Zendaya’s Mary Jane Watson could be the biracial heroine you’ve been looking for

K.C. UNDERCOVER - Disney Channel's "K.C. Undercover" stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)
K.C. UNDERCOVER – Disney Channel’s “K.C. Undercover” stars Zendaya as K.C. Cooper. (Disney Channel/Craig Sjodin)

It’s official: Zendaya is playing Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Marvel film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. But why is everyone quick to assume that Mary Jane is black? What if it turns out that Mary Jane is biracial, like the actress playing her? And if this is true, how will this positively affect other biracial girls of African-American and Caucasian heritage that see her on-screen?

There has been plenty of talk about the lack of mono-racial people of color (for lack of a better word) for a while now. But it seems like most people don’t turn that conversation to a group of people of color who have been unrepresented, sometimes twice or many times over: biracial and multiracial people of color.

Technically, most of us in the U.S. have at least one other ethnicity in our heritage. But most of us claim just one. In many respects, the “one drop rule” still applies, even in the mouths of people who state that they don’t believe it. If you look black, you’re black. If you look Asian, you’re Asian, etc. Halle Berry famously said that her mother, who is white, told her to accept that she’s black, because that’s all anyone would see. Even President Barack Obama, who is biracial, is constantly called the first black president, even though that title negates the other half of his heritage. The same is happening with Zendaya’s Mary Jane; most people assume she’s playing a black Mary Jane, when it could be that she’s playing a biracial Mary Jane, a character that could draw on Zendaya’s own experiences as a biracial woman.

I should stress that I’m putting asterisks and air-quotes around the word “could.” Knowing how Marvel is at representation sometimes, there’s the overwhelming possibility that Zendaya is playing a black character. However, this particular film has the most inclusive casting of a Marvel film, and none of it seems like stunt casting. This film, as far as I’m concerned, is a watershed moment for Marvel and could signal a higher degree of focus and sensitivity towards casting. This sensitivity might also be applied to characterization. If it is, that would be a boon for biracial people, specifically those of African-American and Caucasian heritage, because biracial and multiracial people are hardly ever showcased in the media, and when they are, they are usually shown in an objectifying and dehumanizing light.

According to The Critical Media Project, the 19th and 20th centuries generally showcased biracial people as the “tragic mulatto,” the byproduct of a sordid relationship between a white and black couple. These characters were usually seen in a binary light, being tragic figures because they couldn’t fit into either the white or black worlds. The context in which these characters were viewed was from a white point of view; the only value these characters had were if they could pass as white, and if they couldn’t then their supposed tragedy made them unfit to exist in a world that only viewed race in terms of “undesirable” blackness and “exceptional” whiteness. There are several films like this that have been shown on TCM, but the most popular one has to be Imitation of Life, in which the biracial woman rejects her black mother, passes as white, and remains as such until her boyfriend leaves her because of her black heritage. (Spoiler alert: Her mother dies of a broken heart after her daughter tells her she hates her; the daughter only comes to her senses after her mother has died and she flings herself onto her mother’s casket during her funeral procession.)

Today though, biracial and multiracial people are now thought of as the product of an exotic, idealized future. This sounds like it should be positive, but it still puts biracial and multiracial people in terms of theory, not reality. To quote The Critical Media Project:

“…[T]he increasingly globalized nature of identity means that the conversation around mixed race tends to move beyond an isolated focus on black/white issues to incorporate other racial and ethnic identities. Mixed race individuals are often talked about in futuristic terms, conceptualized as modern hybrid beings that signal a faster, stronger and better world ahead. They are also often sexualized and fetishized as mysterious, exotic, sexy and extraordinary looking.”

Even though the tone of the conversation has shifted, biracial and multiracial people are still afflicted with stereotyping and objectification. Maybe one reason we rarely see biracial and multiracial people represented in the media is because too many people still view the idea of a multiracial society as a futuristic, sci-fi world that isn’t here yet, when in fact, it is here. It’s been here for centuries. In short, things have got to get out of the theoretical and into the practical when it comes to representing biracial and multiracial people as people, people who live in the now. Zendaya’s Mary Jane could go a long way in beginning to right that wrong.

The biggest film featuring an interracial family in recent memory is Infinitely Polar Bear, starring Zoe Saldana and Mark Ruffalo. Mirren Lyell for Mixed Nation also cites Nickelodeon shows Sanjay and Craig and The Haunted Hathaways as recent TV shows depicting interracial families. But there should be more films like this. Indeed, there should be more media of all types about multiracial and biracial people. As John Paul Brammer of Blue Nation Review wrote:

In the context of the media diversity debate, multiracial people exist in a precarious place. On the one hand, they seem to be left out for the sake of a more direct approach to criticism of media representation of minorities. “We need more black characters” or “We need more Asian characters” are strong demands with a history of mischaracterization and discrimination behind them. “We need more multiracial people of color” is seen as a level of intersectionality that Hollywood simply can’t process.

On the other hand, multiracial characters are often employed as copouts in the media, used to represent ethnic minorities in a more “palatable” way for mainstream audiences. Multiracial black actors with light skin are hired over black actors with darker skin. White Latinos are hired over Latinos with ethnic features.

Even films with progressive racial themes have come under fire for this. The film Dear White People, a film created to represent black people and discuss white racism, was criticized for casting as its protagonist a biracial, light-skinned black woman.

More representations of biracial and multiracial characters could help quell Hollywood’s usage of actors and actresses of mixed heritage as social and political wedges. More representations would also help build the self-esteem of many kids who don’t see characters who represent all of their heritage on screen. According to this article by Astrea Greig, MA for the American Psychological Association:

“Despite large growth, the multiracial population still comprises a very small fraction of the U.S. population (Humes, Jones, & Ramirez, 2011). Moreover, multiracial people in the media are often depicted as monoracial (CNPAAEMI, 2009; Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). As a result of the small population and lack of media representation, multiracial youth may feel that they do not have a multiracial community and lack role models to help them understand their mixed identity (Dalmage, 2000; Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Multiracial role models are thus extremely helpful for mixed children and teens (Shih & Sanchez, 2005). Moreover, having a community of others with a mixed racial and/or ethnic background has shown to help improve psychological well-being (Iijima Hall, 2004; Sanchez & Garcia, 2009).”

If Marvel allowed it, Mary Jane Watson could be one such role model for biracial children. Her story, which as many have said is independent of race, would go a long way to represent biracial and multiracial people not as an ideal or as a tragedy, but as an ordinary person who faces personal and social issues big and small. A biracial Mary Jane would be yet a further stepping stone towards true identity equality in Hollywood and in society.

What do you think about a biracial Mary Jane? Write about it in the comments section below!

  • Mischling2nd

    The “one drop” myth does not apply to people who “look black.” If a person “looks white,” then they ARE white (regardless of any partial black ancestry).

    White Racial Identity, Racial Mixture, and the “One Drop Rule”

    http://multiracial.com/site/index.php/2004/09/01/white-racial-identity-racial-mixture-and-the-one-drop-rule/

    • I beg to disagree, esp. since I provided an example of an actual biracial person talking about how her mom told her how the world would view them. And the film example, “Imitation of Life,” exhibits the “one-drop rule” in action; the protagonist, who passed as white, was ridiculed by her boyfriend after he learned of her background. But thanks for your comment and I appreciate you reading the article.

    • Michelle Kirkwood

      Not necessarily. If the person looks white but identifies as black or something else because they were raised in non-white cultures or are of partial non-white descent, then just because you perceive that person as white dosen’t mean they consider themselves white. It’s not always as simple as “You are what you look like,” because that’s not always the case for some people.