In the seventh installment of my li’l series exploring the variety of romantic archetypes found in literature (illustrating the variety of romantic experiences we find in life) using only Spider-Man comics, I’m examining Peter Parker’s relationship with Betty Brant. This relationship represents a lot for Peter. She was his first date. She was his first girlfriend. She was his first crush-he-saw-as-love. But as they grew up their relationship became complicated. We love to invoke that relationship descriptor – It’s complicated – and Peter and Betty perfectly embody it. We’ve all been there ourselves though, in one way or another, so in their relationship we find something that resonates and – maybe! – something that makes us feel a little bit better about our own complicated loves, too.
Betty Brant was introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #4, released in September of 1963. So, in a narrative sense, Betty’s been a part of Peter Parker’s life longer than most characters. In an effort to find a source of income to help Aunt May with their always overdue bills, Peter started selling Spidey pics to newspapers. This led him to The Daily Bugle and the infamously grumpy publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. Betty was JJ’s secretary. In addition to dealing with Jameson’s diatribes, Betty would always stick up for Peter. She’d make certain he was fairly paid for his pictures. And it was clear she thought this kid was kinda cute from the beginning, too. For his part, Peter falls for Betty immediately…the moment she says something nice about him.
But think about it! Peter’s a sixteen-year-old kid! Isn’t that just the way it works? All those hormones are raging, you have NO IDEA how to navigate the world of romance you’re on the threshold of, and then someone of the gender to which you’re attracted says something nice to you and – BOOM – it’s LOVE. Hahahaha, we have just soooooooo many crushes/”loves” in high school XD. There’s clearly an age difference, too. Traditionally Peter is seen as fifteen when he’s bitten by that radioactive spider. There’s no exact time stamp on how long it’s been from the bite to his selling photos to The Daily Bugle but it can’t be that long. So it’s safe to say Peter’s maybe sixteen and Betty Brant is working full time for Jameson. Once their chemistry picks up, Stan Lee makes a point in the story of saying Betty had to drop out of high school due to needing money and Peter is “seventeen” and “a high school senior.” But, logically, Betty has at least a few years on Peter.
At this point in his life, Peter has no one. It’s painful at times, reading these first issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, to see how alone Peter is. He is doted on by Aunt May but he can’t confide in her. With her always ailing health, Peter fears the effect excessive worrying will have on her heart. At school he is bullied and ostracized by everyone. At the Bugle, JJ recognizes his talent but harasses and haggles with him all the time. Peter hasn’t a single mutually supportive relationship in his life. It’s Peter, Aunt May, and his double life as Spider-Man. That’s it. Then he meets Betty Brant.
While the crush blossoms from a few nice words, we do see beautiful moments of sincere tenderness between Betty and Peter. In issue #9, when Aunt May becomes terribly sick and has to go in for surgery Peter can’t afford, he finds Betty waiting at the hospital with her. Peter doesn’t ask her to do that. He doesn’t even tell her Aunt May’s sick. Most likely Betty found out at work, as Peter asked JJ for money. On her own, Betty goes to be with May and with Peter. She checks in on him at work. And she sits with him all through the night as they wait for the results of May’s surgery. They wait, for much of the time, in silence. Betty is just there with Peter, for Peter. We should all be so lucky as to have someone like that in our lives.
Sure, they’ve flirted here and there but their romantic relationship will grow from this foundation of care and support. It’s a tender, intimate, beautiful beginning to a relationship…but they’re still kids. So Peter, unable to recognize much less understand Betty as a complex individual separate from himself, sees all her emotions as being a direct reflection on how she feels about him. He can’t conceive of her having a life larger than their dating. And Betty certainly has problems of her own. Her brother, Bennett (clearly their parents really liked alliteration), was a crooked lawyer for mob bosses with an excessive gambling problem. She originally dropped out of school to try and help pay off his debts. Naturally, Betty needs a lot more stability than Peter’s constant disappearances can provide her.
Given her background, Betty is always worried about Peter (as being a crime photographer is a dangerous job) and she has a serious problem with the secrets she can tell he keeps from her (shaped by her experience with Bennett). Betty doesn’t always communicate her feelings immediately – but she always does! However, Peter is just terrible at understanding any of it and whenever she pulls away or expresses any feeling other than joy – even when she explains how she’s feeling and why – he believes it has to be because she doesn’t like him or she likes someone else or because “girls are impossibly confusing!”
Ultimately they break-up. Peter’s constant disappearances, the fact that he actively encourages Betty not to go places with him (when he knows he’ll have to become Spider-Man), and all the attention his classmate Liz Allen starts showering on “Petey,” leads Betty to end their relationship. It’s clear they both still have feelings for each other but it’s just not working. Betty can’t feel secure in their relationship and – given both her brother’s life and the fact that he died (in a skirmish involving the mob boss Blackie Glaxxton, Doctor Octopus, and Spider-Man) – she needs stability. She needs security. And Peter’s just a seventeen-year-old kid who can’t begin to understand any of the emotional needs Betty has let alone how to communicate clearly or balance his still relatively new double life.
Peter and Betty remain close friends as they both continued working at the Bugle. Peter would eventually find a serious relationship – his first true love – in Gwen Stacy and then go on to date Mary Jane. Betty would begin to date the reporter Ned Leeds, whom she would eventually marry. Their honeymoon would take Betty and Ned abroad and they’d end up living in Paris as Ned became a foreign correspondent for The Daily Bugle.
But that’s not the end of Betty and Peter’s romance. Like I said, it’s complicated.
Fresh off Mary Jane rejecting his marriage proposal and breaking up with him, Peter comes home to find Betty waiting for him in his apartment. Betty tells Peter she’s left Ned. Their marriage wasn’t fulfilling her. He was always trapesing around the globe leaving her to sit at home, alone. She says she’s returned to New York to begin her life anew and…she was hoping to begin her relationship with Peter again, too. Betty tells Peter she’s always loved him. In many ways, Ned was an attempt to get over him and, while she did love Ned, their relationship wasn’t what she wanted. Vows or not, her heart wasn’t calling her to Ned.
Peter doesn’t really know how to respond to this. He still has feelings for Betty but she’s married. Betty tells Peter her marriage is over. She and Ned are separated and she is in the process of filing for divorce. Peter is torn and doesn’t really know what to do as they both begin to take tentative steps back towards each other. They hang out a lot together. They go out to dinner. They spend nights talking until dawn. They share deep emotional intimacy and all the feelings are there but there’s nothing physical between them outside of some hand holding.
Peter is understandably conflicted. Think of the situation. He’s just ended a relationship himself. He wanted more than MJ was willing to give him. Now Betty returns and she is looking for more. They both still have all these old feelings. But she’s married. But she’s told him her marriage is over. But she’s married. But she’s separated. But. But. But. But. But. But…
The warring emotional forces in a situation like this are complex and exhausting. You have your own desires, wants, and needs. You hear the desires, wants, and needs your potential partner is communicating. But there is this whole messy construct of cultural expectations and taboos hanging over you. Is the marriage over? When is a marriage really over? Who decides? Does there have to be time before jumping into a new relationship? Is that your call to make? Is it their call to make? Are they in a secure enough emotional place to make that call? When will they be? Is that for you to decide or question? What is the real difference between being separated and being divorced? What is your moral and/or ethical obligation here? What of the cultural judgment that comes with it?
And what of your own feelings? If love really is the highest law, if love really is God as so many of our religious traditions affirm, then shouldn’t love triumph over everything? Wouldn’t ignoring the call of love then be the same as ignoring God’s call? Is love that to which you owe your highest allegiance? But what of the rules, values, and judgments of our societal structures? And is this even love?! Or is it lust or desire or possession or rebounding masquerading as love?
See? It’s complicated.
Despite it’s complicated, uncomfortable nature, the idea of the affair is something we see allllllllllllllllllllll over our cultural narratives – from poems to playsto novels to TV shows to movies. Heck, take two seconds to think of pop music. I’d argue Bruce Springsteen’s sexiest song, by far, is “I’m On Fire.” There’s Billy Paul’s iconically sensual “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Who can forget Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)”? There’s Luther Ingram’s heated lamentation, “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want To Be Right.” And my personal favorite, Uncle Kracker’s fun, hooky, breezy, beach-ready “Follow Me” where he just sort of slips in there, “I’m not worried ‘bout the ring you wear / ‘Cause as long as no one knows than nobody can care / You’re feelin’ guilty and I’m well aware / But you don’t look ashamed and baby I’m not scared.” And this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list! Those were literally just the first songs to pop into my head as I typed. This isn’t a current trend either. Last summer Briana wrote a post on Pages Unbound about Béroul’s The Romance of Tristan, one of the oldest surviving copies of the story of Yseut and Tristan’s passionate love affair behind the back of Yseut’s husband, King Mark of Cornwall. That’s from the mid-1100’s! And it’s far from the earliest story like this.
Sooooo…why? Why is this idea of the affair everywhere through our history in the art we produce and the stories we tell? I’d argue there’s two primary explanations. First, the affair is something we’re naturally fascinated by and thus drawn to contemplate. It can be sexy and fun in a forbidden way and we enjoy thinking about that…in a fictional sense, far from our own relationships which we’d much rather be strong, safe, and secure thank you very much. Second, art imitates life and these things happen. As often as we may wish otherwise, we can’t control our hearts. If love is God, then the idea that we can control love is as fallacious as the idea we can or should be able to bend God to our will. And that’s scary!!! We want certainty!!! But we can’t guarantee it.
And…isn’t that part of the beauty of love? U2 capture this in their song “Moment of Surrender” where they describe love as a “vision over visibility.” Think of the language. A vision is the stuff of mystics. That’s what love is! We can’t ever see clearly but in pursuing this vision we can find something mystical, something divine. Yet we can’t ever be sure. We can never guarantee forever – we can only be courageous enough to live and to love in hope.
To his credit, Marv Wolfman, who was the author of these issues of The Amazing Spider-Man, doesn’t shy away from the complicated nature of all of this. In as real a way as the thought bubbles of the comic book medium will allow, he has Peter really wrestle with his feelings for Betty, what her feelings really are, and what the right thing to do is.
For all Peter’s confusion, Betty is very clear about where she’s at and what she wants. She communicates her choice with perfect clarity, saying it directly again and again. She married Ned. Their marriage didn’t work. She is ready to move on and rebuild her life. She loved Peter. She still loves Peter. And she wants to see if they can pick-up where they left off. She is separated and she is taking the steps necessary to divorce.
So what do we do with all of this? We have Peter’s guilt and Peter’s desire and all the tension Peter feels with what culture says is “right” and “wrong.” But what of Betty? What of Betty as an independent woman, a character with agency in her own right? What of her choice? All of this is complicated by the very unhealthy cultural lessons we’ve internalized that see the end of anything – a dating relationship, an engagement, a marriage – as a failure. In reality, relationships end because people change. Sometimes we are lucky enough to change in the same way with the same person for our entire life. And that is a beautiful blessing! But when that doesn’t happen the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do, the healthy thing to do is to end the relationship. When our needs aren’t being met then staying becomes unhealthy, no matter what we’ve been indoctrinated with by culture and society.
In addition to being so sure of what she wants, Betty is so thoughtful. As soon as she’s back in town, she goes with Peter to visit Aunt May who’s in the hospital recovering after a heart attack. As Peter prepares to graduate college, she hangs out with him as he does all the boring paperwork that goes with that and tells him how proud she is of him for graduating. When it’s clear Peter’s under a lot of stress – worrying about Aunt May, school, work, finances – she calls up his best friends and surprises Peter with a nighttime cruise on the river. And when it’s time for Peter to really graduate (re: pick up his diploma at the office in ESU because he was one credit shy of actually graduating before), Betty calls his friends again so they could all be waiting there to celebrate with Peter. She even calls Mary Jane, despite her being a “rival” for Peter’s affection. Betty Brant is just a good person.
The fact that Betty’s a good person adds an important, realistic dimension to this. It’s not always the callous, the cruel, or the cowardly who falls into the affair. Sure, sometimes people can engage in an affair because they just don’t care. But more often they happen because life is complicated and messy and confusing and we too can be a hot mess of complications and confusion. It would be easy to paint Betty as some sort of harlot and Peter as some Don Juan. But it wouldn’t do much to reflect the truth of the deep, oft unsettling, complications and complexity the human heart can find itself wrapped up in as it seeks the divine experience of a soul-sharing love.
How far do Peter and Betty go in their relationship? They certainly spend a lot of time together and they talk about being “together” and they eventually share passionate kisses. Yet a very-debated sequence of panels raises the question of whether or not they have sex, too. Here’s how it plays out:
After that sensual smoochin’ they cut away. The narration of the very next panel of Spider-Man swinging over the city reads, “They say discretion is the better part of valor. So let’s leave our twosome and pick up on a somewhat agitated Spider-Man several hours later…” Sooooooooo, what was that smoochin’ twosome doing for “several hours”? Why is Peter so “agitated”? Peter ponders, “So maybe I do love her…what’s wrong with that? She is separated. And she says she’s filing for divorce. And heck…after everything bad that’s come down the pike, I deserve a good break now and then.” He’s right, too! Maybe he loves her and, if he does, there’s nothing wrong with that. She is separated. She is filing for divorce. And everyone does deserve a good break now and then. But is he justifying a budding relationship with Betty? Or their having sex? Or both?
It certainly seems like Peter and Betty had sex. At least it’s strongly implied. Then societal standards and taboos leave Peter trying to work through all the culturally-manufactured guilt and confusion as Spider-Man, swinging around the city after they have sex.
Regardless, their relationship hits an abrupt speed bump when a very angry Ned Leeds returns from Europe looking for Betty. He hauls off and punches Peter, yelling, “TAKE YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF MY WIFE, PARKER! Get out of her life mister – or so help me, I’ll kill you!” Betty tells Ned, “You don’t understand…it’s not Peter’s fault! I came to him! Ned, please listen to me…” Ned says, “I don’t care whose fault it is! You’re my wife…you have no business hanging around this creep. No, Betty – you’re going to listen to ME. C’MON! Let’s get out of here!”
Later, at the Bugle, Ned confronts Betty again. He asks, “C’mon Betty, let’s have this out. What’s Parker got that I haven’t got? Well? You’re my wife. You owe me an explanation! I come back from an assignment and you’re gone!” Betty says, “That was the problem, Ned. You were always on assignment…somewhere. Peter was with me when I needed him.” Ultimately, Ned will confront Peter with Betty. Ned says, “All right, Parker – we’re going to end this game right now. Tell my wife you’ll never see her again!” Betty says, “You don’t have to Peter…tell him you care about me…” Peter, stunned, tries to get his barring as Ned forces the issue, “C’mon Parker – I’m getting sick of waiting for your answer! Are you going to stand between Betty and me? Are you going to break up our marriage!??”
Frustrated and angered by Ned grabbing his injured arm, Peter yells, “That tears it mister – get your hands off me – NOW! You want an answer, I’ll give you one! I don’t wanna see either of you loonies again!” With her heart breaking Betty asks, “What do you mean, Peter? We…we care for each other!” Peter thinks, “Now’s my chance…if I’m a heel, Betty will go back to Ned. I can never be the kind of husband Betty needs.” So he tells her, “Care? Don’t make me laugh Betty…you were just convenient…you showed up when Mary Jane jilted me!” Crying Betty says, “No! You can’t mean that!” Peter says, “Don’t bet on it, lady!” And, after a moment of stunned silence, Betty smacks Peter and says, “How could I have been so wrong about you? How could you say what you did? I – I came to you as a friend…oh, what a fool I’ve been…!”
Looking at that exchange, at what point does anyone – Peter or Ned – listen to Betty’s needs? Ned tells Peter to take his hands off “MY WIFE” and ignores Betty when she says she came to Peter. After hitting the possessive “my wife” again, Ned tells Betty, “you’re going to listen to ME.” When he asks, Betty explains that Peter was there for her when she needed him and that’s what she needs in a partner. Despite Betty explaining her choice, Ned still confronts Peter yelling, “Are you going to stand between Betty and me? Are you going to break up our marriage!??” Nowhere in any of this is Ned acknowledging that Betty is unhappy, that Betty wants to divorce – that Betty needs a divorce to find a healthy relationship. Then Peter just decides, “Now’s my chance…if I’m a heel, Betty will go back to Ned. I can never be the kind of husband Betty needs.” Yet Peter’s not listening to Betty as she’s voiced her needs to him over and over again.
I can understand Peter’s actions. He was unsure of their relationship, scared of the cultural judgment that came with it, and probably more than a little scared of his feelings for a “married woman,” too. But while I can understand his actions, they are far from healthy or mature. As when they were kids, Peter’s ability to communicate and to listen is terrible. Betty has told him again and again and again what she wants – and that it’s Peter – but he decides he “can never be the kind of husband Betty needs.” Then, Peter is horrible to Betty so she’ll do the “right” thing. He disregards her clearly communicated feelings, needs, and choices and proceeds to make her choice for her, via searing emotional abuse. He completely removes Betty from the equation! Of course Peter knows what’s best for her so he’s going to make sure that happens. If Peter wanted to end their relationship, that’s one thing. He could’ve done so with an honest, open conversation with Betty. Instead HE decides what’s right for HER and leaves some pretty heavy emotional scarring in his wake. When I read this story I am so disappointed in Peter and my heart breaks for Betty. She deserves so much more.
Even knowing Peter will end up with Mary Jane a few years after these stories (and loving Peter with Mary Jane!) I still find myself rooting for Betty when I read these comics. Betty is such a good person and there was so much loving support in their relationship. Peter just didn’t know how to handle it – as a high schooler or as an adult. In Betty and Peter’s relationship we see a testament to all the confusing, pained complications pursuing love can bring. We see a relationship end, in two different stages of intensity and complications, because Peter doesn’t know how to handle his emotions, care for the emotions of his partner, or communicate with clarity. He lacks the courage, too, to trust his heart and listen to love in the face of cultural taboos while Betty is left rejected and broken in heart and soul for having such courage. Peter and Betty will go on to rebuild their friendship but, understandably, it will always be a bit tenuous. So we also see that some things can be damaged irreparably in the pursuit of love. Love asks everything of us. In love, we give the whole of ourselves in a way we don’t do with anything else so, in love, we have the potential to be hurt like nothing else can hurt us.
But it’s worth it in the end. Isn’t it? Isn’t that why we keep following love, throwing ourselves in body and soul, no matter how badly our hearts have been broken? Yes, love is often complicated. It can be messy and confusing and downright painful, following no rules but its own. Yet when we have the courage to hold fast to love and listen to our hearts no matter what lies and half-truths society, culture, and our own fears will tell us – courage Betty Brant had, that Peter Parker was too scared to share – we can find everything. We just need to be like Betty Brant. Regardless of whose name is on the cover, in this relationship she was the real superhero.
Want more of my li’l series exploring romantic archetypes using Spider-Man comics? Well you’re in luck! Check out:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat: Flirting with Perfection to see how the Black Cat represents those people we know may be wrong for us and/or we know it won’t work out with in the long run…but we’re drawn to them all the same and we seemingly can’t stop flirting with or the pursuing them no matter how hard we try :).
Spider-Man and Mary Jane: Soul Mates? (Y/N/Maybe) for an examination of Peter and Mary Jane’s relationship, with a focus on the question of Soul Mates as well as the classic romantic tropes of the will-they-won’t-they and best-friends-first relationships.
Spider-Man and the Spider Family: A Look At What Might Have Been… to contemplate the “What if…?” people we think of when we consider our romantic “what might have been”s care of the alternate reality series The Amazing Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows.
Spider-Man and Gwen Stacy: All the Beautiful Angst of First Love to consider how Gwen Stacy has far more significance than just “the girl who died” and how her relationship with Peter perfectly presents all the awkward, cringy, and still oh-so-magical moments of the first time we fall in love.
Spider-Man and Silk: You Gotta Love A Physical Attraction to look at Peter and Cindy Moon’s relationship as an example of those people who inexplicably turn us on. The attraction, the draw to these people, is like a force of nature, completely beyond our control. It’s fun buuuut complicated without romantic feelings, too.
Spider-Man and Captain Marvel: The Super Friend Zone which uses the one date Peter and Carol Danvers went on as the frame to examine the friends we’re attracted to, the nature of “the Friend Zone,” and what we do when we start to feel a li’l romantic and/or sexual chemistry percolating in a platonic pairing.
Spider-Man and Michele Gonzales: Hook-Ups, Hang Ups, and Bad Habits and explore how all the personal problems and issues and baggage we have that we refuse to acknowledge/own/see can hurt our ability to make it work with a really fantastic partner, as well as what happens when we meet someone who calls us on all our shit.
Spider-Man and Mockingbird: The Allure of the Workplace Romance looks at Peter’s relationship with Bobbi Morse during his time as CEO of Parker Industries to consider why we are so drawn to the workplace romance…and what awkwardness may be waiting for us if it doesn’t work out.
Spider-Man and Jessica Jones: Harkening Back to the High School Crush opens the door to reminisce about allllllllllll those awkward, anxiety-filled high school crushes we had and could never find the courage to act on while also considering the influence we may have on all the people we hardly know who come in and out of our lives.
Spider-Man and Jean DeWolff: The Lonely Echo of Unrequited Love is a sort of mirror to the cute-anxious experience of the crushes we don’t voice in high school, as it examines the very real pain we can carry in our hearts when we love someone who has no idea how we feel nor loves us back in the way we love them.