Characters In Media: Mary Jane Watson
22 January 2019
*I will not be providing specific examples from the game, because I wish to avoid sharing any accidental spoilers*
The video game industry is overflowing with unfortunate examples of female character misrepresentation, both in playable characters and NPCs (Non-Playable Characters). But every now and then, a game developer gets something right and, having completed the recent PS4 Spider Man game, I can say, Insomniac Games got something right.
Mary Jane Watson, or MJ as she is most often referred to, is brilliantly written in the 2018 game release of Spider Man. Which is a pleasant departure from the many disappointing, or down right forgetful versions of MJ that have been created through the span of Marvel works, particular the ones in mainstream media. Going into the game, I had very low expectations for the character of MJ, to the point where I found myself dreading the idea of her participation in the game. But by the end of the story, I found myself not only enjoying her as a character, but downright admiring her.
Much of what made MJ such an enjoyable character had to do with everything Insomnia Games did right when handling this female character as both a side kick, and as an occasionally playable character.
MJ is fearless. Both when playing as her, and when she is assisting Peter Parker, who you spend most of the game playing as, she isn’t afraid to take charge, put herself in dangerous situations, and do what must be done despite what odds may be against her. Throughout the game, her fearless, take charge attitude causes tension between herself and Peter Parker, aka Spider Man, because he’s often concerned for her safety. But as she points out to Peter on a number of occasions, just because she doesn’t have super powers, does not mean that she is not capable. She has a job to do, and she doesn’t want to sit on the sidelines waiting for Spider Man to get the job done for her.
MJ is clever. She shows off her ingenuity, ability to strategies, and quick wit in almost every situation she comes across. Because she doesn’t have super powers, MJ must rely on her intelligence to get her through many tricky situations. But unlike many female characters in other games, she isn’t using sexuality or feminine wiles to get through her tasks. No, the fact that she is a female is never emphasized or used as an advantage or tactic. Everything she does, she utilizes her intelligence, resourcefulness, and experiences in order to achieve her goals.
Spider Man relies on MJ as much as MJ relies on Spider Man. MJ is no damsel in distress or girl always waiting for the hero to save the day. Quite the opposite. In most situations, it is Spider Man who would be screwed if MJ didn’t step in, provide information, or set up the playing field for Spider Man to do his thing. But the game doesn’t present things as though Spider Man would be helpless without MJ, either. Instead, they have this wonderfully balanced power dynamic, where both characters have their strengths and purpose, aiding, relying on, and supporting the other character throughout the entire game. Aside from the moments where Spider Man overbearingly expresses concerns for her safety, the two characters have a trust and mutual respect for one another that is both enduring, and refreshing.
MJ is dressed for the occasion. As I mentioned before, MJ doesn’t use sexuality or feminine wiles to achieve her goals. Though even without using sexuality as a key personality trait, many game designers often don’t hesitate to throw a female character into an unnecessarily sexy outfit, or to emphasize parts of their bodies through character design choices, camera angles, use of the “male gaze”, etc. But MJ is an incredibly refreshing departure from that insulting cliché. Her attire is always believable for the task at hand, she remains covered and modest, the camera doesn’t linger or pan, and there are no awkward and unnecessarily angled shots to emphasize or focus on particular parts of her body. In every way, when she is on the screen, she is treated the same as Peter Park. MJ is not eye candy or a sexy decoration, she is a human character, and treated with that respect.
MJ is compassionate. On top of being brave and strong, MJ does not lack a soft heart. Much of MJ’s motivations for what she does throughout the storyline comes from her desire to see justice and/or safety for others. MJ both recognizes and has sympathy towards the plights of others, driving her into a number of complicated or dangerous situations. This gentle nature also comes through in many occasions with how she handles and communicates with Peter. While she gets frustrated with Peter, she also shows empathy towards some of the more difficult decisions that he has to make throughout the story, not hesitating to lend him a listening ear, piece of advice, or shoulder to lean on, depending on what he needs in the moment.
Insomniac Game’s MJ is a well-rounded, relatable female character. I would even go so far as to say that this particular version of MJ is the kind of female representation that all video game developers should be aiming for. Or that all media should be aiming for, for that matter. It is certainly not every day that I come across a character that ticks all these boxes for me, let alone a female one. So, Insomnia Games, I would like to say thanks. And thanks again!
When was the last time you came across a character in media that you appreciated? What about that character did you appreciate? We are all drawn to such different qualities in a character, I would love to hear what different traits others find appealing. Share in the comments, below. You can reply to this message.