Queer Legacy in Captain America

Infusing Queer Identities and Histories into American Popular Culture

Beau Brown
May 24, 2016 · 13 min read

Captain America is an icon of comic history in the United States and with the rise of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, or MCU, his audience has only expanded since the character’s debut in 1941. Today the character draws huge box office numbers; Civil War, the most recent Captain America film, as of May 17, 2016 has made $952 million dollars worldwide (Box Office Mojo). Dominant constructions of this character by Marvel, Disney, and fans view and try to present Captain America as heterosexual; however, the character has found a community that reads him as a bisexual or gay man. Queer fans actively see Captain America this way because they rarely see themselves in dominant popular culture and, in order to make these items and forms relevant, they adapt them into queer readings. While the allied agents of the forces of domination, often called the power bloc, will continue to deny a queer reading and actively encourage a straight reading in the canon, the relationship between Bucky Barnes and Captain America lends to a queer reading that is impossible to separate from the character. By seeing Captain America as queer, readers reaffirm their identities and place in modern society and US history.

While many people have donned the red, white, and blue costume over the years, the first and most common Captain America is Steve Rogers. Rogers tried to enlist in the army to fight during World War II, but was denied as a result of his weak physical condition. However, this does not stop the soon-to-be hero; he is given a chance to join a U.S. super-soldier program and is injected with a serum that makes him extraordinary fit and intelligent. The character then goes on to fight in the war with consistent partner, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, who in more recent comics has taken on the alter-ego, the Winter Soldier.

Bucky Barnes, as he is most commonly referred too, was first introduced as a teenager at the end of Captain America #1 where he discovers Steve Rogers changing into his Captain America costume and immediately becomes Rogers’ partner. Together they take on many missions, but the partnership is brought to an end in the 1964 issue Avengers #4 when Cap and Bucky try to stop an exploding plane (Lee). Bucky is killed and Cap is thrown into the ocean where he freezes and remains there for several years, until he is discovered by the Avengers (if that plot point sounds a bit messy that’s because it is, Just remember that this sort of confusing/multi-functional plot point its pretty standard for comic books).

In the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe Bucky still dies (only to return again) and Cap still gets frozen. However, this story sets up Steve and Bucky as contemporaries who have grown up together looking out for and protecting each other. After Bucky’s presumed death, Cap sacrifices himself to save Americans by crashing a bomber into the Arctic freezing himself and the bombs. When the next Captain America film, The Winter Soldier, catches up with the characters fifty years later, our heroes have split apart. Bucky is a brainwashed Russian assassin and Cap is a sad newly defrosted and out-of-place superhero, but both, according to some, are still very much in love.

The foundation of Captain America’s queer reading is this relationship with Bucky Barnes. As Robert G. Weiner writes in “Sixty Five Years of Guilt Over the Death of Bucky” this relationship is a permanent aspect of the comic. This piece also highlights the inherently sad nature of reading Captain America as a love story, but it also is part of why the story is so successful. When Captain America is awakened from suspended animation by the Avengers, His first words are “Bucky — Bucky! Look Out!”(Lee) In following comics Steve Rogers “tortured himself by looking at old photos of himself and Bucky” (Weiner 94) and one character comments on his lamentation over the death of “ his partner”(94). In a latter comic, when another character tries to don one of Bucky’s costumes, Cap yells at him and demands they take it off screaming that he’ll never have another partner (qtd. in Weiner 94). This can be read simply as survivors guilt, but the relationship can suggest that Cap is romantically in love with his partner Bucky and it’s this close relationship that is the basis of queer readings surrounding Captain America.

Captain America and Bucky in the MCU film set during in World War II (photo)

These queer reading can be found in many places, especially the popular fan fiction collaborative site Archive of Our Own. On this site hundreds of thousands of people create and share their own stories, or fanfics, that feature popular culture characters. Of the over a hundred thousand fanfics dedicated to Marvel, the most popular of any relationship gay or straight is between Captain America and Bucky Barnes with over 20,000 writing them as lovers (Archive of Our Own Beta “Works in Marvel”). One such fanfic, Keepsake by a user named Sunset2304 describes Steve Rogers reminiscing about his romantic relationship with Bucky to fellow Avenger, Natasha Romanov. When talking about the time after he saved Bucky’s life in the army he says, “He stayed by my side after that, stopped drinking, slept in my tent and kissed me goodnight every time before he closed his eyes. Other people knew but nobody questioned it, just like I never did. I loved him from the first to the last second Nat.” This quote highlights a specific army narrative, namely that people knew they were gay, but didn’t care. This is a very specific condition that arose because of socio-historic forces surrounding World War II. As John D’Emilio discusses in the second chapter of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, World War II leads to less social and actual policing of queer people, for, in the grand scheme of things, the war was the greater “threat”. According to D’Emilio, this coupled with the creation of more heavily populated same-sex environments, functioned as “a nationwide coming out experience”(24). This experience is deeply tied to the stories that are told about Bucky and Cap. This queer history is layered into the character and helps spur a queer reading.

Though the thousands of fanfics vary greatly, for example, some place the couple in domestic situations and others have Steve defend Bucky’s brainwashed actions as the Winter Solider in court, each of these reflect a unique queer identity. As Gans says, “Popular culture has played a useful role in the process of enabling ordinary people to become individuals, develop their identities, and find ways of achieving creativity and self-expression.”(70) The act of creating and sustaining a queer reading of Captain America helps form and validate those identities with many different types of queer identities being represented in these fanfics.

A Long Winter, a fan fiction about Steve’s life after the war and the love letters Bucky’s wrote to him during the it, focuses on a bisexual, polyamorous Steve, while also locating this identity in history (Dropdeaddream et. al). In this story, Steve doesn’t get the love letters until long after he believes Bucky to have died. Since Bucky’s “death” he has married and had a child with Peggy Carter, a women in the British military and central figure in the MCU Captain America films. A Long Winter is deeply invested in history as it follows Captain America from 1954 to 2006. It incorporates the lax policing of sexuality during World War II in contrast to the anti-gay “red scare” period that arose in the 1950’s and 60’s. In 1954, Steve is questioned about the political alliances of his parents and the nature of his relationship with Bucky. In 1962, Steve speaks with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at a White house gala and suggests, much to L.B.J.’s chagrin, that telling children to hide under desks isn’t a practical nuclear attack safety strategy. As the story builds piece by piece the reader gets glimpses into Cap’s past and his obvious love for Bucky, but he also loves Peggy. This presents the character as both bisexual and polyamorous. This is a distinctive queer identity that this Captain America occupies through the greater half of the 20th century. In the end, after much emotional turmoil Steve reads the letters and, with Peggy’s consent, sets off to find his lost love Bucky Barnes/The Winter Solider. All these fan fictions become a part of popular culture and Captain America; as Grindstaff states, popular culture is not an object or text itself, but “something constituted both through the act of consumption and through the act of theoretical engagement.”(533) Structuring a queer Captain America story that moves through nearly 50 years of significant U.S. history is an act of ingraining queerness into the landscape of America’s past. By highlighting and discussing Captain America’s queerness in relation to the queer men in the armed forces during War World II and greater history, queer readers seek to affirm their place in America’s past, which in turn validates their place in the present.

This historical anthology of a bisexual Captain America may be a theoretical engagement with the text; however, many would argue that the way queer readers engage with Captain America as popular culture is wrong. The most recent Captain America film, Captain America: Civil War, which can be roughly described as film about Cap fighting the government and breaking up the Avengers team in order to protect Bucky, is a particularly enticing plot for queer readings. However, the film takes action to dissuade viewers from diverging from the dominant straight narrative. Disney and Marvel, in an effort to avoid queer readings in Civil War, created an underdeveloped heterosexual sub-plot where Steve kisses Sharon Carter, the niece of Peggy Carter (Yes, this is the same Peggy Carter that Steve Rogers has had a relationship with in past Marvel films, so yeah it’s weird). Understandably many queer reading people, such as Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson, were upset by this. In her article Is This the One Flaw in the Otherwise Great Captain America:Civil War? she discusses her issues with the kiss. She highlights directors Joe and Anthony Russo’s practice of queer baiting, which is the practice of creators validating a queer reading in public, but never actually giving audiences an explicitly queer character in the cultural item they produce. Joe Russo while discussing Cap and Bucky in China said,

[…] it’s great to see people argue about it what that relationship means to them. We will never define it as filmmakers, explicitly, but however people want to interpret it they can interpret it.(Robinson)

This a seems like a fine statement, but Robinson argues it’s a clear lie. The heterosexual kiss in Civil War coupled with dialogue between Bucky and Cap about chasing gals in the 40’s is explicitly stating that Captain America is straight. This reveals a nuanced relationship between cultural creator and their audience, specifically queer readers. Russo wants to encourage as many people to see the film as possible, so in this case by pandering to queer readers he is supporting his career. However, when it comes time to actually make the film, heteronormative attitudes dominate the screen. However, this does highlight Russo’s suggestion that fans have the ability and authority to create their own meaning (not that the community needed his approval) around an experience and as Lynn Connors would say “co-author” the film (114). However, This does not mean that Marvel, Russo, or even most fans support this “co-authored” queer reading.

Many people took to defend a straight Captain America, including William Hicks from the Rupert Murdoch’s news website HeatStreet. In a dissection of Robinson’s argument Hicks wrote,

And then there’s this Vanity Fair piece, “Is This the One Flaw in the Otherwise Great Captain America: Civil War?” The one flaw is Cap’s outright heterosexuality. Apparently Cap’s love interest — who takes up, at tops, five minutes of the movie — was too much for the author, Joanna Robinson.

This is an example of an allegiance between the cultural producers of Captain America and some fans to uphold a straight narrative and, while meant to be a critique, this statement details why the heteronormative inclusion is so upsetting to Robinson. In fact, the news site Vox even published a tweet with the tagline “What was up with that weird Captain America: Civil War kiss?” which links to their article on the film that argues this straight kiss between Steve and Sharon feels contrived.

In 2015, Disney featured no queer characters in any of the films it released and the rest of the major studios combined only featured 47 queer characters, including minor and side characters, in their 126 feature-length film releases (2016 GLAAD Studio Responsibility Index). By making queer people virtually nonexistent on screen queer readers are forced to “poach” (qtd. in Jenkins 25) a culture item, a straight Captain America, and adapt it (make it queer) so it’s relevant to them. Jenkins provides evidence of a fallible model to counter this “poaching” that people aligned with the dominant forces use.

The reader is supposed to serve as the more-or-less passive repent of authorial meaning while any deviation from the meanings clearly marked forth within the text is viewed negatively, as failure to successfully understand what the author was trying to say (Jenkins 25).

This coincides with Hicks later statements that “If Disney wants to make a gay superhero, they’ll make a gay superhero.” This argument seeks to put Marvel and its owner Disney fully in charge of the meaning making, but that is not how meaning is created around popular culture. The dominant heterosexual narratives in Captain America are not absolute and queer fans undermine this institutional power to create their own space within popular culture.

The struggle queer people endure with heteronormative popular culture forces them to modify popular culture items and forms to make them applicable. While the power bloc will continue to dominate Captain America canon with heteronormative narratives, Captain America is still a perfect form to subvert. His close relationship with Bucky provides for a queer reading and the history of Captain America within the relative queer freedom brought about by socio-historic conditions of World War II locate this queer reading in a larger queer history. By claiming Captain America and Bucky Barnes as their own, queer people create space to express their identities and reaffirm the place of heroic queer people in United States history, which, as the descendants of that patriotic past, merits them a place within that history and within modern U.S. society.

About this Paper:

I, Beau Brown, Originally wrote this for a Sociology Class on Popular Culture taught by Dr. David Orzechowicz. I’m pretty sure I can do whatever I want with my own writing and I’m very proud of this paper, so I’m posting. I hope this is okay and also I hope you all liked it.

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Beau Brown

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he/him/his Huge fan of Captain America, Vox, and multi-tweet rants about Conflict Diamonds. Hopefully more articles to follow