The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy, or Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG!

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When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:

My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.

Image source: http://www.dvdizzy.com/images/b/batman-01.jpg
Image source:
http://www.dvdizzy.com/images/b/batman-01.jpg

Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!).  She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).

Image source: http://turntherightcorner.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/the-amazing-spider-man-2-teaser-trailer-gwen-stacy.jpg
Image source:
http://turntherightcorner.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/the-amazing-spider-man-2-teaser-trailer-gwen-stacy.jpg

All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 2.50.47 PM

Image source: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/
Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG.     Image source:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/

But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I  know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”

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Image source: http://www.thewrap.com/amazing-spider-man-2-final-trailer-peter-parker-gwen-stacy-andrew-garfield-emma-stone/

This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.

Image source: http://www.gannett-cdn.com/
Image source:
http://www.gannett-cdn.com/

Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.

This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings, stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.

Image source: http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/03/05/article-2288354-186FE7B6000005DC-84_306x734.jpg
Image source:
http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/03/05/article-2288354-186FE7B6000005DC-84_306x734.jpg

Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):

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If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.

Image source: http://cdn1.sciencefiction.com/
Image source:
http://cdn1.sciencefiction.com/

And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.

Image source: http://schmoesknow.com/
Image source:
http://schmoesknow.com/
And when that thin cord of webbing snaps and Gwen begins her freefall through one of the many dangerous old warehouses that seem to lurk around every corner in super hero movies, we are meant to feel the weight of her loss. She is falling away from Peter Parker, our proxy, and his loss is our loss. We see the terror in Gwen’s eyes (good acting, Emma Stone, seriously) and we know those eyes will haunt poor Spider-Man for months or even years. So much good brooding is head! And when Spider-Man cradles Gwen’s lifeless body in his arms, seconds after it hit the ground with a sickening crunch, we can only wonder about the impact of this death on our hero.
 
 
Here the film offers us a series of flashbacks of Peter’s time with Gwen, happy times when they were eating frozen yogurt and standing atop bridges and going to interviews at Oxford in very, very tiny skirts. Each of these flashbacks are shown from Peter’s point of view. We see Gwen through his eyes: as he watches her or goes in for an embrace. Because even in her death montage, Gwen has no subjectivity. Her loss can only be registered as Peter’s loss. She is forever the object of his longing gazes. We see Peter go to the graveyard season after season, all to the detriment of his important super hero duties. Here again, Gwen’s value is only in relation to how she impacts Spider-Man’s ability to be Spider-Man.
 

Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.

This is how summer blockbusters work. They are not for me. They are for white, heterosexual teenage boys. The rest of us are just there for the ride. We, like poor Gwen, are hanging by that slender thread of webbing, hoping Spider-Man can hold on to us just a few minutes longer before we’re dropped to the ground.

 

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7 thoughts on “The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy, or Gwen Stacy is SOME PIG!

    melisser said:
    May 27, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I’m glad you posted about it – I’ve been really curious about whether they’d keep with the canon on Gwen’s death (Spidey catches her as he’s falling with his web, and snaps her neck in the process – Batman-level Dark!!! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_Gwen_Stacy_Died)

    But I couldn’t get anyone to go see it with me, shockingly enough.

    And I’m always so bummed by X-Men movies… the BEST X-Men were always the women, but the movies always focus relentlessly on the dudes.

    Sigh, comic book movies.

    Amanda Ann Klein responded:
    May 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Thanks for reading Melisser! Not much of a super hero movie fan (as you might be able to glean from the above post) for precisely these reasons. I need less “BLAMMO!” and more broody shit.

    It’s interesting to hear that the comics have Gwen dying due to Spider-man’s mistakes. The movie clearly makes it the Goblin’s fault (and it’s Gwen’s fault, too, right, for not listening to her MAN).

    I am just so over it. I need to just watch DIVERGENT and HUNGER GAMES and then take a nap.

    Saralyn (@serenityfound) said:
    May 27, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    I tried to explain this to my (male) roommate as we sat in the theater after the movie yesterday. That Gwen is so great, Gwen is so capable. Why, then, do we have to heed canon and tropes on the point of her death when so much other stuff gets changed when translating for the screen? X-men swapped out Kitty Pride for Wolverine in Days of Future Past, and I haven’t heard massive outcry against it. Why couldn’t the broodiness just be that he decides that New York crime is more important than London crime and Gwen goes away anyway? Why did the follow-up to Gwen’s big save (due to her scientific knowledge and her internship at Oscorp, who designed and operated the power plant) have to be her kidnapping and helpless death? I find it hard to believe she can figure out how to overload/kill Electro but not how to swing over to the side of the tower on Spidey’s thread.

    And don’t even get me started on the stalking. I am a big fan of Garfield’s Peter/Spidey, but I almost yelled at the screen during that and the “romantic” reveal.

    Kelli Marshall said:
    May 27, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I almost wish they’d just leave out women characters. Same goes for Dexter, Breaking Bad, Justified, and…well, you get the point. 🙂

    Matt Smith said:
    May 27, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    I like that, to further drive home the point how not into smart women this movie really is, after all the talk about how she’s the only person who knows how to shut down the reactor, all she does is enter the control room and flip a big switch that says “Emergency Shutdown” or something to that effect. WTF

    Chef: More than just food | My Rubberbandball said:
    May 29, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    […] And it’s that male-centric view that troubles this film. Typical of most Hollywood movies these days (I guess technically this is an indie? But it’s got Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson in it, so it can’t be THAT indie), there are women present, but only in relationship to the man and his needs. Por ejemplo, Johansson’s sultry sommelier serves only to warn Carl that the boss is coming, provide calm encouragement to spread his wings and fly, and moan lasciviously over a mouthful of pasta he’s prepared for her while she lounges on his bed. Inez (Sofia Vergara), Carl’s ex-wife, offers friendly support, encouragement, as well as gentle chiding when Carl lapses in his fatherly duties. As likable as Inez is, she’s something of a cypher. Why does she have that amazing house with the huge staff? Why does she have a publicist (brilliantly and skeevily played by Amy Sedaris)? We know nothing about Inez other than that she adores her son, clearly still cares deeply for Carl, and has a famous Cuban musician for a father. Put another way, the three women in the film are essentially there to reflect Carl back to himself in one way or another. (For a brilliant and devastating takedown of The Amazing Spider Man 2 along these same lines, check out Amanda Ann Klein’s “The Postfeminist Gift of Gwen Stacy [SPOILERS!!!]) […]

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