Article Thumbnail

Teens Are Changing What It Means to Be Spider-Man

Frustrated by poor representation in Hollywood, Marvel fans and cosplayers are designing an even more inclusive Spider-Verse — on TikTok

As a kid, Rohann Asfaw’s favorite movies were the early-aughts Spider-Man series with Tobey Maguire. But it wasn’t until he saw 2018’s animated film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that Rohann felt he could actually be the web-slinger. Asfaw, who is black, had always loved Spidey, but he was never interested in cosplaying as him. Into the Spider-Verse, which features Afro-Latino lead character Miles Morales, changed everything, however.

Here’s Asfaw now:

The 19-year-old junior at the University of Virginia currently has more than 1 million followers on TikTok. He grew a massive following evoking Morales in his signature dark-blue Spidey suit. There’s just one drawback to his newfound popularity: “People like it a lot — to the point where they get mad if I try to cosplay someone else. ?”

On TikTok, There’s An Even More Inclusive Spider-Verse

Part of Spider-Man’s appeal is his universal story. Unlike millionaires Batman and Iron Man, the otherworldly Thor and Superman and genetically altered Captain America and Wolverine, Spider-Man is just a run-of-the-mill teenager who accidentally became a hero. It’s what makes him so popular. It’s also why the Spider-Man franchise has long been called upon to more accurately represent the diversity of its large fanbase.

To that end, for nearly a decade, social media campaigns have aimed to make the Spider-Man franchise more inclusive. Fans pushed hard in 2010 to cast Donald Glover for the part that eventually went to Andrew Garfield, and there was a renewed outcry when fellow white Brit Tom Holland got the revamped role (for the MCU) in 2017.

Then came Into the Spider-Verse, a film about a league of diverse Spider-Men teaming up to put the space-time continuum back in order. It brought us the actual first cinematic black Spider-Man — and female Spider-Man, anime Spider-Man, noir Spider-Man, pig Spider-Man… the list goes on. The film was universally praised, winning Best Animated Film at the Oscars and garnering a 97 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Finally, there was a Spider-Man for everyone.

Or almost everyone. Because, what of a gay Spidey?

On June 30th, Spider-Man: Far From Home actor Tom Holland told the U.K.’s Sunday Times that he’s open to the idea of playing Spider-Man as a gay superhero (as Garfield had also affirmed years prior). “The world isn’t as simple as a straight white guy. It doesn’t end there, and these films need to represent more than one type of person,” Holland said in the interview.

The idea of a gay Spider-Man prompted some backlash and debate on Twitter. But what many people missed is that the all-encompassing, inclusive world of Spider-Man — a world Hollywood largely failed to create — already exists. It’s just on TikTok.

There, queer Spider-Man fans are done waiting to find a version of the superhero that resembles them. Instead, they’re becoming their own gay Spider-Man. And a pansexual one, too. And a female Spidey who isn’t a separate character, like Gwen Stacy.

“Peter Parker is just meant to be this teenager (mostly) who has brown hair (again mostly) and has a friendly personality,” says Staz Victoria, a 19-year-old man who identifies as pansexual. “To me, Peter Parker can be anyone.”

View this post on Instagram

Happy Pride Month to those that are openly out in anyway, or even if you aren't out due to personal or safely reasons, either way you are valid and brave to me. I recently came out as pansexual myself personally after thinking I was a full gay boy for years and it wasn't an easy thing to come to when you've put into your head you are one thing for so many years and that's all you've ever known. Last year I ended up doing a sort of rainbow makeup for Pride but this time I wanted to find a character that I related to a lot and in my own way I felt was kind in my boat. So last night I got into Spiderman again for fun and this message, now please note this is my own personal opinion but I truly believe Peter Parker aka Spiderman would be pan and or bi, I feel like due to his nature and personality he would love anyone and everyone, including falling for anyone if they were the right person, he wouldn't care what or who they were, he would love them unconditionally. So for this year I wanted to use my Spiderman as my symbol for my sexuality and how I will love anyone and everyone too no matter what the label too. (Also I'm just a dirty SpidermanXDeadpool shipper so ?)

A post shared by The OncelerWarden/Harem King (@yandere_oji) on

‘A Girl Can Do It Too’

More than 192,000 followers on TikTok tune in to see Lily Price as a female Spider-Man. No, not Gwen Stacy (aka Spider-Gwen), Peter Parker’s love interest. “Gwen is cool and all, but I’ve always wanted to be Spider-Man,” Price explains.

She doesn’t bind her chest or wear a boy-cut wig (and that’s not because she doesn’t appreciate drag king Peter Parkers). Price just really loves the idea of a feminine Spider-Man. “If all these people can get famous cosplaying Spider-Man, a girl can do it too,” she says.

That’s not to say there aren’t teens going for reality and trying to look the most like Tom Holland, too. “It helps me to stand out a bit more as people flock to my content to see more ‘canon’ content,” says Peter Kennedy, an out gay teen who calls himself “St. Louis’ Very Own Amazing Spider-Man.”

Others stumbled into Spidey-lookalike fame when the character was recast. Christian Costanzo started cosplaying as Peter Parker in 2014 when Garfield donned the red suit in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But when Holland — who like Costanzo is slender and under six feet, with a short, cropped haircut — took over, Costanzo’s cache really rose. “I just happened to look a lot like Tom when the movies came out, so, in reality, all I had to change was the suit,” he says.

With A Great Costume Comes Great Responsibility

Most Spider-Man cosplayers I spoke with emphasized the importance of their Spidey suit. Chinese clothing company Zentaizone was routinely mentioned as the go-to distributor for quality lycra suits in prints for Peter Parker, Miles Morales or Gwen Stacy. That said, it’s not just about the quality of the suit — it’s what it signifies. “Putting on the Spidey suit gives me a sense of direction,” explains Madison, a female cosplayer who posts on TikTok under the name French Friar.

She says that wearing the suit with her boy wig and chest binder gives her a sense of power and purpose — which she believes is what Spider-Man is truly about. “When I put on the suit, I also wear the responsibility of being a good person and making sure others are happy,” Madison tells me. “That’s the image Spider-Man should give off: When he’s around, you’re safe.”