The character of Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, was created nearly 75 years ago by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon to encourage reluctant Americans to join the fight against the Nazis in Europe. After Hitler's defeat, the character of Captain America went through various iterations, and is most famous today as a member of The Avengers, especially since the release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's enormously successful films starring Chris Evans as Steve.
Romance has never been a major focus of the Captain America comics or films. Steve has had a few girlfriends in comics, including Sharon Carter and Bernie Rosenthal. In the films, his relationship with Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell) during World War 2 was very popular with fans, and after waking up in the 21st century, he has had a less popular flirtation with Sharon Carter (Emily Vancamp), who is Peggy's great-niece in the films.
Therefore it may have come as a bit of a surprise to some Twitter users when they logged in on May 24, 2016 to find the hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend trending worldwide and in dozens of individual countries and locations.
Why LGBT Representation is Important
The hashtag was started by fan Jess Salerno, who explained her reasoning behind starting the hashtag to Metro UK:
I feel like it sucks that people in the LGBT community don’t get the representation that they deserve and it would be so amazing for something like Captain America or Marvel to be able to portray that. and maybe just let people know that it’s okay to be who you are. you know? You don’t have to be scared, especially to be able to have children grow up in that way, I feel like it would do amazing things for the future.
The primary goal of the hashtag was simply to raise awareness of the lack of LGBT representation in film. Just weeks before #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend became a trending topic on Twitter, GLAAD released its annual report card on LGBT representation in film, which gave Disney, which owns Marvel Studios, an F. In 2015, not a single Disney film had an LGBT character.
This is unacceptable.
Representation matters. LGBT youth deserve to have LGBT heroes and role models as much as straight and cisgender youth do, and media representation has also had a dramatic effect on acceptance of minorities in society at large.
Consider the amazing impact of the character of Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) in Star Trek. She was not only named as an inspiration by Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut, but is also widely credited with inspiring an entire generation of female and African-American scientists and leaders. Her kiss with Captain Kirk (William Shatner) in the episode "Plato's Stepchildren" is also credited with increasing tolerance of interracial relationships in society.
This effect has been equally important for the LGBT community. Popular shows with significant LGBT characters like Ellen and Will & Grace have had an enormous positive influence on LGBT acceptance in society. For example, a 2012 study conducted on behalf of The Hollywood Reporter found that 42% of respondents (and 55% of those under the age of 35) cited depictions of same-sex marriage on television shows like Modern Family and Glee as an influence in their opinions on the subject.
However, there is still a long ways to go. A controversial recent LGBT character death in the television show The 100 has brought attention to the fact that even television shows and films that do contain LGBT characters often use them to perpetuate damaging tropes and stereotypes. Lesbian website Autostraddle, for example, found 157 significant lesbian or bisexual female characters in television shows that died or were killed in the course of the show, versus just 29 who received happy endings.
Increasing LGBT representation in media is therefore important for a multitude of reasons, but why is Captain America specifically a good candidate to do this? Read on for my answer.
Why Captain America?
Why choose Captain America as the focus of a campaign like this?
Although most fans tweeting the hashtag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend don't expect it to become a reality (certainly not anytime soon), Steve actually is a great candidate for a character to come out as bisexual. Despite the fact that Steve's only romantic relationships in both comics and films have been with women, his closest and most intimate relationships have, by and large, been with men.
Alternative Boyfriend Options
If you disagree with Bucky as an option for Steve's boyfriend, here are a few more men who might work:
- Sam Wilson (Falcon). Sam and Steve are close friends in the comics and some fans have pointed out that in the films, Sam fills a role in the story that is more commonly associated with a love interest than a sidekick, complete with a "meet cute" in the park.
- Tony Stark (Iron Man). Tony and Steve have a rather antagonistic relationship in the films, but in the comics, they were close friends until they were torn apart by Civil War. Their relationship has never really recovered, but maybe it's time to mend it?
- Thor. A choice that is more popular with fans of the films than the comics. Many people enjoyed the friendship between Steve and Thor in Avengers: Age of Ultron.
- Other options. The films offer a smattering of other options, and the comics even more. Marvel could even introduce an entirely new character to take the role of Captain America's boyfriend.
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The character of Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) was the most popular choice to become Steve's boyfriend in the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend Twitter campaign. Bucky is canonically Steve's best friend in every comics universe and the films. Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War, have even described the relationship as a love story, though they clarified that they personally regard the two men as "brothers."
Despite the emphasis on "brotherhood" by creators and cast members, both comics and films have subtly teased a more romantic interpretation for Steve and Bucky's relationship on many occasions. For example, moments before Steve sees Bucky for the first time in the 21st century in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the song playing in the background is "It's Been A Long, Long Time." Here's a few of the lyrics:
You'll never know how many dreams
I've dreamed about you
Or just how empty they all seemed without you
So kiss me once, then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again
It's been a long, long time
I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like "brothers" to me.
Andrew Wheeler, editor-in-chief of ComicsAlliance.com, wrote a great article about Steve and Bucky's relationship soon after the release of the first trailer for Captain America: Civil War. In it, he concluded:
If Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to[...].
[...]if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?
If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?
This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.
Why two guys don't always need to be "just friends"
One of the most common arguments I hear from people who don't think Steve and Bucky should be boyfriends is "Why does it have to be romantic? Why can't two guys just be friends?"
Friendship is important, and it's unfortunate that platonic love is often neglected in books, films, and tv shows in favor of focusing on romantic love. However, not all types of platonic love are equally neglected by the media.
It's extremely rare to find a platonic friendship between a man and a woman that never turns romantic. Marvel is actually to be commended for giving us such a great exception in the close but non-romantic friendship between Steve and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow).
Platonic friendships between women are also sadly rare in media. In fact, it can be shockingly difficult to find a film where two women talk to each other at all, let alone one where a friendship between two women is both as close and as central to the narrative as a pair like Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
Steve and Bucky, meanwhile, are just one of many close platonic relationships between men in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Others include Steve & Sam Wilson, Tony Stark & James "Rhodey" Rhodes, Tony Stark & Bruce Banner, Matt Murdock & Foggy Nelson, and more. Bring in the comics and you have lots more.
And Marvel is far from alone in its focus on platonic friendships between men. Some of the oldest stories that still survive today focus on close friendships between men. Think of David and Jonathan. Achilles and Patroclus. Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The pattern continues up to the present day. Hamlet & Horatio. Tom & Huck. Holmes & Watson. Frodo & Sam. Spock & Kirk. Starsky & Hutch. Harry & Ron. And hundreds more.
It is important for media to depict close friendships between men, but unfortunately, in modern media, close friends is nearly all men are allowed to be. Male friends can, like Steve and Bucky, die for each other, defy 117 world governments for each other, and use a catchphrase ("I'm with you to the end of the line") that might as well be "'Til death do us part", but almost never do two male friends develop romantic feelings for each other. And that is just as unrealistic as acting like all male friends are secretly in love.
Male Friendships in the Military
Occasionally, I get a corollary to the "Why can't two guys just be friends?" argument that amounts to "you don't understand the bonds between men in combat."
You're right. I don't. I'm not a soldier and, as a woman over 30, most likely never will be.
However, I don't think the fact that Steve served in combat with Bucky either increases or decreases the possibility that they could have or could develop romantic feelings for each other. Certainly, the platonic bonds between men in combat are often unusually strong, but so are the bonds between gay soldiers. There are many powerful and moving stories from LGBT men and women of Steve and Bucky's generation in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War 2, by Allan Berube.
I mentioned the friendship of Achilles & Patroclus earlier. They're almost unique among close male friendships in literature and onscreen in that many people do believe that they were romantically involved. Homer himself left the question of whether their relationship was platonic or romantic unresolved, but later Greek writers such as Aeschylus and Plato clearly believed that they had a romantic relationship.
The debate about the true nature of their relationship has raged across the centuries and will probably never be resolved, but the most succinct statement of my personal opinion on it comes from Jonathan Shay, author of Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character:
Achilles' grief for Patroklos would not have been greater had they been a sexual couple, nor less if they had not been.
I think this applies equally to Steve and Bucky's relationship, which in fact has many parallels with that of Achilles and Patroclus: childhood friends who went to war together. When Patroclus was killed, Achilles took terrible vengeance on Hektor, the Trojan prince who killed him, and when Bucky fell from the train and was believed dead, Steve likewise became "The First Avenger" and took his vengeance against HYDRA before following Bucky into death. (Or, at least, so he thought at the time.)
Why it wouldn't be "pandering" to give Captain America a boyfriend
Another argument I've often seen against the campaign to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend is that it would be "pandering."
To which I say: even if it is, so what?
Straight men have been pandered to in media for thousands of years, to the point that many people don't even realize that straight men are being pandered to. They're regarded by many creators and fans alike as the default! As a result, straight men make up the majority of characters and the overwhelming majority of male characters in the media. Personally, I think it's long past time for other genders and orientations to get a few turns in the spotlight!
Why it's better to change an existing character's sexuality than create a new LGBT character
The last common argument that I hear against making Steve and Bucky boyfriends is "Why not make a new bisexual character? Why do you have to change the sexuality of an existing character?"
Don't get me wrong. LGBT fans and allies do want new LGBT characters. But it's a question of cultural impact. Which would have more: introducing a new bisexual character that nobody has ever heard of and trying to build them up from scratch, or making a famous character like Captain America bisexual?
There are some wonderful LGBT characters who were recently introduced to the Marvel universe in the comics, such as America Chavez, Billy Kaplan, Teddy Altman, and David Alleyne, but they are most likely still years away from appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how many people who don't read comics have even heard of them? Whereas thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you'd pretty much have to be living in a hut in the Serengeti not to know who Captain America is.
Imagine what a powerful statement it would be for the embodiment of American masculinity to come out as bisexual. Imagine what an impact this might have on LGBT youth, who suffer from significantly higher rates of depression and suicide than their straight and cisgender peers, due mainly to bullying and lack of acceptance by peers, parents, and teachers. Imagine what a powerful statement it might be about the American ideals of "liberty and justice for all" that Captain America represents. Captain America is beloved around the world. Would making him bisexual increase acceptance of LGBT people in countries like Russia, China, and Uganda, and perhaps help end the repressive anti-LGBT laws that remain on the books there?
Moreover, Captain America's identity has always been a political statement. His Jewish creators made him big, blond, and blue-eyed as a political statement: Hitler's Aryan ideal fighting against Aryan world domination. Kirby and Simon also gave Steve a background as a poor Brooklyn art student that tied him to socialist movements of the time - another element that would have been anathema to Hitler, who imprisoned and executed socialist leaders in Germany. Finally, they made Steve Catholic - another religion persecuted, though not as severely as the Jews, by the Nazis, and by many Protestant Americans as well. Even as late as the 1960s, anti-Catholic sentiment remained so high in the United States that there were people who sincerely believed that President John F. Kennedy would answer to the Pope before the American people.
A decision to make Captain America bisexual as a political statement about LGBT people in society would in no way be out of line with the role he was created to play.
That Time Wolverine Was Gay
Finally, purely from a storytelling perspective, I find the argument that Marvel shouldn't change an existing character's sexuality odd because Captain America is a comics character. Characters in comics are constantly being changed and ret-conned. Captain America spent awhile in the 90s as a werewolf. He's also been turned into a frog. And he's currently, apparently, doing a stint as a lifelong member of HYDRA, the Nazi-linked organization that he killed himself (sort of) trying to destroy.
I don't know about you, but I think making Captain America into a secret Hydra operative is a considerably more significant change to his character than making him bisexual!
Comics are also full of alternate universes, where literally anything goes. There's an alternate universe where Tony Stark was born a woman and married Steve - why not one where Steve is bisexual?
Nor would it be the first time that a character's sexuality was changed, either in an alternate universe or in the main Marvel Comics continuity (Earth-616). The character of Colossus, for example, is gay in the Ultimates universe (Earth-1610) and straight in 616. Iceman also recently came out as gay, despite relationships with women in the past. More frustratingly, the character of Hercules was recently declared to be straight in 616, despite having had a romantic relationship with Wolverine (yes, that Wolverine) in an alternate universe and an implied relationship with Northstar in 616. Hercules is also based on a character in Greek mythology who had relationships with both men and women. If Marvel can disregard some 2500 years of Hercules being bisexual, there's no good reason why they couldn't disregard a mere 75 years of Steve Rogers being straight.
I don't expect Marvel to have the courage to give Captain America a boyfriend any time soon. But they should.
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Additional Related Reading
- #GiveElsaAGirlfriend and #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend are symptomatic of Disney’s LGBT problem
After the success of the #GiveElsaAGirlfriend hashtag, fans are calling for Marvel and Disney to Give Captain America a boyfriend.
- Captain America May Never Have A Boyfriend, But He’s Long Had A Gay Best Friend
In the early '80s, Captain America's comic book introduced a gay best friend who would have a major influence on the character's films.
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