piece in which Amazing Spider-Man 2 star Andrew Garfield questioned why his character, Peter Parker, couldn’t be rewritten as being gay in the upcoming film.

Garfield, who last played Parker/Spidey in 2012’s Amazing Spider-Man, is quoted as saying, “I was kind of joking, but kind of not joking about MJ, and I was like, ‘What if MJ is a dude?’ Why can’t we discover that Peter is exploring his sexuality?  It’s hardly even groundbreaking!…So why can’t he be gay? Why can’t he be into boys?”

While the comments I’ve read online seem to be more or less evenly divided between those who think it’s not such a bad idea and those who essentially equate diversity with defeat (one guy on HuffPo said, “Why not just turn every comicbook [sic] character into an African-American lesbian and be done with it already.”). But the main argument that seems to stand against it, at least from the fandom side of things, is why make any changes to the character at all? Peter Parker, unlike many comic book characters who change iterations every 15 years or so, has mostly been the same character throughout his 50 years of existence. Who is Garfield to say that should all change now?

First of all, I don’t think Garfield really wants to turn everything people know about Spider-Man on its head. I think he was probably just reflecting on the state of our society and the fact that something like that would be so intensely controversial even though, as he said, it’s not even all that groundbreaking. I mean, just look at Batman and Robin. I’m sure Garfield isn’t losing any sleep over Mary-Jane being played by a girl and not a boy, but he probably just feels like many of us do, like the world needs to move on already and get over its problem with the homosexual community.

That said, I think the real reason why we can’t touch upon stuff like Peter exploring his sexuality in the films is because, at the end of the day, these films exist to get kids (and nerds like me) buying t-shirts and lunch boxes and watching cartoons and so on. So maybe in a world where Peter Milligan or Alan Moore wrote the next Spider-Man film and we got a mature, fully realized character with a mature, fully-realized sexuality, we would see a movie where Peter might feel attracted to members of the same sex.

But until then, Spider-Man is a brand unto himself, and his movies need to be devoid of any emotions more complicated than whatever goes through the head of an average six-year-old boy. Nobody wants to see him exploring his sexuality one way or the other. Behind closed doors he could be begging Gwen Stacy to wear a strap-on to bed for all we know, but what we see on screen needs to be limited to him wrestling with other guys. Muscular guys. In tights. None of that gay stuff.

So, no. I don’t think it’s very likely that Peter Parker will come out of the closet anytime soon. But what puzzles me is the overall assertion that such a deviation from the norm is completely off the table because it doesn’t fit canon. So far in the Amazing Spider-Man series we’ve seen Peter meet Gwen in high school, Peter take his web cartridges from Oscorp, Peter getting bit on the neck and not the hand, Peter fighting the Lizard as his first villain, the Lizard not having purple pants or a snout, Peter circumventing his aspirations to become a famous wrestler or TV personality, Peter not catching the burglar, the burglar not stealing from a fight promoter but from a bodega, and Peter designing a costume that looks subtly different from the one that debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15. In the next film we know we’re at least getting a black Electro who turns into a blue-skinned fetus-guy wearing one of those suits from Prometheus. I’m guessing there will be other discrepancies as well. Suffice it to say, this film is not going off of canon. This is a new version of Peter in a new universe with a new story to tell. Who’s to say he doesn’t web-swing both ways?

This whole stink reminds me a lot of the controversy that came about right around the time that the first Amazing Spider-Man was getting off the ground, about how rapper/actor Donald Glover (who, I might add, used to perform at the comedy club right down the streets from my Queens apartment) wanted to audition for the role of Peter Parker. As Glover said himself, there were lots of people who launched racist gobbledygook at him, calling him the n-word and so forth. But what really got him was when a fan told him he couldn’t be Peter because “there are not black kids like Peter Parker.” No black teens growing in Queens with their aunt and uncle, getting picked on at school and knowing that deep down they had something to offer that the world couldn’t see? Pretty hard to imagine.

Flash forward to Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the lead villain is black. And I haven’t heard anyone pipe up about that one. The bad guy can be black but the hero can’t? What? I’m sure if they’d decided to make Electro gay, or Rhino or Goblin, no one would complain that it defied canon too much for them to enjoy the film. Or maybe they would. I don’t know, maybe I’m just being on cynical.

Anyway, getting back on track, I kinda feel like maybe if you’re going to do this with any superhero, you could definitely do this with Spidey. I don’t know, I just see how people take to Spider-Man and it seems pretty clear that no one demographic really owns Spider-Man.

He’s a character that everybody identifies with, not just white heterosexual male Americans, but people from all across the spectrum. So not only would I not mind seeing a black or gay or hispanic Peter Parker, but I would actually be interested to see how that version of the character played out on the screen.

Beyond that, I just feel like, in my heart of hearts, the fans shouldn’t have the power to limit the writers or creators, especially by holding up the “canon” like its some kind of holy scripture. If the story that they want to tell works best with a Peter Parker who is dealing with his sexuality, or if the actor that they like the best for the role happens to be black, then they should be free to tell that story. If the writing is good and the acting is good and the film holds true to the essence of the character (and I’m sorry, but changing Mary-Jane from Shailene Woodley to Michael B. Jordan wouldn’t do much to change the essence of Peter Parker), then any changes to continuity will hold up.

And really, it’s not that big of a deal, guys. I mean, good god, it’s not like they’re gonna have Spider-Man running around snapping necks, right?

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for Sequart.org and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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  1. Again, it just wouldn’t make the story any better. Sorry. No one wants a serious, delicate film about a young man exploring his sexuality that ends with 30 minutes of mindless violence and explosions and with our bi-curious hero fighting a big monster. Because that’s dumb! Spider-Man movies have this ending, all of them. They’re supposed to.

    What shocks me now is to see so people expecting Hollywood to lead the way. Hollywood! Some fans seem to believe that Hollywood making movies from comics make them better. It doesn’t. Hollywood is worse than American comics right now. It is dumber than comics. You’ve mentioned the right people: Milligan and Moore. You didn’t mention screenwriters and you didn’t mention directors. Now, please, I would love to read comics from Milligan or Moore of a young superhuman exploring his sexuality. It may or may not be Spider-Man. Marvel could do it, cannon or not (I’d actually prefer it non-cannon because later, worse writers would end up turning into crap). Superhero comics doesn’t seem so action-oriented anymore. Hollywood movies are. The soap-opera aspect always worked better in comics (or TV) than in actual films. And comics are more closely linked to superheroes than film (explaing why you would need a superhero to tell your sensitive story).

    And then there is another thing which is that, for most, damsel in distress works better than dude in distress. In an action-oriented movie, the audience expects a young handsome man (a reasonable partner for our young handsome hero) to be able to fight the bad guys. Because that’s what young handsome men do in action movies. And that’s why no one ever liked Steve Trevor.

    • Cody Walker says:

      “No one wants a serious, delicate film about a young man exploring his sexuality that ends with 30 minutes of mindless violence and explosions and with our bi-curious hero fighting a big monster.” – What you have described here is the plot to every Spider-Man movie made except that it features a woman instead of another man.

      “And then there is another thing which is that, for most, damsel in distress works better than dude in distress.” And what does that say about gender roles and what we should be doing to change them?

      In an action-oriented movie, the audience expects a young handsome man (a reasonable partner for our young handsome hero) to be able to fight the bad guys. Because that’s what young handsome men do in action movies.” So nothing should ever change then? Never try anything new to update with the times?

      • Yes, but I don’t like superhero movies exactly because of that. They’re a mess. I don’t watch them.

        And sure, try to change everything you want. In comics. Which is still the best medium for superhero stories and the art form in best shape right now. I’m not against change. I’m just saying that these Hollywood people turn everything into crap.

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