Thursday, May 12, 2016

Friendship Doesn't Have An End Goal - Discussing 'Hawkeye'

You know what? It says depressing and awful things about us as a culture and society that when I try to think of friendships between men and women that start as friendship and stay as friendship and never veer into something that isn't friendship, I am struck dumb with the difficulty. 

I mean, when you factor out stories where one or the other of the characters isn't human and stories where one or the other of the characters is absolutely definitely gay (and not Chasing Amy gay) and stories where the characters are separated by a significant age gap and stories where the characters are related, stories about heterosexual men and women being friends and just friends are in alarmingly short supply.

Maybe it's because we've all been brainwashed by When Harry Met Sally, but it does seem pretty clear that our culture has bought wholeheartedly into the idea that men and women can't be friends without sex getting in the way. Which is, frankly, stupid.

Furthermore, it feels like we as a culture really don't give friendship its due in general. I mean, we've got movie after movie about the bonds of family and our entire media structure is based on the importance of romantic love, but there is very little out there that's just about friendship. I mean, we've got My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and the occasional buddy cop movie and that's pretty much it. And most of those examples are same-sex friendships. Not to say that same-sex friendships aren't worth celebrating, but it divides the world into "people I can be friends with" and "people I can be romantic with".

Which is, again, stupid. Friendship is one of the best parts of life in large part because it's entirely altruistic. It's deciding to care about someone and let them into your life even though you don't have to and you're not getting sex out of it. Friendship is entirely voluntary - there's no marriage vows or custody agreements for friendship, as much as we sometimes joke about it. Friendship just is, and it's great.

So since I'm all for stories that push back against these sorts of societal blind spots, let's take a quick look at that rarest of birds, a male-female friendship where no one is in love with anyone else, they're not related, and they're really just two people who like each other enough to weather all of the crap that goes along with a relationship between two human beings. They fight, they make up, they share a dog and a superhero codename, and most of all they share life. Because that's how friends work. I'm talking, of course, about Clint Barton and Kate Bishop from the Marvel Comics Universe.

Yes, while it generally gets left out when people discuss the epic gold that is the standalone Hawkeye comic, the friendship between our two Hawkeyes (or Hawkguys if you ask the residents of Clint's building) is both epic and genuine. It's epic because they express their friendship by taking down Russian mobsters together and go to fancy parties together and count on each other to help out even when they're fighting.

It's genuine because, well, they fight. They have flaws. Kate frequently thinks that Clint's life is a mess, that he makes bad life choices, that he needs to stop feeling sorry for himself and get off his ass. And Clint thinks that Kate is spoiled, obnoxious, and too privileged to understand where he's coming from. Neither of them is wrong, and sometimes they're so pissed at each other that they end up on opposite sides of the country resolutely not speaking. But you know what?

That only makes it a more realistic friendship.

The thing about friendship is that it doesn't have an end goal. Despite what Buzzfeed listicles might tell you, there's no one point where you can stop and say, "Yes. We have reached apex friendship. We are Friends." That's not how it works. There's no wedding, there's no ceremony, there's no single defining point that says that you are as friends as you can possibly friend. Friendship doesn't have an end goal, it's a goal unto itself.

This is what I feel like Clint and Kate demonstrate really well. By all accounts they are two people who have just enough in common to feel like they ought to be friends, but they're different enough that probably no one would blame them if they decided to just stick to a mentor-mentee relationship or even a vague acquaintance. They don't have to be friends because that's not how friendship works. And when they decide that they are friends, we don't really see that as a set point with a clear and defined goal. It's just that at some point we the readers understand what they the characters understand. They are friends and they will probably keep being friends. Probably.

The fact that friendship is entirely voluntary makes it all the more heartbreaking when Kate, utterly fed up with Clint's bullshit (and understandably so) steals his dog and goes to the West coast. It's painful to see her do this and to see Clint left at odds without her, but it's also understandable. They're just friends - she doesn't have to stay.

And when she comes back? That means even more too because she doesn't have to. She has every reason in the world to walk away, to not help Clint, to just cut her losses and keep running, but she comes back anyway, because he's her friend.

Factor in the complete and utter lack of any romance between the two of them, and you've got yourself that rarest of birds in American pop culture: a completely platonic, very close friendship between a man and a woman. Rejoice.

I feel the need to point out as well that while it feels easy to say, "Yeah, well, the reason it's platonic is because Kate's too young for Clint," that's a cop out. Comics are totally okay with having women in their early twenties date men in their late thirties. That's not a big age difference for comics at all. Which is alarming when you think about it, but does make the lack of romantic or sexual tension between these two all the more comforting. The comic doesn't go there! Yay!

Instead, the comic focuses on how these two broken people from radically different backgrounds can make each other better people without having to worry about bumping uglies. Clint was raised in abject poverty, was abused, ran away to join the circus, and spent years dealing with a physical disability. Kate grew up in the lap of luxury, emotionally neglected but provided for, and went into the hero business because she kind of didn't have anything better to do. Yet despite this gulf in their experiences, Clint and Kate can love and support each other.

I mean, while other heroes squabble and fight over codenames and proper credit and have rivalries and piss all over each other, Clint and Kate literally share a superhero name with almost no argument.* This doesn't mean that they never get mad at each other or have fights - they patently do fight - but rather that their relationship, despite their differences, is based in a mutual respect that is incredibly hard to shake. Their friendship is solid, even when they're not super enthused about each other. That's pretty great.

As for their friendship being solid, I think the fact that the Matt Fraction and David Aja Hawkeye run is so compelling is because it realistically portrays what happens when a very solid friendship is tested. So for most of this run Clint and Kate really aren't getting along, and that still doesn't change how much we can tell that they care about each other. They care about each other enough to call for improvement. 

Kate loves Clint enough to demand that he stop running away and avoiding his responsibilities, and Clint loves Kate enough to demand that she grow up and stand on her own two feet. And yeah, they kind of hate each other sometimes. But that's the great thing about friendship: you can be pissed the hell off and still consider someone one of your closest friends. Friendship is a voluntary system, and good ones can definitely handle the growing pains of a relationship built on genuine intimacy and trust.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that they really do have things in common. Both Kate and Clint are the kind of people who realize they don't have superpowers, shrug, and then go fight crime anyway. They're both masterful archers, both obsessed with the color purple, and both keep feeding their dog pizza even though that is definitely not a good food for dogs.

Friendships, particularly a friendship like Clint and Kate's, should be built on a solid foundation of shared interests and mutual goals, but it's a sign of health and strength when they build past that. When the friendship extends to helping each other out in awkward family situations and supporting each other at funerals. When they've got each others' backs even when they kind of want to punch each other too. 

Friendship is great, is what I'm getting at here.

In our society, we prioritize bonds that have clear delineations and defining markers of success. We think about familial love and we obsess over romance. But we give way too little credit to the importance and value of pure platonic friendship - particularly a friendship as close and challenging as what Kate and Clint have. Friendship doesn't have a point, it's a good in itself. There's no markers or guideposts or signs that you're doing it right or wrong. It's just you and another person figuring it out, no ulterior motives or goals to hit.

It's the only kind of relationship where it is by its nature completely voluntary. If you don't think that's the raddest thing, I'm not sure we can be friends.

*What happened was that Clint was Hawkeye, then gave the name up to go undercover and said that Kate could use it. Then he came back and she told him she wasn't going to stop being Hawkeye. So now they're both Hawkeye and the solution seems to work well for them.