Comics fans react with disgust at photos of a woman on her way to work

The <em>New Statesman</em>'s senior geek misogyny reporter on the pictures of Shailene Woodley as Mary Jane Watson.

Yesterday, Sony Pictures released the first official images of Andrew Garfield's new costume in Amazing Spider-Man, and soon after, shots of the Garfield in action in and out of costume leaked.

Much discussion ensued about the changes made to the new costume, with these comments from Bleeding Cool a pretty representative cross-section:

As I said in the other thread about his lovely big new white Bagley eyes, I reckon that a lot of the changes Amazing made were not for the sake of making Spidey look better, or to make a better film, but changes that simply had to be made out of necessity in order to just make it so that the film was DIFFERENT from the Raimi movies. Now that that's done, it certainly looks like they've wound things back to a... well, a frankly astonishing level of comic-accuracy.

Impressive how the eyes changed the overall appearance.                        

This suit honestly couldn't look any worse to me. Every picture makes me less and less excited for this movie.

(I'm picking Bleeding Cool's comments as a vaguely representative example of geeky commenters)

Later that day, more paparazzi pics were revealed, of Shailene Woodley, the new Mary Jane Watson, on her way to the set. She doesn't seem to be in costume, beyond having MJ's famous red hair, and she's not made-up or professionally lit either.

So what did commenters think of Woodley?

Ew she's disgusting. They're spitting on comic books by making an ugly Mary Jane.                              

It's pretty clear that Gwen would have to die for that girl to have a chance with Peter.                              

Tiger, looks like you didn't hit the jackpot!                                                                           

I mean she's kinda plain and dumpy.                                                            

a quick google shows an average looking girl with makeup at best. You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig.

it must be exceedingly difficult to find a gorgeous girl in Hollywood since they have now failed in two attempts at MJ (Dunst looking good enough in the first one i guess, but deteriorating rapidly in 2 and 3).

There's actually 28 pages of people arguing whether Woodley is hot or not, seven times as many as there are talking about the new costume. (Although, like all comment threads, they go off-the-rails after a while. Flicking through, there's an intense argument over whether the phrase "lipstick on a pig" is sexist, and a fair amount of discussion about porn.)

That was nothing particular to Bleeding Cool — it was the same everywhere. Den of Geek's editor Simon Brew made the admirable decision to take down their post with the shots, writing:

For Den Of Geek - and I'm not saying we have a perfect track record here - can we try and have a conversation over someone's suitability for a role, rather than judging how they look when a photographer took a quick snap? 

I say this as a proudly ugly man, who hated the school playground beauty competitions that most of us have to go through.

People, follow this man's lead. Comics culture needs to get better in its treatment of women, and fast. Currently it seems to be on a downward trend.

Photograph: Sony Pictures

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.