Avengers: Friend Zone
I started reading comic books when I was in junior high. It was the one typically “boy” thing that I loved—muscle-bound men and gorgeous gals saving the world in fabulous costumes was way better than skateboarding or football to my young gay mind.
And so, when the superhero craze went mainstream, my inner child rejoiced. And now, a decade later, the heroes show no sign of slowing down.
The undisputed flagship of the genre is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with 27 films and now limited series available on Disney’s streaming service. I’ve watched each of the Marvel mini-series, and I’ve enjoyed them all. But my favorite, by far, is the most recent. Hawkeye, starring Jeremy Renner and Hailee Steinfeld, premiered in November.
There are a number of reasons for this. The first, and the gayest, is that it features a Broadway musical. It’s meant to be awful, and it mostly is, but it was still fun. (And yes, there have been super-musicals on Broadway, 1966’s It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane It’s…Superman! and 2011’s Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark being the most well-known.)
The second, and it’s slightly spoiler-y, is that one of my favorite characters from the MCU films arrives in episode 4. Those who stick around to watch the post-credits scenes could see this one coming, but it was a delightful entrance nonetheless.
But the third, and most important reason why I loved this particular show is the way that it addresses friendship, particularly deep, platonic friendship between women and straight men. In the show, Clint/Hawkeye (Renner) is mourning the death of his best friend, Natasha/Black Widow, while meeting and mentoring Kate, a new sidekick/protégé (Steinfeld). In some ways, Hawkeye plays like a traditional romantic comedy, as Clint doesn’t much care for Kate when he first meets her. But, over six episodes, he begins to appreciate her skill and care for her as a person. And—it is never once mentioned, or even hinted at, that the two of them will melt into each other’s arms.
I cannot remember the last time in movies, television, books, or comics themselves when a heterosexual man declared that a woman was his best friend with no additional qualifiers.
Typically, in our pop culture, a deep, platonic friendship between a man and a woman only happens within certain boundaries. In many of these stories, Will & Grace being the most obvious example, the man is gay. (I can’t think of any stories between a straight man and lesbian woman, but the same principle would apply.) As a gay man who loves his female friends, I’m all about representation and I enjoy those stories. And, it’s obvious that Will and Grace are never going to get involved romantically or sexually (yes, I did see The Next Best Thing, but I think we can all agree that we should never talk about it ever again).
There are also a few stories that center on adult brother-sister relationships. You Can Count On Me is a favorite, although it would be difficult to imagine that Sammy (Laura Linney) and Terry (Mark Ruffalo) would be friends if they weren’t family. The best example is probably The Skeleton Twins, where the platonic nature of Milo and Maggie’s (Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig) friendship is protected by that fact that they’re siblings AND he’s gay (and it’s a genuinely terrific movie).
This is important, because without ever seeing a man and a woman who could be attracted to each other, who could become sexually involved without breaking huge social taboos, develop a deep and abiding friendship, it sends a message that this kind of relationship is impossible, that it never happens. It reinforces a prevailing Men-Are-From-Mars-Women-Are-From-Venus belief that men and women can only relate to each other on romantic or sexual terms—it defines both men and women as purely sexual beings who can only develop friendships with those with whom they otherwise cannot do the dance with no pants.
And look, I have nothing against sex, or a good love story, for that matter. Furthermore, I am not advocating for a sanction on romance. But witnessing the relationship between Clint and Kate spark, deepen, and solidify without the merest suggestion of romantic attraction or sexual tension almost felt revolutionary. And they did it all without ever talking about it. Luckily, they were far too busy saving New York City from the bad guys. ▼
Eric Peterson is an essayist and novelist. He works as a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion practitioner, and his debut novel (Loyalty, Love & Vermouth) is available wherever books are sold.