Treatment of Women in ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’

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Spider-Man: No Way Home is a great movie and I had a blast with it. But I also had some issues, which I talked about briefly in my spoiler review last week. One of the issues that really stuck with me was how few women are in the movie, and whether or not the filmmakers did justice to those characters. It rubs me the wrong way that there are only five speaking women, three of whom are put in mortal danger  (MIT administrator, May, and MJ). If you think it’s silly to mention the MIT lady (who isn’t even unnamed), then I think it’s silly that she has the 3rd most lines of any female in the movie. I still really enjoyed the movie, but when women make up the majority of the New York City population, seeing so few on-screen in an intelligent modern movie is a disappointing misrepresentation of society.

[This article contains major spoilers for Spider-Man: No Way Home, currently in theaters. Please proceed with caution.]

I love that Aunt May’s first action in the movie is breaking up with Happy Hogan, because that felt like a fun little story that was better ending sooner than later, and helps the audience remember her mindset coming out of Far From Home. In the whole trilogy, this is possibly the only moment we see May without any context of Spider-Man/Peter Parker and I’m really grateful for it. Of course, the scene inevitably slides into the main story with a smooth one-take as Peter & MJ show up with the news media behind him, but I’m really grateful we got that brief May solo moment at the start of it. 

After that intro, May has some smaller scenes with the interrogation and the villain plot, but her real major turn comes with her death. Peter Parker has had a tremendously sad arc in the movie, truly losing everyone and everything in his life. But of every loss he experiences, Aunt May’s death is the moment that really feels the most gut-wrenching. Michael Giacchino’s score and Tom Holland’s acting make this one of the most emotionally dramatic deaths in any of the Spider-Man stories ever told. Peter staying even until he was being shot at is incredibly powerful because we know how much he needed to stay with her and mourn, but he unfairly could not. Cutting to Peter in the rain watching J. Jonah Jameson’s monologue about the chaos and calamity caused by Spider-Man was a perfect touch, and one of my favorite single moments in the MCU. 

However, as emotional as it was, I still feel that May’s death scene was roughly conceived, written, and edited. If he had chosen suspense over surprise, director Jon Watts could have revealed to the audience that May was dying before Peter figured it out, so the audience could fully process the information and then watch with sorrowful sympathy as Peter gradually realizes it himself. But instead, Watts uses a fakeout to give the impression that May isn’t dead, leaving the audience confused and distracted in the same moment that May is giving the “With Great Power…” speech, the most important moral message in Spider-Man canon.

What makes this strange for me on a bigger scale is that this version of Aunt May had never been a moral figurehead for Peter before this movie. In Captain America: Civil War and Homecoming, she almost never leaves the apartment, is Peter’s social guru, is ogled at by multiple guys, and that’s all we know about her. In Far From Home, she starts a spontaneous fling with Happy Hogan and we learn she’s involved with a charity organization, but we don’t get a lot of details about her motivations behind those choices. Then in No Way Home, May is suddenly upgraded from being a free-spirited comic relief neohippie into a moral martyr filling the place of Uncle Ben and advocating for the wellbeing of 5 insane monsters from alternate universes.

Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May was never consistently defined and she never got the deeply grounded, emotional moments of Rosemary Harris or Sally Field which fleshed out their characters and personal histories. Even after she finds out that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, the filmmakers inexplicably still don’t give her a more active role in Peter’s Spider-Man life. Despite being the youngest, most modern, and most aware Aunt May, Tomei is also the least involved Aunt May out of all three iterations. It’s a wasted opportunity.

The impact May has in No Way Home could have been so much more powerful if her character arc had led to the film’s moral dilemma across the last two movies, but it didn’t. Her decision comes out of nowhere and informs the entire plot of the film, even though Peter himself doesn’t believe all the villains deserve saving. May’s crucially important character trait wasn’t set up across the three movies, it was made up just for this one. And tragically, her death scene only leaves us with an unearned lesson and possibly yet another female who is fridged to progress the male hero’s story.

Coined by comics writer Gail Simone in the 1990s, “fridging” is a sexist trope where a female character is sacrificed as a plot point to motivate the male hero. Fridging reduces women to plot devices that can be tossed aside for male hero development. Of course, I’m not qualified to declare whether or not May was officially “fridged.” She has her own life outside of Peter and she has some agency and unique character definition, even if it’s been inconsistent between movies. And in this movie, she does fulfill the iconic Uncle Ben role (a rare “male fridging” by design).

I don’t think there was any sexism involved in this decision, but there is no question that May was sacrificed solely to develop Peter’s story, which even the writers admitted in a recent interview with Variety . I think there is room for debate whether or not May was actually fridged, and to what extent that’s negative or reductive for such a canonically important character. Uncle Ben was designed to die, but Aunt May has always had a long-lasting role in the larger Spider-Man mythology that was different but just as meaningful in its own way. The MCU can be different from the comics, but I’m left wondering what we lost.

And Aunt May isn’t the only one who I had problems with. Naturally, a core tenet of the Spider-Man mythos is that his friends and family are always in peril, but during the Statue of Liberty fight, Ned is not the one who falls. It is MJ, and it has to be MJ because she’s the female love interest, which then fulfills Andrew’s arc. Of course, the scene plays well emotionally because of Andrew Garfield’s incredible reaction of “I couldn’t save Gwen but at least I can save MJ”. But I thought The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was already a bit iffy by killing off Gwen Stacy just because a 40-year-old comic said so, and I don’t think this movie is right for almost doing it a second time just to help him recover. The payoff is good for Andrew’s Peter, but I don’t like that it takes two women falling to do it. I love the scene because of Andrew’s acting, but I don’t like the initial idea of doubling down on it by using another girl as a victim just to make him whole. What makes it even worse still is that Zendaya’s MJ didn’t serve any purpose in the story other than being Peter’s girlfriend. After being introduced as such an exciting “Mary Jane” update in Homecoming and having a key role for her brains in Far From Home, in No Way Home MJ is pushed to the side with one job only: to be Peter’s girlfriend.  

In a modern family blockbuster with only two prominent female characters, I think it is frustrating and disappointing that the filmmakers chose to drop one from a tall height and to kill the other, victimizing both women in order to serve the growth of the male heroes. One man’s story needs a woman to die, so she dies, and another man’s story needs a woman to live, so she lives. Even the MIT administrator has to dangle off a bridge to resolve Peter’s college problem. As far as I can remember, none of these women have complex arcs in the movie or move the plot through their own actions.

The emotions with each of these characters are still effective for me as a fan, but I don’t feel comfortable with the gender dynamics of the movie, especially for the impression it could leave on young audience members. Aside from Betty Brant and Ned’s grandmother, the women in No Way Home are victims tossed around by male villains just to be saved by male heroes, and that’s pretty much the end of the gender conversation in this movie. It feels a bit classic and traditional, but in an old-fashioned way that I thought Marvel Studios had grown out of.


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Reviews, reading guides, and crazy theories. Obsessed with the Midnight Sons. Find me on Twitter @vinwriteswords!

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