Spider-Man and Debra Whitman: Substitute People and Surrogate Relationships

It’s time once more to talk about relationships and who doesn’t love that?  Clearly I do as this is the twelfth installment in my series using only Spider-Man comics to explore the variety of romantic archetypes we find in literature, illustrating the variety of romantic experiences we have in life.  While I knew nothing of Debra Whitman as a character before I began researching this piece, I found great affection for her by the end.  In the relationship she shares with Peter Parker we find an openness and vulnerability which, if received and reciprocated, would prove a beautiful foundation for a relationship.  Instead, Debra’s time with Peter becomes a cautionary tale about the importance of setting, articulating, and maintaining our boundaries and having our needs met within a relationship.

Every time I see Debra Whitman on a list of “every woman Peter Parker’s dated” or “Peter Parker’s most important relationships” her entry is always accompanied by the image below:

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 74 (2)

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This is the cover of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #74, released in January 1983.  Debra first appeared in The Amazing Spider-Man #196 in 1979 but this issue would mark her final appearance in the Spidey titles.  All the lists I found which included her talked of her “fragility” as a character and/or her “being driven mad” by her time with Peter.  With that setup, I certainly wasn’t ready for the dynamic, complex, compassionate character I found reading those comics.  This won’t be a piece about Debra’s fragility or her being timid or driven mad or anything like that.  Simply put, there’s so much more to her and she represents something more important than that, too.

You see, Debra Whitman is a substitute person.  

I nicked the term from Cameron Crow’s 2005 film, Elizabethtown.  In one scene, Claire (Kirsten Dunst) is walking down the street with Drew (Orlando Bloom) as they discuss their connection.

Drew – “You’re kinda great Claire, if you didn’t know that.  Sort of amazing…”

Claire – “[laughing] Oh come on.  I don’t need an ice cream cone.”

Drew – “It’s not an ice cream cone.  What’s an ice cream cone?”

Claire – “You know, ‘Here’s a little something to make you happy.  Something sweet that melts in five minutes.’  I’m completely cool with anything you wanna say or not say.  I don’t need it.  Besides, Ben [her boyfriend] is coming in tomorrow. [pause] Do you wanna hear my theory?”

Drew – “Of course.”

Claire – “You and I have a special talent, and I saw it immediately.”

Drew – “Tell me.”

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 94 (2)

Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Elizabethtown

Claire – “We’re the substitute people.”

Drew – “Substitute people?”

Claire – “[nodding her head] I’ve been the substitute person my whole life.  I’m not an Ellen [Drew’s ex].  I never wanted to be an Ellen.  And I’m not a Cindy either [the woman throwing the huge wedding with her husband-to-be, Chuck, at the hotel Drew’s staying at], although Chucks love me.”

Drew – “I’m sure they do.”

Claire – “I like being alone too much.  I mean I’m with a guy who’s married to his academic career.  I rarely see him and I’m the substitute person there.  I like it that way.  It’s a lot less pressure.”

Later, as they say goodnight, they almost kiss.  They lean in.  Their foreheads touch.  They nuzzle a bit.  And they just…linger there, with their lips mere inches apart.  When she finally pulls away Claire shakes her head and asks, “Didn’t it just feel better?  That we just didn’t do something impulsive?  I mean, hey, now we actually have a shot at being friends – for the rest of our lives.”

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 96

“You’re always trying to break-up with me and we’re not even together.” / Photo Credit – Paramount Pictures’ Elizabethtown

As the substitute person you exist in this awkwardly nebulous space within your relationship(s).  You’re the girlfriend/boyfriend.  You’re the best friend.  You’re the surrogate partner.  You’re the backup.  You’re the shoulder to cry on or the fun night out.  You’re any and all combinations of the above, shifting back and forth fluidly.  You’re whatever the other needs you to be and/or whatever you presume they need you to be.  Any number of reasons create this dynamic.  Maybe you don’t feel worthy of having your needs met within a relationship.  Maybe your helper part is running the show, so concerned with meeting the other’s needs you sacrifice your own along the way.  Maybe past wounding hasn’t healed and, as a result, you keep a distance which never allows a real, mutual relationship to form.  Maybe your impulse control is dialed up too high.  Maybe you’re scared of getting hurt or of hurting someone. 

Whatever the case, you move from shifting pseudo-relationship to shifting pseudo-relationship.  You morph within them, based on your would-be partner’s whims, and you never articulate what you want let alone what you need.  You may not even see your needs yourself.  You live the life of the substitute person, just like Debra Whitman.

There was so much potential for her and Peter as a couple, too!  While they meet briefly when Peter thinks Aunt May has just died, their first “real” meeting is Peter’s most adorable meet-cute.  To help with his tuition, Peter has taken a job as a teaching assistant in Empire State University’s biochemistry department.  Debra’s the department secretary.  This is the sort of setup Hallmark movies are built from.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 3

Meet-Cute Setup… / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 4 (2)

Meet-Cute executed! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra feels an instant connection with Peter.  On a river cruise the department takes one night, Debra begins to open up to him.  Peter, as always, is lost in his own personal problems.  Mary Jane dumped him not long ago.  There is nothing but tension between himself and  Marcy Kane, a colleague of his, who he’s attracted to anyway.  And, of course, he has his Spider-Man problems always swinging through his head.  As they talk, Debra immediately reassures Peter, telling him, “You’re a brilliant student!  A great teaching assistant.  You’ve so much to look forward to for the rest of your life.  And me, I’m only Dr. Sloan’s secretary. [scornfully] Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll go from a typing pool to a suburban swimming pool complete with husband and 2.5 kids.”

Peter reassures her, too, saying, “Hey Deb – come on!  You’ve got more on the ball than that!  There’s different types of smart – you’ve got the common sense kind!  You’re rating yourself too low, lady!”  Quietly Debra says, “I – I wish I could believe that, Pete.  And somehow, when you say it, I almost do.”  It’s a beautiful moment where they’re mutually seen and supported by each other…until Peter does what he always fucking does and disappears on Debra without even saying a word.  She’s open, vulnerable and…she looks up and he’s gone! 

Even if you have Spider-Man business to attend to, you could still say ‘goodbye’ to her you insensitive ass.  UGH.  Like Peter’s relationship with Michele Gonzales and the end of his relationship with Betty Brant, I became very frustrated with Peter here.  It’s not just that he isn’t hearing or supporting Debra (which he isn’t) but he isn’t even acknowledging her as a human being!  He literally treats her like nothing – like she doesn’t exist, like she isn’t even there – as he runs off without saying a word.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 6 (2)

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 7

For clarity, I didn’t edit any panels out to underscore my point. These seven panels played out exactly in this order. THIS is how Peter acted with Debra. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As a substitute person who plays that role due to her own deep, personal wounds, Debra takes the blame for Peter’s thoughtlessness on herself.  She has feelings for him but she won’t vocalize them.  After that night, she goes above and beyond to be helpful to Peter.  She goes out with him when he deigns to take her, even though it always ends with him ditching her.  She does his grocery/supply shopping for him whenever she sees a list he’s made lying on his desk as he’s “always so busy.”  She continues to get hurt yet she continues to be there, waiting and willing to be whomever Peter needs her to be, always hoping he’ll come around and see how good they could be together.  She plays whatever role he puts her in without a thought to advocating for her own needs.

Yes, Peter carries a lot of blame in this.  I really think, of allllllllllllllll the romantic relationships Peter’s had, he treats Debra the worst.  While there are explanations for his behavior (his unhealthy relationship with responsibility, formed in trauma left unacknowledged and unhealed, manifesting in his inability to accept we live in a world where bad things happen and that he can’t fix/control/save everything), there are no excuses.  Peter doesn’t just routinely ruin his own life, he regularly pollutes the lives of those he loves, too.  So yes, he is an ass to Debra and he has no business even thinking of dating someone until he takes responsibility in a healthy way for who he is and gets some help.  But Debra plays a role in this, too.

Debra obviously has feelings for Peter.  She likes him as more than a friend and it’s clear she’s felt that way from the start.  The first time we see her inner monologue, she’s thinking of Peter romantically.  But Debra is unable to tell Peter how she feels or what she wants.  She can’t draw clear boundaries nor articulate expectations in their relationship.  Instead she always accepts how Peter chooses to relate to her in any given moment.  This is the recipe for a toxic relationship.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 12

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Peter is always giving indications to Debra that he’s interested, treating her like a romantic partner.

Yet he routinely runs out on her and ignores her when they’re together.

And Peter takes advantage of Debra all the time.  In Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #50, aware of how she feels for him, Peter calls Debra in the middle of the night to ask her to go to dinner with Aunt May and her new fiancé the next day.  He openly tells her he has no one else to ask!  Then he reflects on how nice she is and maybe he should give more thought to dating her but she’s so “timid.”  I’m sorry but FUCK HIM.  Grrrrrr.  Of course Debra goes and she’s a great date!  It’s so obvious she as feelings for Peter but, as the substitute person, she’s not advocating for her needs and allowing Peter to take advantage of her.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 17

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Naturally, even when we struggle to see our own worth, we still retain some veneer of self-preservation.  By issue #56 Debra has pulled away from Peter.  This bothers him but, when Peter finally gets Debra to talk to him again, he gets a troubling phone call from Aunt May.  Debra offers to go with him and Peter brushes her off, needing to go into action as Spider-Man.  But he gives no real explanation!  Debra is left questioning herself – again.  He takes her out.  He blows her off.  He won’t acknowledge her…until she pulls away.  Then he keeps trying to get her to talk to him.  Once she does, he immediately blows her off again.  I AM SO UPSET WITH PETER FOR HOW HE TREATS HER.

As a fun fact/sidenote, in The Amazing Spider-Man #210 Debra will first introduce Madame Web into Peter’s world!  She wanted to see Madame Web to study “paranormal phenomena” and, while Peter makes light of it, Madame Web will change his life.  Also, as far as I’m concerned, the outfit Peter wears on their date-he-doesn’t-call-a-date-because-he’s-a-jerk-to-her in Chinatown when Debra first brings up Madame Web is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen Peter Parker wear.  Period.  Full stop.  It.  Is.  AMAZING.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 37

Why would you EVER buy another outfit after this one?!? / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

In The Amazing Spider-Man #211, Debra tells Peter of the trouble her uncle is having with his shipping business.  He may lose it all.  Since he’s being harassed by shady underworld elements, Debra tentatively asks Peter if, as a crime photographer, he might have any contacts who can help.  And he COULDN’T COMPLAIN MORE ABOUT IT.  Why is helping Debra and her family such a big deal?  When she laments her uncle’s trouble Peter thinks to himself, “When I originally offered to help, I didn’t realize what it would involve.  I can’t disrupt my life on the chance that I might do some good.  So why am I feeling guilty?  I don’t need this!”  Um, excuse me Peter but DISRUPTING YOUR LIFE ON THE CHANCE YOU MIGHT DO SOME GOOD IS LITERALLY ALL YOU DO ALWAYS SO WHY IS HELPING DEBRA’S UNCLE SUCH A CHORE YOU ASS??!!?!!??

The very next issue, Peter invites Debra along as he goes to do photos for the Bugle.  Is it a date?  Is he just using her for company?  He certainly doesn’t clearly communicate anything to her!  In a testament to how incredible a person she is, Debra instantly and effortlessly charms the infamously cantankerous J. Jonah Jameson.  Who does that?!!?  He even kisses her hand!  Honestly, I’ve come to really love Debra.  I feel for her, too!  And when Peter inevitably cuts out to do his Spidey thing, she’s disappointed but can’t voice it.

BUT IT’S ABOUT TO GET WORSE PEOPLE. 

The Amazing Spider-Man #215 has Peter lusting after his new neighbor.  He hopes she – a woman whose name he doesn’t even know yet – will tend his wounds and nurse him back to health after his fight with the Frightful Four.  And when she’s not home, he goes to find Debra instead!  After she cares for him for fourteen hours and he wakes up to a breakfast banquet she’s prepared for him and she tells him she got them tickets to a Broadway show, Peter bails on her to go looking for his neighbor.  He doesn’t even eat breakfast!  I HATE PETER RIGHT NOW.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 44

So let’s set the stage, shall we? This is Peter on his way to pick Debra up for a date when he sees his new neighbor. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 45 (2)

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 49 (2)

And this is Peter just A FEW DAYS LATER after he went to his “hot neighbor” WHOSE NAME HE DOESN’T EVEN KNOW first to see if she would nurse him back to health. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 50

I bet you would’ve stayed for breakfast and went to the show with your neighbor Peter. UGH. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Peter finally begins to feel a bit of frustration himself when, in The Amazing Spider-Man #216, he comes to Debra’s house hoping for her to bandage him up again…and some man he’s never seen before answers her door!  Biff Rifkin, an old friend of Debra’s, has come to visit and he’s staying with her.  Peter mopes as he leaves but…are we supposed to feel sorry for him?  Peter’s done nothing but use and then neglect Debra since they met!  Far from feeling bad for him I’m cheering on the (admittedly annoyingly written) Biff.  Debra deserves better.

As you’d expect, Peter does the mature thing.  In Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #58 it’s the start of a new term so Peter tries for a fresh start with Debra.  He takes her out to dinner, apologizes for all the times he stood her up – claiming he didn’t know he was standing her up.  She apologizes for thinking they were more than friends when they weren’t (and now Peter’s proving he’s as good at gaslighting as sticking to walls).  After dinner, Peter invites Debra back to his place for popcorn and asks her to tell him the story of her life.  Wait, did I say mature?  I meant emotionally manipulative.  As soon as he sees Biff around, Peter gets jealous and tries to “win” Debra for himself!

It’s rewarding to see Peter get jealous and confused in issue #60 over Debra’s time with Biff.  He thinks he’s “a total waste” and wonders “what she sees in him” BUT Peter isn’t offering her anything better.  C’mon guy!  You’re never around!  You’re never dependable!  You only call her when you need something!  And you’re a generally flaky person!  Who the hell are you to judge who she spends her time with especially when it’s clear she has feelings for you and you couldn’t care less about them??

Debra’s conflicted.  She can tell Peter doesn’t like Biff but she also knows Biff cares more for her than Peter does.  After Peter leaves her apartment abruptly after another lame excuse Debra thinks, “I suppose I should be angry with him again…but he seemed so upset!  Was it something I did?  Maybe I shouldn’t have invited him to dinner with Biff here.  Peter doesn’t seem to like Biff very much.  Admittedly, Biff can be a little self-centered at times – but he’s always been so considerate to me!  More so than Peter!  Peter is much nicer but I never know when he’ll just up and leave!”  We see establishing boundaries within her relationship with Peter, saying his disappearing act and his chronic lack of communication with her are unacceptable, isn’t something she thinks of doing.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 57

Debra is enjoying a night out with Biff until she sees Peter on his own and becomes conflicted :/. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As she dates Biff, Peter continues to vie for her attention…until Marcy Kane begins flirting with him a bit and then he completely forgets Debra…until he thinks of her with Biff and begins vying for her attention again.  Yet Debra keeps accepting whatever affection and attention he throws her way without advocating for her own needs within their awkwardly nebulous relationship or letting him go.  As a result Debra is left longing, wanting, and diminishing herself because Peter can’t/won’t make anything “official” between them.  She laments to herself, “Peter!  Oh, Peter!  I – I started dating Biff Rifkin because he is kind, and attentive…and you never seem to have time for me!  But there’s something about you that fills me with a longing I don’t dare express to you…for fear that you’d only reject me!  Peter’s studies place him on a plane beyond my comprehension, where he can only communicate with people like Dr. Sloan…and Marcy Kane!”  I just want to hug her and tell her she’s seen and accepted just as she is :/.

Regardless of how little she thinks of her own worth, Debra is brilliant and caring and attentive and as a result of that she manages to do something very, very, very few people in Peter Parker’s life ever have.  She figures out he’s Spider-Man.  George Stacy, retired police captain, who had a close relationship with Peter as himself and as Spider-Man couldn’t figure it out nor could his daughter, Gwen.  Betty Brant, a brilliant investigative reporter, couldn’t see it nor could J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, or any of the other reporters and photographers at The Daily Bugle.  Dr. Curt Conners, who also has a close relationship with Peter and with Spider-Man, never saw it either.  The list goes on and on.  But Debra Whitman, forever kept abandoned at arm’s length, cares enough about Peter, pays enough attention to Peter, and is smart enough to figure out he’s Spider-Man.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 91 (2)

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 92

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 70 (2)

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This revelation leads us to the end of Debra’s time with Peter (and her role in the comic) and there are the seeds for so much brilliance in its resolution…although it ends up a frustrating mess.

In Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #72, Debra goes to her psychiatrist to discuss her belief that Peter is Spider-Man.  On the surface, this is great!  Debra is a woman who has trouble setting boundaries, advocating for herself, seeing her own worth, and forging mutually symbiotic relationships with those around her.  Her seeing a professional provides her with the informed, objective guidance she needs and is also a good model to offer readers (in theory).  But then everything comes off the rails from there.

We see Debra say, “I – I know we’ve gone over this all before – my fantasies – the way I mix up what’s real and what isn’t!  But this time I’m sure I’m not imagining anything!  Oh, you’ll laugh.  You’ll say, ‘Debra, you’re being silly!’  But there’s no other answer for it!”  Then the shot pulls out and we see she’s talking to her stuffed animals in her apartment.  Debra continues, “Either the boy I think I’m in love with is Spider-Man…or I’m in more trouble than I thought!”  In her session, she tells her doctor, Bailey Kuklin, “You know all about my past.  I’m a very unstable person, doctor.  You see, I have this…difficulty…with separating what’s real from what isn’t.  That might not seem important to you…but try to imagine what it’s doing to me – to my ability to carry on a relationship with the boy I think I love!  Doctor, either Peter Parker is Spider-Man – or I am hopelessly insane!”

Dr. Kuklin seeks out Peter Parker in issue #73 to tell him of Debra’s “delusions.”  He tells Peter, “You see, Debra has a long history of reality/fantasy confusion.  In layman’s terms, she’s schizophrenic.”  Then he asks for Peter’s help in “shocking” Debra out of her “fantasies.”  He wants Peter to come to a session, dressed as Spider-Man, to show Debra how ridiculous the whole idea is.  Then, issue #74 opens with Debra in session with her psychiatrist.  After she leaves, Dr. Kuklin opens the door to the next room where he had Peter listening to Debra’s entire session to prove to him Debra’s delusions and see if it would change his mind about dressing up as Spider-Man for Debra.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 77 (2)

WORST. THERAPIST. EVER. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Ok.  So.  There are some things we need to talk about here.  Altered perceptions of reality and reality/fantasy confusion can be symptoms of schizophrenia.[1]  That’s fair.  But there is NO WAY IN HELL Debra’s psychiatrist should or even could have released that information to Peter let alone have him eavesdrop on a session!  That’s illegal and immoral in all sorts of ways – going back to Hippocrates and the invention of the Hippocratic Oath in the 4th century BCE!  Confidentiality may only be legally breached by a psychiatrist a) to warn someone who may be at risk from their patient, b) if their patient, of sound mind, waves their confidentiality privilege on a particular issue(s), or c) under court order in very specific instances.[2]  This is a terrible and completely inaccurate depiction of the psychiatric process which, as the comic was written in 1981, could be chalked up to less cultural knowledge about psychiatry then.  But if you’re going to include this as a story beat you should do your research!

It’s also beyond frustrating this is how they decide to write Debra out of Peter’s story.  It’s lazy and, honestly, more than a little insulting to the character they’ve crafted over the course of two years.  Nor does it fit with how they wrote her!  It just sort of comes out of nowhere.  She becomes another “hysterical woman” and Peter doesn’t have to deal with any of the fallout of Debra figuring out who he is or how he treated her. 

Completely out of nowhere and unlike any experience he’s had with her thus far, Peter decides to care about Debra.  Swinging away from her psychiatrist he thinks, “Of all the lousy times for this to happen!  I’ve got final exams coming, Aunt May needs money – and the Owl and Doctor Octopus are getting ready to turn the Big Apple into a battleground!  But Deb’s a friend!  She needs my help!  I won’t abandon her!”  Um, good for you, I guess?  Way to finally show Debra the most basic level of human compassion, Peter.  Trying to discern what to do, he seeks out his department chair, Dr. Sloan.  Sloan tells Peter, “Debra has a severe emotional problem, Mr. Parker.  I knew about it when I hired her right after her release from the hospital.”  Shocked, Peter asks, “What hospital?!  Why was she there??”  Dr. Sloan says, “I can’t breach that confidence (so SOMEONE understands how that works ◔_◔).  Perhaps her boyfriend – Biff Rifkin – can help you.  He and Debra went to college together.”

So Peter finds Biff and tells him he’s worried about Debra.  Biff gives Peter Debra’s story.  He explains Debra was married, though they’re separated now, in college to a man who physically abused her.  One night Biff broke into their home when he heard Debra’s husband hitting her.  He knocked her husband out and took Debra to the hospital.  He tells Peter, “Deb was a battered wife who let herself be battered because she refused to face reality.  She still persists in seeing people as they aren’t, Parker.  Me as a not-too-bright ‘Joe Jock’ – and you as attentive and considerate.”  With this inclusion of Debra being a survivor of abuse, the narrative becomes more problematic.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 82

Biff sits down with Peter and tells him Debra’s story. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

No victim of abuse lets the abuse happen.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s definition reads, “Domestic violence (also called intimate partner violence (IPV), domestic abuse or relationship abuse) is a pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another partner in an intimate relationship.[3]  The National Domestic Violence Hotline uses the Power and Control Wheel[4] “to describe most accurately what occurs in an abusive relationship.”[5]  Looking at Debra’s relationship with her ex, Lenore Walker’s classic 1979 text, The Battered Woman, is illuminating.  In her work, Walker describes the three stages of the cycle of violence.  Stage One is the Tension-Building Phase; Stage Two, the Acute Battering Phase; and Stage Three, the Loving-Contrition Phase and Desire for Reconciliation.[6]  In the Loving-Contrition Phase, the man is charming and manipulative.  He often convinces everyone, not just his partner.  The woman wants to believe him and even convinces herself she can.  She ends up feeling responsible for him.  And he plays dependent – he needs her and will fall apart without her.[7]  This often leads to a trauma bond or, “the strong emotional ties between two persons, with one person intermittently harassing, beating, threatening, abusing, or intimidating the other.”[8]

Conflating being unable to leave an abusive relationship with the distorted reality that may be a symptom of schizophrenia isn’t just inaccurate, it’s dangerously so.  It implies anyone who isn’t “refus[ing] to face reality” would and could just up and leave an abusive relationship.  That’s not the case.  To be fair, this comic was written in 1981 and the general awareness of these issues certainly wasn’t what it is now.  The Domestic Abuse Intervention Program in Duluth, Minnesota’s Power and Control Wheel was only just being developed in 1982.[9]  So expecting this comic to have the awareness of the nature of abusive relationships we have now in its narrative would be anachronistic.  Still, I do think it’s important to make this clear in a piece discussing Debra Whitman as a character and especially her romantic relationships.  Below is the Duluth Model’s Power and Control Wheel: 

Reylo 2

For more information on abusive relationships or if you’re in need of help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 or by clicking here at thehotline.org.

After talking with Biff, Peter FINALLY decides to do right by Debra.  Swinging over to her apartment he thinks, “The notion that Peter Parker is Spider-Man has been driving Deb off the deep end!  Well, the lady’s gonna find out she’s not crazy – even if it costs me my secret identity!”  Looking at what he’s done to Debra prompts a bit of a come-to-Jesus moment for Peter.  As he peers inside her window he thinks:

I’ve tried calling – but her phone’s off the hook!  No wonder!  She’s lying in bed – talking to her stuffed animals!  She seems totally cut off from reality!  According to Biff, Deb’s had serious problems before ever coming to New York – but that doesn’t change the fact that I helped trigger this breakdown!  If only I’d shown a little more concern…if only I’d paid attention to Deb’s problems…and to the needs of other such as my Uncle Ben and Aunt May, and Gwen and Captain Stacy – I might have spared everyone a lot of grief all the way down the line!  Well, I’ve got a chance to rectify that pattern…now!  Deb’s been driven to the edge because she knows I’m Spider-Man – and because her past makes it impossible for anyone to believe her!  For once she’s going to know she wasn’t fantasizing – that she was right all along!   

As Peter stands before Debra as Spider-Man, she asks, “Y-you are real, aren’t you?  This isn’t another of my fantasies?”  Peter assures her it isn’t and asks her to take his mask off.  Debra sees his face…and begins to laugh.  She thanks him for dressing up “in that absurd costume” to show her “what a fool I’ve been to let my fantasies run away with me again!”  She tells him he’s the best friend she’s ever had and Peter leaves, happy the doctor’s shock treatment worked after all.  He rectifies no patterns.  He, in fact, reinforces an unreal experience for Debra as opposed to having the courage to authentically be with her in all this.  It’s one of the most selfish and cowardly things Peter’s ever done.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 88

You tried to be better Peter, to REALLY be responsible…but then you fell back on your old habits. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

When we look at Peter Parker and Debra Whitman, there are two very different and very important sides to their relationship.  On the one hand, we see how their story ends.  A complex female character is written out of a story by making her “crazy” in a way which offers a hideously inaccurate depiction of how the mental health care profession works (even in 1981), presents a prejudiced understanding of mental illness in general and schizophrenia in particular, offers a dangerously inaccurate understanding of domestic abuse (from what we know now), and allows Peter to swing away without having to deal with any fallout from his actions.  That’s all troubling.

On the other hand, looking at everything that happens between Debra and Peter before Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #72, we find an intimate, honest, and painful look at what can happen when we don’t articulate our boundaries and advocate for our needs within a relationship and/or what happens when we pay no attention to a potential partner in any way other than what they can do for us.  Both serve as a cautionary tale and a call to action.  When we love another we offer them the whole of ourselves and we receive the same from them in return.  If it’s done in a healthy, supportive way it can yield the most beautiful, meaningful experiences of our lives.  But all the superpowers in the world don’t make you a healthy partner and sometimes seeing your own worth and advocating for yourself is harder than charging down a battlefield towards Thanos and his Black Order.  Yet there is nothing in life more important than learning a healthy way to love and be loved in return.

Debra Whitman and Spider-Man 56 (2)

Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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 Betty Brant: Complicated Affairs of the Heart uses one of the oldest characters in Spider-Man’s character history to explore everything from first crushes and first dates to the confusing pull of falling in love with someone who’s married.

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.

Spider-Man and Danielle: Wait…Is This A Date? dives into those oh-so-awkward questions that haunt the beginning of any would be romantic relationship were you try to figure out if you’re on a date with someone or just hanging out and all the discomfort and relief trying to figure that out can bring.


[1] Felix Torres (physician review), “What is Schizophrenia?”, American Psychiatric Association.  Published August 2020.  Accessed October 2, 2021.  https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/schizophrenia/what-is-schizophrenia

[2] Jacob M. Appel, “Trends in Confidentiality and Disclosure,” Focus: The Journal of Lifelong Learning in Psychiatry Vol. 17, Issue 4 (Fall 2019), Published Online: November 7, 2019 https://focus.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.focus.20190021

[3] “What Is Domestic Violence?,” National Domestic Violence Hotline.  Accessed October 25, 2019.  https://www.thehotline.org/is-this-abuse/abuse-defined/

[4] “Wheels,” Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs: Home of The Duluth Model.  Accessed October 25, 2019.  https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wheels/

[5] “What Is Domestic Violence?”

[6] Lenore Walker, The Battered Woman. (New York: Springer, 1979), 55-70. 

[7] David J. Livingston, Healing Violent Men: A Model for Christian Communities, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 13-4.

[8] Ibid., 19.

[9] Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs: Home of the Duluth Model, “The Development of the Power and Control Wheels, TheDuluthModel.org.  Accessed October 1, 2021.  https://www.theduluthmodel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/The-Development-of-the-Power-and-Control.pdf

2 thoughts on “Spider-Man and Debra Whitman: Substitute People and Surrogate Relationships

    1. Me, too! I would LOVE a one shot or a miniseries where Peter and MJ (or whoever he’s dating at the time) run into Debra and Bif and they are having a beautiful life together.

      And I completely agree. What has become this insanely intense, years-long deep dive into Peter Parker’s history through this series looking at this romantic relationships has really shown me how often he’s a jerk. Debra, Betty Brant, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane in so many ways again and again and again, etc. – he is such a selfish and inattentive partner. I wonder what the root of our fascination is? Do we not see it? Do we love him because we see ourselves in him? Does it give us something to transcend? I don’t know but it’s fascinating to,

      Like

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