On Captain America: Civil War, Stucky Fandom, and “Why Can’t They Just Be Friends?”

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Some mild spoilers for Captain America: Civil War will appear in this piece.

There is only one romantic arc in Captain America: Civil War, and if you hadn’t seen the movie and had only read the internet for the past few months, you might think that arc unfolds between Captain America and the Winter Soldier. The friendship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes has inspired a devoted fanbase that refers to the pairing as “Stucky,” a combination of the two characters’ first names. The fandom picked up steam after The Winter Soldier came out in 2014, and it has only swelled in popularity since Civil War.

Still, Civil War does not describe any canonical romance between Steve and Bucky, nor is there scarcely any hint at one. Sure, the two men have many scenes together, and the movie hinges upon their friendship, but the movie leaves no room for doubt when it comes to Cap’s romantic interest. The only kiss that happens in the movie occurs between Captain America and Sharon Carter.

The Steve/Sharon relationship has baffled many people, even those who don’t have an interest in the “Stucky” pairing. Hayley Atwell, who plays Captain America’s old flame Peggy Carter, has expressed her reservations about the romance. At a Q&A last month, Atwell joked that her character Peggy Carter wouldn’t approve of Sharon dating Cap, citing plenty of good reasons that have nothing to do with Bucky Barnes: “I wouldn’t want to date my great aunt’s guy. It just feels like it crosses an incestuous boundary. And Peggy just died. That’s even more disrespectful, right? It’s like, ‘don’t touch that.’ You can’t tap that!”

In my own coverage of Atwell’s quotes, I included a throwaway line at the end of the piece suggesting that perhaps Bucky would be a more appropriate partner for Steve. This inspired at least a handful of responses that I’ve seen before about the Stucky fandom. The simplest possible way to summarize these arguments would be as follows: “Why can’t they just be friends?”

I’ve also seen this arguments raised in opposition to other fandoms for non-straight pairings in fiction. I have written before about the fandom that has risen around Star Wars: The Force Awakens with regard to the characters Poe and Finn, and at the time, I’m not sure that I adequately addressed this specific argument.

First off, in response to anyone who asks, “Why can’t they just be friends?”  well, I have some very good news for you. They are just friends.

You got your wish already. Captain America and Bucky Barnes are just friends. In the movie, in the comics, in every official form of Marvel canon that you can imagine – they are just friends. If you want to, you can ignore the fandom entirely. You can roll your eyes at those fans and dismiss them with ease. You can sleep soundly at night knowing that the two main characters of Civil War are, as far as canon goes, straight as a board.

You can even reassure yourself that Marvel won’t go back on that decision. After all, with so many decades of Captain America history, can we really expect that any writer would introduce the possibility that such a prominent character would come out of the closet and identify as pansexual in the future? That seems highly unlikely to me, based on precedent. We live in a world where it’s possible for Captain America to become part of Hydra – and then have a quick turnaround explanation as to why that would be – but it’s still apparently impossible to imagine Captain America coming out of the closet. Cap could turn out to have been a Hydra agent “all along,” but I’m willing to put money on my own personal bet that Marvel would never write a version of him that is anything less than ramrod-straight. That’s the world that we inhabit right now, so if you’re worried that maybe Stucky will become canon, well … there’s really no need.

While I’m typing angrily, let’s just go ahead and say that you also got your way when it comes to Star Wars. Maybe – maybe – the next Star Wars movie will drop a hint or two that Poe is not straight. Best case scenario, we might get canonical confirmation of that. But will he ever end up in a relationship with any other guy? Again, I’m willing to bet money that the answer is “hell no.” Best case scenario, it’ll get buried in an extended-universe scene that almost no one sees, and it won’t show up in any of the big-budget live-action movies. I think it’s likely that the Star Wars cast will continue to imply that there’s a possibility that a romance could unfold between Poe and Finn, but I don’t think it will ever actually become canon.

That’s called “queer-baiting”  the practice of implying that a character isn’t straight, but never actually saying so. It’s been very effective for many franchises in recent years. Take, for example, the massive fandoms that have sprung up around Blizzard’s team shooter Overwatch, much of which revolve around pairing the female characters with one another. Eight months ago, Blizzard said that one of the characters in the game is gay, but they never specified which one. They still haven’t specified which one, but the Overwatch fandom – and mountains of fan-art of same-gender romances between the game’s characters – has been a huge part of the game’s success. Blizzard gets to have it both ways; they don’t ever confirm or deny that any of the characters are not straight, but they leave the idea open in fans’ minds. This way, homophobic players who don’t want any of the characters to be gay can write off the “SJWs” in the fandom and safely pretend that their favorite character isn’t gay. Meanwhile, other subsections of Overwatch fandom can continue to believe that their favorite character is gay.

It’s no wonder, then, that Blizzard has never actually confirmed anything on this score. Why would they? They’re highly motivated not to reveal any character’s sexuality. Same goes for Star Wars, for the same reasons. By “queer-baiting” – that is to say, heavily implying that Poe is gay, without directly saying it – the Star Wars franchise can have their cake and eat it too. They can claim to be on the side of “inclusivity” without actually including anything specific. They can take a lukewarm stance on the idea without taking any actual risk. Same goes for Marvel, too, or any other franchise. The actors can joke around in interviews about their characters dating, and they can even say they want it to happen or pose with cosplayers and encourage the fandom to continue … thereby racking up points with their queer fans, who will be so excited to see any encouragement that they’ll settle for non-canonical crumbs. I mean, I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that way, too. But it’s not actually the same as representation.

Let’s get back to the “Why can’t they just be friends” argument, though. These arguments often start out under the guide of progressive thought, making claims like “there are so few examples of non-toxic masculinity in media, so we need more portrayals of a positive friendship between two men.” This sounds like a good argument at first, until you think about it for a minute or two and remember that almost all media is about male relationships and male friendships.

When it comes to Captain America and Bucky Barnes specifically, that well has been tapped quite thoroughly. The relationship between two men who’ve fought alongside each other in a war has been the topic of many stories throughout millennia. It’s one of the most popular male friendship stories ever. And why shouldn’t that relationship go beyond just a friendship? Does it “ruin” the value of the friendship if it’s also non-platonic? The Iliad‘s story of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship should serve as an early counterpoint here.

Ideally, people in a relationship with one another would also be friends. If the idea of characters being in a relationship “ruins” that for you, then perhaps you should think about why you feel that way.

The other argument that I often hear about these types of pairings is that they are fetishizing gay male relationships, and that the Stucky fandom is dominated by straight women who just want to see two conventionally attractive men hooking up, and that these women should feel ashamed for their desires. This form of critique is often directed at women, rather than at normative body standards in general. It also makes some overly simplistic assumptions about how these fandoms work, and why they’re important to people.

First of all, not everyone who participates in the Stucky fandom is a straight woman. There are many non-straight people across the gender spectrum who gravitate towards these types of fandoms specifically because they crave representation.

Secondly, yes, there’s some graphic gay porn of Captain America and Bucky Barnes out there, and yes, I’m sure that some of it has been created by straight women. That said, a lot of the fan-created works that I see don’t necessarily revolve around the fetishization of a male physical body. A lot of these fan-created works don’t have very much in common with institutionally-created pornography, which has been historically created with the male gaze in mind – whether that is the straight male gaze (insert your least favorite “lesbian” porn here), or the gay male gaze (or, worse yet, what straight men think the gay male gaze should be). The most prominent forms of pornography that can be found with ease on the internet occupies a very narrow lens. We all know what that lens looks like.

It’s also true that these narrow body standards and these narrow views of what porn “should” look like have influenced fandoms, even fandoms made up of people who aren’t men and aren’t straight. But it’s also worth noting that a lot of these fandoms don’t operate on quite the same principles that institutional pornography has, because so much of fan-fiction and erotica is created by women. (In 2010, 78% of FanFiction.net’s members identified as female.) Because women are not socialized from birth to objectify men in the same way that men are socialized to objectify women, the results don’t come out quite the same.

That doesn’t mean that woman-created pornography is inherently “better” or “worse” – it just means that it’s different, because gendered socialization leads us all to look at the world differently. That also doesn’t mean that straight women don’t still fetishize gay men and have unrealistic fantasies. Still, it’s undeniable that women have simultaneously been told to feel shame for their sexual desires, whereas straight men have completely normalized the idea that lesbians are haawwwt – and the entire institution of porn has propped up and normalized that concept as a shameless sexual thought.

After I wrote my essay here about Poe and Finn, I got some tweets from a stranger telling me that I was fetishizing gay men. My essay, which was largely an analysis of the fandoms and an argument in favor of representation, didn’t describe or lavish thought over the characters’ bodies or physical appearances. I had merely explained why representation mattered, and I hadn’t brought up the topic of sex specifically. So, this “fetishization” argument seemed like a strange response to me at the time. It still does, and it’s a response that I still see with regard to other similar fandoms.

The “Stucky” fandom, in my experience, is not primarily about sex or explicit sexual situations or erotica. Yes, that exists, if you want to go looking, and it also exists for a heck of a lot of other fictional characters. It concerns me that these fandoms in particular are getting criticized as somehow disgusting or shameful when they’re largely focused on the broader idea of two characters’ stories and emotions and relationship with one another. I would describe most of what I’ve seen as humanizing rather than fetishizing or objectifying, since fetishization and objectification rely upon a detached removal of personhood. The Stucky fandom has attempted to flesh out these characters and give them a story that they deserve to have. Reducing the fandom to being “just” about sex is not only simplistic but outright insulting to the many queer creators who take part in the fandom and create these works out of a desire to see representation of someone like them in a story. Also, this framing suggests that any gay relationship will always inherently be sexual, as opposed to just … a non-platonic relationship, which may or may not include actual sex acts.

None of this is to say that I don’t think it’s still worth pushing back against the traditional objectifying lens through which most of media (and most of pornography) has been framed and structured. It’s also worthwhile to push back against the narrow body standards to which these characters (and the actors who play them) get held. But there must be some way to push back against those problems without using them as an excuse to heap shame upon people who already feel intense shame about having romantic desires.

The reason why this is such an important distinction to make with regard to Captain America in particular is that there are very few examples of bisexual or pansexual characters, even within fandom communities. Cap is a character who has been established to have a long, valuable relationship with a female character already within the movie canon (and several relationships with women in the comic books). That doesn’t necessarily prevent the possibility of him having a relationship with a man. It’s very often that both creators and fans will use a canonical straight relationship in a piece of a media as “evidence” that a character cannot possibly end up in a same-sex relationship, with seemingly no awareness that bi/pan people exist. There is also the stereotype that bi/pan people are promiscuous and deceptive, and that therefore a character who is as seemingly monogamous and devoted as Steve Rogers could never be pansexual, because if he were, then it would be obvious from his demeanor (or something). This is all a big pile of bunk, but somehow, the attitude persists anyway.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this Stucky debate will ever get resolved in a satisfactory way. Director Joe Russo jokingly called Captain America: Civil War a “love story” between Cap and Bucky, but I don’t think we’re going to see it happen within the canon any time soon. Sure, there have been exceptions when it comes to media that actually ends up confirming romances that fandoms have long held to be true, like Korrasami. But usually, media sticks with queer-baiting, allowing the fandom to continue to support and do marketing and even do creative labor, but never having to take an actual risky stance.

Sometimes, that creative labor on the part of the fans goes so far that people even begin to forget that the piece of media never actually did confirm the relationship in question, such as with Gabrielle/Xena, which remained subtext throughout the show’s run – in spite of constant, intentional queer-baiting that was openly acknowledged by the show’s creative team. Even now, the argument goes that at the time, Xena wouldn’t have been able to depict a same-sex romance because audiences weren’t ready for it, but that nowadays, it would all be different. But is that demonstrably true, based on the media we have today? Or is it still easier to just stick with queer-baiting?

The reason why companies still engage in queer-baiting, rather than making characters canonically engage in their implied romances, is because of the vocal chunk of audiences that express disgust at fandoms like the one for Stucky. This is also why even a character like Deadpool, who has canonical crushes on dudes, ends up dating a woman in his movie adaptation – because it’s too risky to have him date anybody else. Maybe in his next movie appearance, he’ll date a guy, or so the rumor goes, but he’s not yet had a real relationship with a dude in any of the comic books, so I remain skeptical.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the collective disgust at queer relationships will go away until we normalize them and humanize them, and many fandoms across the internet are already doing their damnedest to normalize these relationships, in spite of the opposition. Fans are doing the work that creators won’t, because they have to, but that isn’t actually enough. It wasn’t enough for me when I wrote about Poe and Finn last year, and it still isn’t enough for me now that I’m writing about Stucky.

I don’t think that Stucky will become canon, because I have absolutely no reason to hope for that, at this point. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish that a relationship like that would happen canonically. It’s just that I know, already, that media thinks it can settle for fans doing this work for them – and media creators know that fans will be the ones who suffer the shame and the pushback and the widespread disgust for their work. Meanwhile, Marvel can both rely upon these fans for sales, while also turning around and calling them “shrill” or questioning whether they really buy comics whenever those fans question the company’s creative decisions.

I’m not going to point my disgust inward, in spite of whatever pressure there may be to do so. It isn’t disgusting or shameful for me to want the movies that I see and the books that I read to be better. I’m going to point my disgust at Marvel and at Disney and at Blizzard and at any other company that will happily profit off of fan-made works and use fan-art as a method for free advertising and marketing, without actually taking any sort of canonical creative risk, and without actually hiring any of the fan artists and writers who’ve contributed this valuable creative work.

So, media companies, if you want to hire diverse talents, then perhaps you should be looking at these fandoms, rather than acting like they’re made up of clueless, excitable fangirls who just want to kiss Chris Evans and don’t really “get” comic books. Maybe you all don’t really “get” who is actually reading your comics, going to see your movies, and obsessing about your characters’ humanity.

It’s easier to just not take these parts of Marvel fandom seriously, and the reason it’s so easy to dismiss them is because the people who participate in these fandoms already do feel shame about their desires. If you’re a teenage girl, for example, then you’re already told that it’s disgusting and shameful for you to feel any sexual desire at all. If you have crushes on people who are the same gender as you, that shame only intensifies. Imagine how amazing it would be if superheroes said otherwise.

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Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).