For the second time this month, fans are urging Disney to give the protagonist of one of their films a same-sex partner.
In early May, fans took to Twitter with the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag, urging studio executives and creators to include a same-sex relationship in the upcoming Frozen sequel. Similarly, the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hastag began trending last week, this time urging Marvel (which is owned by Disney) to give their superhero a boyfriend.
Captain America is an iconic character in comic history. Since debuting in 1941, the character’s fanbase has only grown, particularly since the emergence of the Marvel franchise films. As the latest installment Captain America: Civil War proves, the character draws huge box office numbers – as of May 27th, 2016, the film has made approximately $361,503,948 in the United States alone ($1,077,803,948 worldwide).
Although “dominant constructions of [Captain America] by Marvel, Disney and fans view and try to present [him] as heterosexual,” there is a large subset of fans who believe the character to be a bisexual or gay man. As Beau Brown posits in his Medium post “Queer Legacy in Captain America”, queer fans actively read Captain America in this way because they so rarely see themselves represented in mainstream fiction or entertainment.
In the case of Captain America, fans also have a potential love interest in mind – Bucky Barnes. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Steve and Bucky are childhood friends who have grown up protecting each other and this relationship is only developed further over the course of the three Captain America films (The First Avenger, Winter Soldier, and Civil War). Even in Winter Soldier, when Bucky is a brainwashed Russian assassin to Steve Rodgers’ Captain American, their connection is apparent. This was especially evident in the latest film, Civil War, with Steve opposing the other members of the Avengers in order to stand by and protect Bucky from the government. Towards the end of the film, Steve even sets his shield down, choosing to get Bucky to safety rather than to keep the iconic symbol of his superhero status. Many fans, after seeing Civil War, viewed this as proof of the romantic love between Steve and Bucky. And this is only one of many instances that help to form this fan reading of the relationship between the two characters.
Evidence of this reading can be found in fan-created art, fiction, videos and music playlists.
Archive of Our Own, a popular fanfiction website, is home to 19,909 works dedicated to James “Bucky” Barnes and Steve Rodgers and there are hundreds of Tumblr sites run by fans of the MCU who have been “shipping” the two characters since the first Captain America film in 2011.
However, as the hashtag began to spread across different social media platforms, many dissenters emerged. Predictably, many Marvel fans opposed any variation of the traditional heterosexuality of Captain America, but there were also many fans that saw the hashtag (and ensuing conversation) as an attack on Steve’s love for Peggy Carter. In the MCU, Peggy is a British agent who works alongside Steve during World War II. In Captain America: The First Avenger, their love story is tragically cut short when Steve is forced to land his plane in the Northern Atlantic Ocean and disappears. Still, their love is felt throughout the next two Captain America films, like in Winter Soldier when Steve visits Peggy in her care home or in Civil War when he learns of her death.
But a great deal of the fan readings of Steve’s sexuality respect and include his love for Peggy by representing Steve as bisexual and/or polyamorous. These works recognize the relationship between Steve and Peggy, as well as the one between Steve and Bucky and allow them to coexist in the same universe. Meanwhile, Marvel appears to be unwilling to do the same.
In fact, the latest Captain America installment attempts to deter viewers from straying from the heterosexual narrative. Although all three Captain America films have solidified Steve and Bucky’s devotion to each other, with Civil War essentially all about Cap “fighting the government and breaking up the Avenger team in order to protect Bucky,” the film also reinforces “heterosexual Steve” with a kiss between the Captain and Sharon Carter, while Bucky looks on approvingly.
The moment was strange for many reasons. Not only is Sharon the niece of the (very recently departed) love of Steve’s life, but the kiss also seemed to exist solely to slam the door on fan interpretations of Steve and Bucky. Yes, it showed that Cap was finally willing to move past Peggy, but as Joanna Robinson of Vanity Fair notes, “there was more juice in Bucky ogling Steve’s bulging bicep as Cap struggled to ground a helicopter.”
Robinson continues, arguing that romance has never been a particularly successful aspect of any of the Marvel films. Jane and Thor, Vision and Scarlet Witch, and Black Widow and Hulk are all examples of romances that fell flat among critics and fans alike. And yet, Marvel seems to think it needs to have its heroes in “heterosexual love affairs in order to maximize audience appeal.”
In her article, Robinson also discusses the queer-baiting that the Russo brothers, and many other filmmakers, often perpetrate. Queer-baiting is the practice of creators “validating a queer reading in public, but never […] giving audiences an explicitly queer character in the cultural item they produce.” Prior to the release of the film, Joe Russo stated, in regards to Cap and Bucky:
“[…] it’s great to see people argue about 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”.
However, the film itself included a heterosexual kiss and a scene in which Bucky and Cap reminisce about their days “chasing gals” in the ‘40s. In pandering to these queer readings, the Russos ensure that fans will go see the film, while the product itself remains exclusively heteronormative.
In Entertainment Weekly’s “Will LGBT superheroes ever hit the big screen?”, Darren Franich notes that “representation is a problem in superhero stories for everyone who isn’t white, straight, and male.” Although there has been progress – for example, the solo Wonder Woman and Black Panther films set to arrive in 2017 and 2018 respectively – it’s been slow.
If the fans were to get their #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend wish, it would mark a huge step forward for the studio, which GLAAD announced did not feature a single LGBTQ+ character in any of its major 2015 films. The GLAAD report states: “Of all the studios tracked in this report, Walt Disney Studios has the weakest historical record when it comes to LGBT-inclusive films.” But despite the reluctance of the past, Marvel has plenty of opportunities to include diverse sexualities in its upcoming films. For example, Deadpool – an antihero based on the Marvel comic by Rob Liefelt and Fabian Nicieza – is pansexual, and although the film (released earlier this year) chose to focus on the character’s relationship with a woman, future installments could see him with a partner of the same sex.
By claiming Captain America as a queer figure, fans create a space to express their own identities and an opportunity to see themselves in the characters they love.
Marvel may not be ready to delve into the world of LGBTQ+ heroes, but the fans clearly are.