In 2021, Disney+ is slated to debut their Hawkeye series, starring Hailee Steinfeld as the eponymous archer alongside Jeremy Renner (who is also, of course, Hawkeye). The series appears to be loosely based on Matt Fraction and David Aja’s 2012-2015 comic. (Fun fact: in 2014, when I first read that comic, I told my partner that Steinfeld would be my dream casting for the role in a few years—look at us now!).
Steinfeld’s Hawkeye, real name Kate Bishop, debuted in comics in Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers #1 in 2005. However, she is not the first notable teen girl archer in superhero comics history: just a few years before, in 2001, Kevin Smith wrote a character called Mia Dearden who would later become the second Speedy, sidekick to the Green Arrow/Oliver Queen.
I’ve written briefly about Mia before (in this book’s conclusion), and as I eagerly await the new Disney+ series, I find myself thinking a lot about these two characters, their commonalities, and their differences. Looking at both characters’ introductions can tell us a great deal about mainstream notions of adolescent girlhood at the time, which in turn informs our perceptions of them now. Both were written and drawn by men, as is still most often the case in superhero comics, and they exist within the two most widely-read comic universes: Marvel, for Kate Bishop, and DC Comics, for Mia Dearden. Aside from the obvious commonalities between these two characters (teenaged girl archers), closely reading where their traits and histories diverge reveals society’s continued investment in a very particular ideal: Kate Bishop’s character toes the line of “acceptable” behavior for teenage girls, while Mia Dearden is so far beyond it as to point readers back toward it, in a twisted “scared straight” situation. In other words, if you are a teen girl, you want to be like Kate—and you do not want to be like Mia.
“Good” Girls vs. “Fast” Girls
The general contours of these two characters reflect the Madonna/whore dichotomy. Originally described by Sigmund Freud as a complex in which men are unable to reconcile images of “good” women and sexual women, the dichotomy constructs ideal femininity as pure and without sexuality. The Madonna is desirable for her goodness, lovable yet untouchable. On the other hand, the whore is sexual and has her own desires, and therefore she is a problem and unworthy of love.
Popular culture has often played with this dynamic—for instance, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Taylor Swift’s music video for “You Belong with Me” both feature a woman or girl who is patient and kind, who has a sweet personality, who is rather innocent-looking, and another girl who is more aggressive, more sexual, more desireful, and in both these cases those two women are played by the same actor. Other, less overt examples in which similar roles are fulfilled by two different women abound, including “Cruel Intentions” (1999) and “Black Swan” (2010).
This framework is particularly potent when applied to adolescent girls—most often characterized as “good girls” versus “fast girls.” Tellingly, the opposite of the “good girl” is not necessarily a generic “bad girl,” but one who is specifically bad because she is knowing of, and potentially desiring, sex. Like Freud’s complex, these tropes are rooted in male anxiety. As Ilana Nash writes in American Sweethearts: Teenage Girls in Twentieth-Century Popular Culture, the adolescent girl is “a liminal figure who combines two identities that incite pleasure and anxiety in the adult male … discourses surrounding teenage girls reaffirm the ‘rightful’ primacy of adult males in the organization of American culture” (Nash 2006, p. 3). Since teen girls are doubly removed from adult men, marginalized on the grounds of their femininity as well as their youth, the Madonna is even more ideal and the whore is even more threatening. Additionally, on top of typical “Madonna” traits, it is also crucial for teen girls to be subservient to men, lest they upset both the masculine/feminine and adult/youth hierarchies. The “good girl” and the “fast girl” are constructs, ways of viewing teen girls that slot them into categories which strip them of individuality, preserving the privilege of personhood for men.
Comics Did Mia Dirty
Created in 2001 by author Kevin Smith, Mia Dearden is a bit of a disaster. She represents everything adolescent girls are not supposed to be, and the comic uncomfortably blames both her and Star City’s violent, patriarchal society for her flaws.
We first meet fifteen-year-old Mia when she is on a “job,” sent by her boyfriend/pimp, Richard, to entertain a Star City councilman with a teen girl fetish. Although she appears uncomfortable, this is clearly not her first time engaging in sex work. The councilman’s interest in her is specifically tied to her youth as well as her femininity. He rants about how when he was in high school, cute girls like Mia wouldn’t even talk to him. But now he is powerful, and rich, and can make girls like Mia do whatever he wants (Kevin Smith and Phil Hester, Green Arrow Volume 3 #2, “Quiver: Long Time No See,” 2001).
When the Green Arrow breaks up the party and encounters Mia, he tells her not to grow up too fast “We all make mistakes, kiddo, but most of the time, we can right ‘em before they get too wrong. You only get one childhood. Enjoy it while it lasts” (Green Arrow Volume 3, #2). In this way, the comic pins the blame on Mia for her own situation, as though she is making bad decisions, or “mistakes.” Smith reinforces this notion when Mia returns to Richard, who has clearly been abusing her and pimping her out for some time. Only after her encounter with the Green Arrow does she defy Richard, physically overpower him, and leave.
This interaction makes it seem like Mia had the wherewithal to leave all along, but has thus far chosen not to, or at least that the thought hadn’t occurred to her. She apparently grew up with a sexually and physically abusive father, and reluctantly agrees with Richard that he rescued her from that awful situation, even as Richard threatens her and demands sex from her as well. In other words, there seems to be a lot of confusion as to how much agency Mia really has here—enough to leave, apparently, but not enough to have ever considered it before?
Relatedly, the question of whether Mia is a child or an adult remains knotty. Richard repeatedly calls her “kiddo” and “babydoll,” but when Mia resists along this same logic—that she should be treated like a kid, but is instead treated like an adult, at least sexually—Richard switches gears to argue that she is a woman because she does “womanly” things in bed. Mia retorts that men force her to do these things, an insight that is significantly undermined by the fact that the story also suggests that Mia is responsible for her situation (Green Arrow Volume 3, #2).
Although she is drawn to be beautiful, Mia is poor, she does not attend school, and she can street-fight but has no actual physical training. When she eventually takes up with the Green Arrow, she is squarely positioned in sidekick mode, eventually taking on the mantle of Speedy (the first Speedy, Roy Harper, has by this time become a solo hero known as Arsenal) (Judd Winick and Phil Hester, Green Arrow Volume 3 #45 “New Blood Part VI: Coming Out,” 2005). Although Oliver Queen treats her significantly better than her father or Richard had, she is still subordinate to and reliant on his protection. This is, of course, “ideal” for teen girls—society does not want them to have too much independence. Even as Mia no longer engages in sex work, begins attending school, and takes on more traits of the “good girl,” she must still be subservient to men; “good girls” do not trouble patriarchal authority or men’s ultimate control of women’s bodies.
Mia is thus a literal and metaphorical “whore,” even as her first appearance in comics rather feebly attempts to blame her circumstances on gross men. Her story points to an image of damaged adolescent girlhood; perhaps this damage was at the hands of adult men, but adult men are also her saving. (Of course, there is a commentary here about appropriate adult male behavior as well, but that is beyond the scope of this article, and unfortunately not something society as a whole seems all too interested in…) Mia also continues to be punished for her previous transgressions: the New Blood storyline sees Mia diagnosed with HIV. When Oliver is stunned as to how this happened, she tells him: “Ollie, I was living on the streets since I was eleven, and I survived by hooking. There’s not a lot of safe sex in prostitution. I either got it from sex … or maybe from the drugs” (Judd Winick and Phil Hester, Green Arrow Volume 3, #43 “New Blood Part IV: In Custody,” 2005). Even beyond her introduction, Mia’s writers bind her to her initial framing as a whore.
Kate Bishop, Teen Queen
Kate Bishop, on the other hand, is a dream. She is written to represent everything a teen girl should be: pretty, rich, accomplished, and just headstrong enough to be interesting but not so much as to upset the leadership to which men are entitled.
We first meet Kate in Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung’s Young Avengers #1, which sees her team up with Cassie Lang/Stature, Billy Kaplan/Wiccan, Teddy Altman/Hulkling, and Elijah Bradley/Patriot. In her first appearance, Kate is dressed in a floor-length, strapless purple gown. She is serving as a bridesmaid in a fancy wedding, and she looks stunning—but she is also critical of the expense of the event. A flashback in a later issue sees Kate gently arguing with her sister, the bride, about it: “Do you know how many starving families in Niger we could feed for the cost of this wedding?” Surrounding panels show Kate giving money away to homeless people, serving food at a soup kitchen, and admitting to the team’s ad hoc mentor, Jessica Jones, that she has “never been comfortable with [her] family’s wealth” (Allan Heinberg, Michael Gaydos, et al., Young Avengers Special #1, 2005). These admissions are an incredibly smart move on the author’s part: they allow Kate to benefit from the trappings of extreme wealth, including looking gorgeous, being highly educated, and having valuable connections, while subtly removing a lot of the power that comes with such economic status and ensuring she appears kind and selfless. The Madonna and the “good girl” are eternally giving, after all.
Kate’s economic advantage also assists her in reading as a “good girl:” she never has to make difficult decisions about where to live or feed herself, and she is shielded from much speculation about her body and her choices by her father’s name. She goes to a seemingly ritzy private high school and tells the rest of the team she learned archery at the Interlochen National Music Camp, which she attended primarily to practice her cello (Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, Young Avengers #5, 2005). Unlike Mia, who was very much alone in the world, Kate appears to have friends, family, and even “a few connections in the fashion industry,” which she works to get the Young Avengers some new costumes (Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, Young Avengers #6, 2005).
Kate is also the team member who secures a base of operations and insists on bringing the team together time and again after they face obstacles and are compelled to disband by the mean old adults in their lives. On the night of her sister’s wedding, she saves the entire ceremony from an armed robbery, essentially finishing a job the first few Young Avengers managed to make worse (Young Avengers #1). Later, after they have all formally met each other, the adult (former) Avengers lock the rest of the team in a training facility, but Kate manages to free all of them after covertly observing Tony Stark input the code to open the room. She then reveals herself masked and armed to the teeth, a high slit cut in her dress for better mobility (I imagine), though she still wears her delicate heels. When the team considers giving up, she resists: “It’s not over yet … We can’t just stop because Captain America thinks we’re too young” (Young Avengers #6). In short, Kate Bishop is a badass. Yet despite her acumen and ability to rally the team, she is rather frustratingly never acknowledged as their leader.
Instead, the team insists on Elijah Bradly/Patriot serving as their leader (Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung, Young Avengers #9, 2005). This is not to say Eli is a bad choice for team leader; we need more Black superheroes in general and we need more of them to serve important roles in their stories. As the Captain America analogue, Eli is at a clear advantage. But Kate’s overall capability and the fact that she already does everything a leader is supposed to do makes the Young Avengers appear like so many other organizations that are oftentimes run by women, but with male figureheads getting most of the recognition. This subordination of her role on the team is not necessarily unexpected—Kate’s overall construction as a “good girl” precludes her from too much defiance. She fulfills the needs of the team, giving selflessly to their cause as she has given to her city’s homeless, but she takes little from them in return and makes no claims to power over them.
Although Kate is not formally acknowledged as the team’s leader, she does resist some typical mainstream understandings of adolescent girls. She is headstrong, pushing against the limits placed on her by adults and defying her father when she joins the Young Avengers. She also outwardly critiques patriarchal systems, observing that before she and Cassie showed up, it seemed the Young Avengers had a “strict, sexist, no-supergirls-allowed policy” (Young Avengers #1). Even after the Young Avengers, when Kate takes up with the other Hawkeye, the writers are adamant that she is not a sidekick, extending Heinberg’s characterization of Kate as independent.
Adolescent Girls at the Limits of Personhood
Despite the many differences in their backgrounds, Kate and Mia share a key experience: sexual assault. Although Mia’s violations were far more intense and long-term, we learn that Kate, too, has been raped (Young Avengers Special #1). In fact, it is this instance that causes Kate to take up kickboxing and learn self-defense. In other words, the commonalities Mia and Kate share are almost entirely centered on their bodies, their femininity, their vulnerability.
Taking a closer look at their differences reveals that these traits, too, have mostly been determined by the men in their lives. Mia is abused and then rescued by men, whereas Kate’s skills and relative (albeit far from impermeable) security are acquired through her father’s wealth. The authors of both characters make attempts to allow these teen girls to self-define, but youth and femininity preclude teen girls from much self-definition even outside the heavily male-dominated world of superhero comics. Kate and Mia provide readers with images of teen girls that, for the most part, chart neatly along one of the two potential, and very restrictive, paths—Kate is a “good girl,” and Mia is a “fast girl.” Both of them are independent only to an extent, and both are in many ways limited by and to their bodies.
However, Kate and Mia’s introductions in comics are sixteen and twenty years old, respectively, and we have seen multiple iterations of both characters since that time. In particular, Mia has also appeared on television—sort of. The CW’s Arrow introduced a younger sister for Oliver Queen called Thea, whose childhood nickname was “Speedy.” Her appearance shares some DNA with Mia’s, namely that she has a tendency to wear revealing clothing and party pretty hard, but she is also an heiress and thus given more leeway to engage in such behaviors without reading as a bad or “fast girl.” Thea’s image is clearly modeled after Paris Hilton, who masterfully played with her public persona and the Madonna/whore dichotomy, but Thea’s narrative arc also directs readers to appropriate “good girl” behavior, if perhaps more gently than Mia’s harsh backstory. She eventually gives up partying and drugs, takes up the bow and arrow, and fulfills a sidekick role similar to Mia. (Season 7 of “Arrow” introduced a character actually called Mia, but she was an alternate universe daughter of Oliver Queen and Felicity Smoak, and had little in common with Mia Dearden besides her first name.)
As Kate Bishop is likewise re-imagined for new audiences on Disney+’s Hawkeye series, we can read her characterization for clues about teen girlhood in the 2020s—will she be similarly cast as a “good girl?” Will she be allowed more meaningful forms of resistance against restrictions of her autonomy? She is co-starring with Jeremy Renner, who is already established as Hawkeye in the MCU; will she appear as merely his sidekick?
I have been dreaming of this casting since 2014, and if nothing else, I am confident that Steinfeld will nail the badass aspect of Kate’s character. Steinfeld has a history of taking on complicated roles, from her breakout as hardcore pre-teen vengeance-seeker Mattie Ross in the Coen brothers’ True Grit (2010) to her messy, selfish, yet ultimately lovable Nadine in “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016). My hope for this “Hawkeye” is that it similarly allows Kate Bishop complexity, self-definition, and real personhood, expanding viewers’ perceptions and expectations of teen girls.