Melissa Silverstein over at Women and Hollywood took understandable umbrage at the flurry of articles discussing just which young actress would be playing Peter Parker's girlfriend (who apparently might not be Mary Jane) in the upcoming Spider-Man reboot. The finalists are apparently Emma Roberts, Teresa Palmer, Lilly Collins, and Imogen Poots, and Ophelia Lovibond. Her annoyance stems from the phrasing of these articles, which basically amounts to 'which promising young actress gets to play the quasi jail-bait piece of meat that Spidey rescues and then makes out with?' I wrote about this back in March. It's the dilemma of most working actresses, forced to choose either no mainstream work or be stuck playing the 'token female character/love interest'. I'm less offended in this case because we're talking about Spider-Man here. If we knew which one of Parker's comic book girlfriends was in the reboot, the articles simply would have read 'who's playing Mary Jane Watson/Gwen Stacey/Betty Brant/etc', and they would likely contain a token amount of comic book backstory. But the obstacle that actresses face, being cast only in relation to the male lead, is a fair charge and one worth repeating.
As for it being a token female role, it's all a matter of how the movie is. Like all genres, the comic book adaptation has a mixed record in the realm of female characters. While the out-and-out female superhero lineup is embarrassingly slim, being the female lead in a comic book film doesn't automatically doom you to tokenism. Compare the two Hulk movies. Liv Tyler's Betty Ross was relegated to being 'the girl' in The Incredible Hulk, but Jennifer Connely's Betty Ross was a fully-fleshed out lead character with a life and issues all her own in Hulk. The Ang Lee drama spent a large amount of time with Betty Ross in moments where Bruce Banner isn't around, which is the test of a full-blown female character. Alas, an even more valid contrast exists with the two Rachel Dawes character in Nolan's Batman pictures. In Batman Begins, Katie Holmes is not the love interest so much as Bruce's conscience and moral compass, a character with a strong point of view who moves the story along as a result of her compassionate morality (she was the Leslie Thompkins of that particular universe). Alas, in The Dark Knight, Maggie Gyllenhaal was basically the prize to be won between Wayne and Dent, and then regulated to a woman in a refrigerator. There are other bright spots. Pepper Potts's generally platonic relationship with Stark in Iron Man 2 was the best thing about that misfire, as she was an equal and confidante, someone who Stark trusted to call him out on his bullshit and keep him honest. She wasn't 'the girl', but a fully-fleshed out supporting character.
As for the Raimi Spider-Man films, they are at heart romantic dramas. The primary story IS the courtship between Parker and Mary Jane. Her issues and problems and character arc is about as important as Peter's (less so in the overrated second film, where she IS mainly a prize). There may have been web-slinging action and super hero fights, but the overreaching arc was a slow-building love story between nerdy outcast Peter Parker and abused child/would-be actress Mary Jane. To Raimi's credit, there was never any attempt to make Mary Jane a 'tough chick who can hold her own in the thick of battle', but instead gave Kirsten Dunst a three-dimensional character to play. Her role was especially beefed up in the somewhat unfairly maligned Spider-Man 3 (in fact, some of the criticism from male critics came from the large amount of screen-time devoted to Mary Jane's personal issues).
If this new Spider-Man reboot really does end up as an adaptation of Ultimate Spider-Man, then Mary Jane/Gwen Stacy will be every bit the 'lead character in her own life' that Peter Parker is. The Bendis books, at least in their initial years, focused even less on big-scale action than the movies, to the point where it was genuinely shocking when someone was murdered. If this new film is firmly planted as a character-driven teen romance with as much webslinging as $80 million can buy you, then there is no reason to assume that whomever gets the co-starring gig with Andrew Garfield will end up with little to do but bat her eyes and scream for her life. We'll see...