Hot on the heels of the announcement that the Spider-Man film franchise would feature a teenage reboot akin to X-Men, I read an article filled with reactions from comic book professionals. One response was from seasoned artist Gerry Conway who said:
"I also was never fond of Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane. Again, a terrific actor, but she didn't strike me as the right casting for MJ -- MJ, in my view, is a woman who's cursed by the expectations others have for her based on her appearance. She should appear to be a vaguely slutty babe, and whatever one might say about Dunst, wonderful actress that she may be, a babe she's not.... [S]he should present as a Bad Girl, as misunderstood and underestimated by the world as Peter is. Recasting these actors can only improve the impact of the franchise."
It made me start to think about the role of the romantic interest in the realm of action/adventure. What does it take to be the leading lady to a leading man? When you are the non-powered, ever present damsel-in-distress, what qualities do you need to compliment your stalwart hero?
Indisputably the most iconic damsel-in-distress in comics, Lois may in fact be the most recognizable D.I.D. in the world. On one level, Lois is the ultimate gold digger. Often in the comics she either dates or has dated Lex Luthor, indicating her preference for powerful men. The irony in her character is that she is chasing the world's most powerful and inaccessible man while ignoring the shy, honest, and intelligent Clark Kent sitting at the desk next to her.
What works about this relationship is that Lois Lane may shoot for the most powerful man on Earth, but she is tough enough to deal with him. Lois is someone who thrives by adversity. She is a hard-nosed journalist who believes in truth, justice, and the American way.
Superman's childhood love interest was usually used as a foil against Lois, but in the overall Superman mythos, she represents Clark's youth in Smallville. She is his first love and there will never be another like her, but ultimately, Clark has to grow up and leave behind the simple life he had probably imagined before gaining his powers.
Mary Jane Watson
As Mr. Conway pointed out, there was always something a bit slutty about MJ. This is not meant to disparage her. There is nothing wrong with being slutty, but she showed up at Peter Parker's door with the words, "Face it, Tiger, you just hit the jackpot!" She is a model and actress who has always wanted to be a model and actress. Essentially, she is someone who is really extroverted and an exhibitionist... as compared to Peter who is quite, humble, and often happy to go relatively unnoticed.
This dichotomy is not something addressed much in the Spider-Man mythos. Mainly, they focus on the usual problem with superheroes being late for dates thereby making their girlfriend mad. But seeing as Peter Parker is quite definitely a science geek while MJ is a drama queen, there is a lot of tension to be exploited in this relationship.
Adding another layer of complexity to their relationship is Peter's relationship with Gwen Stacy. Although I'm not old enough to have read much about her before she died, the significance of Gwen Stacy has echoed long after her death... largely because of it. Even in the issue where Peter marries Mary Jane, he spends his last night as a bachelor thinking Gwen Stacy was the real love of his life that he lost. Seeing as fans and writers alike seem to have mixed feelings about his relationship with Mary Jane, maybe Spider-Man is just not a character who should have a single love.
Again, although I didn't read the original comics, subsequent comics have portrayed Gwen as a bright light in Peter's often miserable life. Consequently, Peter looks back at this relationship and has to wonder if he missed the one girl for him.
Hal "Green Lantern" Jordan's lady love was actually his boss. A strange situation to be in, Carol was constantly stringing Hal along while chasing Green Lantern, echoing Lois Lane's relationship with Superman.
The dynamic is an interesting one. In many ways, Hal is more of an old-fashioned guy than the other superheroes. He is a soldier and a test pilot practically oozing machismo, so it's interesting that the woman of his dreams was a young woman who ran a major aeronautics company. It isn't really surprising that Hal had trouble trying to get her to settle down and commit to him.
The Flash's lady love was one of the few who didn't have her eye on a certain spandex clad local hero, despite her being a reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper. Her only really purpose in the story was to ironically call Barry Allen the slowest man on Earth because he could never keep appointments while saving humanity as the Flash.
Our only male entry in "damsels-in-distress," Steve Trevor definitely qualifies. This career military officer had his eyes on Wonder Woman from the beginning, but overlooked the dowdy, bespectacled Diana Prince.
Like Hal Jordan, he reversed gender expectations by chasing after the unachievable woman. Through her rejection of Steve, Diana was demonstrating that she did not want to be subordinate to a man... although she would be subordinate to a woman and had occasional thoughts of having Steve subordinate to her.
Possibly the best damsel-in-distress ever! She is the whole motivation of the first and best Star Wars film perfectly demonstrating the trope of the princess captured by a dark and evil king in an inaccessible fortress. She lies to her captors, insults her rescuers, then steals a blaster and starts taking command. She also likes to kiss her brother and bang scruffy looking men.
Angelina Jolie will be playing her in the remake.
Kyle Rayner's girlfriend was created to give him a sense of revenge and is used as short hand for misogyny demonstrated through harming female characters to motivate male characters to avenge them. Personally, I think it's kind of a silly thing to get upset about.
Most Modern Playboy Award
And the award for pop culture icon least needing a significant other to define him goes to... Batman! Here is a man who has never been awkwardly paired with any woman consistently throughout his many incarnations. The first comics featured his girlfriend, Julie Madison; the first movie co-starred Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale; Talia had his baby; and Catwoman married him in an alternate universe, but no one can really tie him down.
Although I may be forgetting someone...