A couple of weeks ago, the wiki-leaks Sony hack turned up a licensing agreement between Sony Pictures and Marvel, setting out legally binding parameters for the character Spider-Man and his civilian alter-ego Peter Parker. This is, in no uncertain terms, an officially sanctioned definition of gendered heroism.For those of you unfamiliar with the content of the leak published first on Gawker, here it is:
Some of the character traits listed above, considered so essential to the brand identity that they must be codified in a legal agreement, seem undeniably central to Spider-Man’s identity as a hero. He is a New Yorker, he is young when he gains his superpowers, his powers come from a spider bite, he designed his own costume, his ‘darkside’ black costume is foreign entity rather than essential part of himself. It would be churlish to argue with these points – Spider-Man has always been a comic about the responsibility that comes with growing up, dealing with ideas about the formation of community and responsibility to your environment. That Spider-Man is a self-made hero, and that Venom is a dangerously seductive symbiote, are established tropes from comic to screen which it serves no purpose to alter, given their histories and character trajectory. The injunction that Spider-Man must be heterosexual, and that Peter Parker must be white, however, require much more concentrated examination.
I’ll give them a pass on white, this time, since they specify that only for Parker – not every Spider-Man to wear the uniform. We have Miles Morales officially in the suit on the page and in animated form, and distinguishing between our heroes based on their differing experiences rather than erasing those differences is helpful. Parker has never experienced racism, but as an Hispanic person of colour Morales will portray new struggles and challenges in his approach to responsibility and community. An example of the possibilities for portraying such dynamics can be seen in the characterisation of Eli Bradley: “It’s hard, sometimes, to be a black kid carrying the name ‘Patriot'” (Young Avengers presents Patriot #1, 2008). Bradley plans to hold his country accountable, rather than defending it no matter what. Pity the comic shows this bit of insight as originating with the white Captain America. Marvel, do better by Miles, you hear? And he better get his big screen début soon!
As to ‘male’, with an overtly gendered brand there’s no getting around this aspect of the character – but what does it really mean? How, exactly, is this determined? A single word, designed to simply encompass so much, and doing so little actual work there in that character description. How does someone ‘strictly conform’ to maleness? The gender politics of this injunction are highly suspect. This is further revealed in the list of non-acceptable behaviours.
The actions that the characters are enjoined from indulging in are very telling about ideas of heroic behaviour. This hero must not swear, drink to excess, torture his enemies, commit statutory rape nor be its victim, nor deal in illegal drugs. Given the obvious loopholes here, such as the fact that indulgence in a smoked joint is not being ruled out, what disturbs me is the lack of injunction against sexual assault or rape. Given the heightened concern over the ‘fridging’ trope among comic fans, particularly female and feminist fans, it seems a distinct oversight as the comic industry struggles to clean up its image as occasionally hostile to its female audiences. Spider-Man’s heroic reputation is considered to need protection from any hint of impropriety in terms of drug culture and excessive force, yet no-one thought to rule out cat-calling, stalking, date-rape or any other sexual harassment/crime? And no, it does not ‘go without saying’, any more than any of the rest of this behaviour does. What we don’t say is as important as what we think it is essential to include.
The upshot of this list: Spider-Man, officially, can be a sexist boor, but not gay. This is the crux of what it means to be an American man, and a hero, apparently. The portrayal of youthful heroic maleness on screen is about strength and violence, reigned in and channelled appropriately. It is about abstaining from risky and illegal behaviour. And, clearly, it is about performing your heterosexuality – and there are no limits set to that performance. If you are going to mandate sewing, Marvel, you can mandate basic human decency too, and its gendered iteration since you insist.
Sorry for the interruption of service in June, a nasty virus laid me low. Actually, it was so bad I’m fairly certain it was a Chumash curse, from which no amount of post-colonial theory can completely save me.