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I Am Begging You Not To Write Articles That Refute a Fictional Character’s Sexuality

Sebastian Stan stars as Bucky Barnes in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier

Variety has a new article entitled “No, Bucky Wasn’t Revealing He’s Bi in That ‘Falcon and Winter Soldier’ Scene, Says Director.” The showbiz publication talked to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier director Kari Skogland and in the course of the interview, a tasty soundbite from Skogland concerned the fan ardor and investment in Bucky Barnes’ sexuality. So Variety ran with a headline that is now sending a portion of Marvel fandom into angry retweet-with-eyeroll.gif mode. Variety’s sort of framing isn’t helpful or necessary, but there’s a lot to unpack here.

Variety writer Adam B. Vary doesn’t treat fan theories and shipping around Bucky as a joke, which is much appreciated. The primary problem is the headline and the way that Skogland interacts with fannish ideas—and, of course, the Marvel movies’ glaring lack of queer representation. Vary also explains, at length, how Bucky came to be seen as a “something of a queer icon” throughout his time in the MCU:

As played by Sebastian Stan, Bucky always maintained a powerful emotional bond with his best friend Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a.k.a. Captain America, which only heightened when Steve risked it all to rescue Bucky from his life as a brainwashed assassin in 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Between the palpable chemistry between Stan and Evans, and Steve’s proclamation that he’s with Bucky “until the end of the line,” there was large portion of the internet that desperately wanted Steve and Bucky to be a romantic couple. To these fans, it was self-evident that Bucky was bisexual; he’s just never had the opportunity to express it.

This characterization of Bucky carried over to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and for a significant portion of fandom, ways in which Bucky was depicted on the show continued to affirm Bucky’s queerness. Vary then covers Skogland’s responses to interview questions about Bucky’s sexuality and the nature of his relationship with his new partner Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).

Fans had pointed out that in an early episode, Bucky mentions seeing pictures of people posing with tigers on dating sites—and that this suggested he was also looking at men’s profiles, since some queer men are apparently fond of posting tiger selfies. This is the sort of creative fandom extrapolation that doesn’t really need to be confirmed or denied. Perhaps Variety didn’t need to ask. But Skogland made it clear this wasn’t the message they’d meant to impart:

In an interview with Variety following the “FAWS” finale, however, director Kari Skogland said that was never the team’s intention.

“I think we just thought of it as an oddity of the times, because he’s so confused by it,” she says. “Because don’t forget, he’s 106 years old. So he’s just confused by the whole thing.”

Skogland laughs while talking about Bucky’s “tiger” moment; it’s clear she’s seen the fan reactions, too. But she says she and Stan never discussed the implications of why Bucky would be seeing big cats on a dating site.

“What we were really more trying to display was his complete lack of technical skills, as well as being part of any kind of community,” she says. “He doesn’t fit. So that was I think more our intention there that try to point to any one particular affinity.”

I’m not expecting Marvel directors to engage with Variety on a deep dive into fandom and a character’s sexuality as represented there for nearly a decade (much longer if we’re counting comics fandom). That way lies madness. But on the other hand, it wasn’t strictly necessary for Variety to take this mild exchange and turn it into a blaring klaxon headline of “No, Bucky Wasn’t Revealing He’s Bi in That ‘Falcon and Winter Soldier’ Scene, Says Director.”

That sort of broad declaration only serves to upset people who feel a connection to this potential aspect of the character’s identity. It tells more disinterested parties that No, Bucky Wasn’t Revealing He’s Bi, so he must not be. Which leads to yet more headlines in our never-ending media echo chamber. You’ll notice that nowhere in any of this does Skogland actually say, “Bucky Barnes is not bisexual,” only that they hadn’t considered the fans’ interpretation going in. But the headlines write themselves for clicks.

It also sets a discourse snowball in motion that quickly gathers speed. Many people don’t bother to click past a headline or gather more information beyond an outraged tweet. This has led to a sort of game of telephone awareness where now I see folks on social media claiming Marvel felt the need to directly respond on the matter of Bucky’s sexuality, as though the studio itself issued a press release about canonical heterosexuality. None of that happened.

On the other hand, if Skogland (and Variety) are as aware of the intense fandom involvement and reactions to various episodes as it seems, all of this could have been done with more sensitivity toward that end. Headlines and articles like Variety’s just become further weapons that trolls and antis can arm themselves with on our infinite Internet battlefields. It can be great to see queer fanon covered in more mainstream publications, but it’s often a rocky road.

Whether you “get” it or not, fans have been involved in creating transformative works, meta, cosplay, and other deeply committed activities centered around Bucky (and other MCU characters) being queer for years. And we’re not talking about the concerted involvement of a tiny but very online minority here. There are 118,165 fanfiction stories that feature Bucky Barnes as a character on Archive of Our Own, with 53,619 about the old warhorse ship of Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes, or “Stucky.” The top stories in that category have hit counts in the 400,000 range. Those are, quite frankly, completely bonkers numbers in my decades-long fandom experience. Bucky/Sam is growing fast in popularity alongside TFATWS and currently boasts nearly 5,000 stories. Gorgeous fanart of “Sambucky” is proliferating on Twitter, with thousands of likes and retweets. All of this means a lot to many people.

Fans generally know that they’re not going to get the queer fandom pairings of their dreams from the studio mega-conglomerates anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean creatives have to rain on the fictional parade, either.

It’s a very real and very pressing matter that a large swath of dedicated MCU fans have—rightfully—lost patience waiting for queer representation onscreen, which we still have not witnessed in the movies (nor in the recent Disney+ series). We’re talking 23 giant cinematic events, with no confirmed queer characters encountered save that much-maligned Joe Russo Endgame cameo.

This is supposed to change in the future with Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie in Thor: Love & Thunder, Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos in The Eternals, which will also give us major queer characters of color. But that future isn’t here yet, and we have no idea how they’ll be shown therein. At current I do not trust Marvel Studios with queer characters any further than I can throw them.

To be clear, I’m talking about Marvel cinema and the new Marvel Studios-produced Disney+ series here; the Netflix Marvel TV shows, Hulu’s Marvel’s Runaways and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did better in terms of having LGBTQIA+ representation present. Agents’ Joey Gutierrez (Juan Pablo Raba) was called “the first openly gay character in the MCU” upon his introduction.

Yet the presence of queer characters on these TV series demonstrates more starkly how absent they are from Marvel’s biggest productions. WandaVision introduces Wanda and Vision’s young son Billy, who is queer in the comics and may play a larger role in MCU’s Phase 4—but again, much of this is pending far-flung future development. The MCU is even worse when it comes to transgender representation, with a 2020 report that a trans hero was coming soon proving to be false. They are seriously lagging behind DC, which introduced Nicole Maines’ Nia Nal as the first trans superhero on television in 2018.

While we wait for much-needed MCU representation, fans have little time these days for the sort of genially diplomatic, “just dudes being bros” answer that Kari Skogland gives about Sam and Bucky’s closeness. For me this had strong “historians say these passionate love letters between two men were just how people used to talk to their friends in olden times” vibes.

“FAWS” fans also picked up on how Bucky’s aggressive banter with Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) included moments of considerable physical intimacy. Again, Skogland cautions not to read too much into it — or to necessarily assume that physical intimacy among men automatically connotes romantic or sexual tension.

“It’s really love, right?” she said. “They love each other — at the end. They don’t love each other at the beginning, but they come to a friendship place where they love each other. So I’m not really sensitive to masculinity as any kind of barrier between that love, or how it should manifest. I’m completely fluid when it comes to any of that. So there’s no defined sexuality to any of it. So it’s, really, I think, just affection.”

The thing is, it’s absolutely true that physical and emotional intimacy between men doesn’t have to connote romantic or sexual tension. But it is equally true that sometimes it does, and there’s nothing wrong with reading it that way, exploring it in transformative works, and wanting it to be canon. Especially when we have many, many instances in this canon of great same-sex friendships and zero queer relationships.

Fans have begun to push back on the, well, pushback they receive whenever someone responds to a popular queer ship with “Why can’t you just let them be friends?” There’s no dearth of friends, and in the MCU, no dearth of male friends who are physically affectionate and would die for each other and then travel back in time to marry a woman they kissed once, say. We’re doing just fine in terms of friends.

“Bruh every story written for the last like 300 years is about platonic male friendships,” a Twitter user wrote, adding wryly, “The only truly oppressed group is uh *checks writing on my hand* people with friends.”

So if Bucky and Sam share smoldering looks and hugs and a central burgeoning relationship, and go for a roll in the grass, who’s to say there isn’t something more there?

Even Skogland has previously referred to the Sam/Bucky dynamic as the two of them being “a couple.”

All of this also begs the question: who would be hurt and what is the problem with making Bucky Barnes canonically bisexual? Or having the director or showrunner or writers express that maybe, just maybe, he might be? Several characters who have had heterosexual relationships in the comics have emerged as queer at a later date. Bucky’s primary comics romantic partner, Natasha Romanoff, is currently dead in the MCU, and the two have barely interacted.

It would be a simple matter to let Bucky be canonically bisexual. Over half of people who identify as “LGB” in America in a 2011 study identified as bisexual. 11% percent of American adults have reported same-sex attraction. This same study, from Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, estimates that there are more than 8 million “LGB” Americans, and it’s from 2011—I’d say there are a good deal more people who identify as queer now. This doesn’t even begin to factor in the global queer audience. Statistically speaking we’re vastly overdue a superhero who kisses across the gender spectrum and can also toss someone across the room with their super-strength in a big MCU property.

Now, since I can already hear the comments gearing up that say, “superhero stories aren’t supposed to be love stories” or “there are no romance plotlines on TFATWS anyway” again I must ask: what is the danger of having Bucky Barnes mention, in an offhand way, that he might be looking at pictures of both women and men as he struggles to navigate modern dating? Why is this such a seemingly impassable barrier for Marvel? It’s certainly not for actor Sebastian Stan, who launched his career playing queer characters on series like Kings and Political Animals.

A theme like this, even played subtly, would not have been out of step with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which is already a show concerned with race, class, trauma, and global social inequities, and took strides toward a brilliant and important historic update with our first Black Captain America.

The fact remains is that we’re still so starved for major onscreen queer representation from the MCU that we’re left with fandom’s findings and the subtext that we spot. When it comes down to it, this is all fiction, folks. But as we learn time and time again, fictional representation matters—even if it’s the representation we must create for ourselves in the void of finding it elsewhere.

There’s nothing to be gained, when that representation is so lacking, in adding fuel to the idea that characters are default heterosexual until proven otherwise by some canon-wielding authority. Let fans see what it means so much to see.

(via Variety, image: Marvel Studios/Disney+)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.