Steve Rogers: America’s Underdog, and the Importance of Representation

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

Captain America statue in Brooklyn, NY

In recent weeks, there has been a slew of online editorials penned about the confluence of the internet and fan entitlement, and how social media often acts as a conduit for hatred and bigotry. With the violent misogyny of reboot Ghostbuster-haters (sharpened to a crude peak in the form of Leslie Jones’ online harassment and abuse) and their gate-keeping, privileged ilk – so accustomed to being catered to – I felt it important to highlight how vital social media has become in providing a bullhorn to marginalized groups.

Comics are both an art form and a product shaped by capitalism. Creators are encouraged to be creative, but not too much; it is safer to appeal to a built-in, guaranteed demographic (presumably straight, white men) than risk losing their patronage by reaching out to “fringe” demographics. Creators themselves are primarily straight, white men who tell stories from the point-of-view of straight, white men. It is a self-sustaining cycle of benign neglect, consequently silencing and overlooking individuals in a world that already ignores them.

These marginalized voices have circumvented content creators by utilizing social media to raise awareness about their exclusion, and to fight for positive, healthy representation in mainstream pop culture. For years they have been relegated to combing film, literature, and comics for subtextual themes or metaphors that remind them of their own experiences and identities. They have watched as these subtextual nods have gradually become textual, largely resulting in assurances that a harmful, cartoonish stereotype or a side-kick character is “good enough, so stop whining”.  It’s not surprising that under-represented voices are still demanding more than these meagre offerings.

Granted, more strenuous efforts have recently been made; most notably, Marvel Studios’ decision to cast African-American actress Zendaya Coleman in the famed role of Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spiderman: Homecoming. It is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, and for the very same reason that Paramount’s decision to reveal Hikaru Sulu’s husband in Star Trek Beyond is a beneficial choice. These two characters are both established and well-loved; people have already formed an empathetic bond with them because of their long history. By introducing a new trait (race, sexual orientation, etc.), the audience must incorporate that detail into their pre-existing opinion of the character. A subtle change in perception can influence how individuals who possess these traits are perceived in the real world.

Marvel’s recent effort to evolve and “modernize” iconic characters is much-needed and commendable, and must continue. In this vein, the subject of the recent trending twitter hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is an ideal starting point. Steve Rogers is the very definition of iconic; a deeply personal character created by two Jewish men during the spread of pro-Nazi propaganda in America before its involvement in World War II.

Rogers was an avatar for his creators, representative of their desire to vanquish bullies and fascists, his righteous fists pummeling Hitler on the cover of his debut issue. At the time, the imagery was considered politically risky. It was also the morally just decision. After the character’s 75th anniversary, it would be fitting for Marvel to update Steve Rogers to reflect the modern era he now inhabits.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve Rogers is introduced to us as short and scrawny, with chronic health issues and a shocking lack of self-preservation; his need to fight oppression much larger than his frail body. Out of historical context, it is difficult to convey how Rogers’ Irish heritage and status as an “invalid” and a “burden on society” (he suffered from scoliosis, asthma, astigmatism, partial deafness, arrhythmia, and anaemia) would have made him a social pariah in pre-World War II America. Essentially, he was a man of “questionable” genetics in an era obsessed with eugenics.

Rogers was also a man with pretty, almost effeminate features and a talent for art, traits that would have unfairly made him a target for entirely different reasons. He lived Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood known by historians as a haven for artists, bohemians, and others who occupied society’s fringes (like W.H. Auden and Gypsy Rose Lee). His run-down tenement apartment was likely only a few blocks from the swinging drag balls in Greenwich Village and St. George Hotel, a place notorious for homosexual cruising. Steve Rogers was smack-dab in the vibrant, and secret, LGBT culture of the 1940s.

Unsurprisingly, Rogers was never the John Wayne-esque symbol of American conservatism that so many interpret him to be. He attended a college for fine arts; based on his residence, it was likely City College of New York. In the 1930-1940s the school had an 80% Jewish student body that organized student trade unions and anti-fascist political rallies. Odds are he had more than one lively debate with a fellow student on the subject of Norman Thomas Socialism vs. the New Deal.  Rogers benefitted from FDR’s Public Works of Art Project (which paid artist’s a hefty $23.50 a week).  He was likely a democratic Socialist and an original “Social Justice Warrior”.

By any definition, one of “the little guys”, Steve Rogers lived both in the cultural fringes and at the forefront of political movements.  It wouldn’t be a radical departure from his established character for Marvel to grow a backbone and make him canonically LGBT.

Unlike the comics, where Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes are separated by an age gap, the Marvel Cinematic Universe instead establishes that they grew up together.  Interestingly, the details regarding their strong childhood friendship were borrowed from the comic book character Arnie Roth; a gay, Jewish boy who saves young Steve from a back alley brawl, thus forging a lasting bond between them.  (Unfortunately, the hybridized film version of Bucky Barnes retained neither trait.)

Instead of a bright-eyed teen seeking Captain America’s mentorship, film-Bucky Barnes is depicted as his contemporary; virile and masculine. He affectionately calls Steve a “punk” (slang for an effeminate gay man, per George Chauncey’s Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940) whilst simultaneously urging Steve to join him in socially accepted, heteronormative activities like double-dating.  The physically mismatched duo is remarkably reminiscent of the heartbreaking protagonists in William Maxwell’s subtextually queer The Folded Leaf.

The decision to alter Steve and Bucky’s ages and origin story also lends a brother-in-arms element to their relationship that mirrors warrior-lovers and equals like Alexander and Hephaestion or Achilles and Patroclus in a way that the comics couldn’t. Their dynamic becomes even more complex post-serum; Bucky’s sense of protectiveness evolves into something almost possessive. His self-appointed role as Steve’s only champion is threatened by the introduction of Peggy Carter, an exceptionally capable woman who appreciated Steve even before his transformation.

A very unorthodox “love-triangle” emerges; the two most important people in Steve Rogers’ life are Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter — he is equally in love with both, but for different reasons.

Bisexuals suffer from very poor media representation, whether they are depicted as promiscuous and untrustworthy or fetishized for the heterosexual gaze. Imagine how these harmful stereotypes would be shattered if Marvel introduced a bisexual Captain America – an established and beloved character known for his unyielding, moral center and perceived purity – the diametric opposite of the “greedy bisexual who will sleep with anyone” trope.

The Captain America trilogy has all the pre-existing narrative beats of a love story. Bucky was the “damsel in distress” to Steve’s rescuer in The First Avenger. In The Winter Soldier, Steve’s devotion is so strong he literally choses to lay down his life rather than harm his “shield-mate”. Similarly, Bucky breaks through years of torture, mind-alteration, and dehumanization after simply seeing Steve’s face and hearing a handful of words: “I’m with you to the end of the line”. (Essentially, the vow “‘Till death do us part”.) In Civil War, Steve Rogers battles his teammates and the world’s governments to protect Bucky. After everything is said and done, Rogers forfeits the mantle of Captain America so that they can escape together.

Their story is epic. It spans decades and defies all odds, including death. A profound idea: two soldiers serving in World War II, when such a relationship would warrant a dishonorable Blue Discharge (requiring them to keep their feelings secret – maybe even from each other – for decades), only to find one another in the present day, in which same-sex marriage is now legal.   The emotional weight of such an arc is compelling and devastating.

It is without question that Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes love each other. Officially, Marvel has stated that their love is platonic, brotherly. The depiction of deep, loving bonds between men is important, and despite the prevalence of male friendship in media, society’s fear of making heroes appear “un-masculine” often prevents any intimacy, let alone romance. This antiquated concept of masculinity must be rejected. LGBT individuals, young and old, deserve a character to whom they can relate and to see themselves depicted in a positive, healthy way. Straight, white romances are ubiquitous in popular media. The unrepresented and the marginalized deserve something new, something ground-breaking. Marvel Studios (and others), I implore and dare you:  don’t take the path already laid before you.  Pioneers leave a trail for others to follow.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  – Thomas Paine