Steve Rogers and the No Good, Very Bad Week

I think everyone has noticed this already, but Steve Rogers is having a Very Bad Week. First, #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend started trending on Twitter and sparked a very ugly, very homophobic backlash on social media platforms. Then the news dropped that the first issue of the Captain America: Steve Rogers book was going to reveal that Captain America has been [SPOILER ALERT] working for Hydra (a subdivision of the Nazi party in the Marvel universe) all this time. Consequently, this has also been a rough week for Steve Rogers/Captain America fans.

The #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend campaign is a product of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and the internet Captain America/Steve Rogers fandom, which is largely centered around the MCU’s version of Steve Rogers and Captain America. The most popular (romantic relation) ship in the MCU fandom is Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes, which is known as “Stucky.”

All three Captain America movies (Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), and Captain America: Civil War (2016)) have at their core the relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. In Captain America: The First Avenger we are shown that the only relationship (after the death of his mother) Steve has prior to becoming Captain America is with one James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes. Steve’s friendship with Bucky has been a constant in his life. In the film he tells Peggy Carter that “even when I had nothing, I had Bucky.” After becoming Captain America and being put on the USO tour, he finds out that Bucky’s entire unit was captured and presumed dead 30 miles deep into enemy territory. Steve, Peggy, and Howard Stark defy direct orders at great personal risk to themselves to get Steve across enemy lines to rescue Bucky. Later, after Bucky is rescued and is now one of Steve’s Howling Commandos, he is once again presumed dead when he falls from a train speeding along a cliff in the mountains. Colonel Phillips (played by Tommy Lee Jones) tells a high ranking member of Hydra that they had better look out because they killed Captain America’s best friend. Hell hath no fury like Steve Rogers where Bucky Barnes is involved.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve finds out that Bucky did not die in that fall 70 years ago but instead was taken by Hydra and turned into a one man killing machine called The Winter Soldier. Despite being Bucky’s “mission,” Steve is going to do everything it takes to reach his old friend. Even though Sam Wilson warns him that Bucky might not be “the kind you save.” Steve lets Bucky beat him within an inch of his life (“You’re my mission!”/”Then finish it; because I’m with you ‘til the end of the line.”) because he will not fight him. He would rather die than lose Bucky.

In Captain America: Civil War, Steve finds out that the government has a ‘shoot to kill’ order on Bucky after believing he bombed the U.N. and caused the death of the Wakandan king. He defies the entire U.S. government and fights his fellow Avengers to keep Bucky alive, even when Bucky expresses doubt that he’s worth all that effort and risk. He is worth the risk to Steve. Always has been, always will be. Keeping all this in mind, it is not surprising that many fans see more than friendship between Bucky and Steve.

Another popular same-sex Steve ship is “Stony” (Steve Rogers/Tony Stark). Like Stucky, this ship is perfectly logical based on various canons. In fact, there is a canon universe in the comics where Steve Rogers and a female Tony Stark are married. Everything else is the same except Tony Stark is a woman. Apparently they are a perfect match if one of them is a (presumably cis) woman. Now I personally think Stony is very hard to do in the MCU because of the adversarial, tension-filled relationship the two have had since The Avengers (2012), but another MCU Steve ship that does not have this problem at all is…

Sam Wilson/Steve Rogers aka “SamSteve” is my personal same-sex OTP (one true pairing) for Steve Rogers. It is worth pointing out that if one member of this pair were genderbent, the ship would almost be guaranteed to be canon.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier indulges in so many romantic tropes with Sam and Steve (including the most perfect meet-cute in the MCU: “On your left!”) it is as if the Russo brothers had a checklist. This continues in The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) when Steve brings Sam as his +1 to Tony’s Avengers party and straight *cough* on through to Captain America: Civil War until literally the last scene when Steve goes back to the raft to get his team as Tony reads his letter. This is how the Russos choose to show this:
 

I'm very, very curious about what happens when Steve opens the door

People have pointed out legitimate issues with the hashtag like the erasure of his relationship with Peggy Carter and the more plausible idea that Steve is/would be bisexual/non-monosexual rather than monosexual/gay or straight.

 

 

The near erasure of Sam as a viable candidate as a partner for Steve in the hashtag, with the overwhelming focus being on Bucky and Tony (which, again in my opinion, makes very little sense in the MCU. Comic books and cartoons? Yes. MCU? No), was another legit issue with the campaign. The MCU fandom has a long history of ignoring, diminishing, and/or vilifying the few black characters there are. And being racist AF (which is another issue altogether).

The mainstream reactions to the hashtag were swift and brutal. Every outlet that covered the story was besieged with thousands of angry comments. While this was not unexpected (it IS the internet), the level of anger was. At least to me. Many of the angry comments were the usual kind about Teh Gayz trying to force our “lifestyle” on everyone-while assuring everyone that they totally have gay friends they are 100% cool with-and polite and civil requests to create our own gay characters instead of trying to make all the straight ones gay. There were accusations that all the hashtag supporters were Fake Geek Girls ™ who only know the character from the movies and even a worryingly large number of people who proclaimed, with apparent sincerity, that Steve Rogers cannot be queer because he was from a time when queer people did not exist because it turns out that queerness is a modern invention and a result of a less Bible-centered America. That was when I officially decided to stop following the reactions to the hashtag. Unlike Steve Rogers, I am not a super soldier. There is only so much pain my body and soul can take on a daily basis. But if your stomach and heart can take it, here are some samples of the type of reactions to the hashtag.


Names not redacted to protect the innocent (because there are no innocent here)

Me @ all the shitposting I had to witness

After the hashtag, there would be another, bigger, bomb to hit the Captain America fandom. News hit a few days ago that the relaunch of a Captain America book starring Steve Rogers (After Steve Rogers lost the super soldier serum that kept him young, a 90 year old looking Steve Rogers passed on the shield and mantle to Sam Wilson who is known as SamCap) would reveal in the first issue that Steve Rogers is [SPOILER ALERT] a member of Hydra and always has been.

This news shook the fandom (comic book, movies, and cartoons, casual and not-so-casual fans) to its core. The reactions on social media and beyond were swift and decisive. Most people feel that this decision, which Marvel says was in the works for two years, is a betrayal of the character and what he stands for, the creators of Captain America, the fandom and even America itself.

This may seem like an extreme reaction to a fictional character, but Captain America is real in a way most fictional characters are not. Captain America was created by two Jewish men, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, in 1940. The first issue has Captain America punching Adolf Hitler in the jaw. This was a whole year before the attack on Pearl Harbor. America was not yet in the war. Many Americans were isolationists. To have a character called Captain America punching the sovereign leader of Germany in the face as a protest against Nazism and fascism was a radical political act. Especially for two Jewish men in a time when America and the rest of the world was deeply anti-Semitic. Steve Rogers was a purposely inverted version of the Aryan ideal. Blond, blue-eyed, handsome, physically flawless, seemingly the perfect soldier…yet committed to the ideals of equality, freedom, fairness, and progressive causes. Steve Rogers is not great because he’s Captain America. Captain America is great because he’s Steve Rogers.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Doctor Erskine, the scientist who invented the super soldier serum, has rejected all the good ol’ strapping American boys who volunteer for Project Rebirth. Then in walks Steve Rogers. 5’4, practically emaciated and afflicted with many serious medical conditions. By all rights logic says he should have rejected him like every other recruiting office has. But Erskine asks Steve one question. He asks him if he wants to kill Nazis. Steve asks if this is a test. Erskine says yes. Steve then says, without hesitation, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” Erskine smiles. He has found the candidate he is looking for. Colonel Phillips, the commanding officer of the unit, is not so easily convinced. He questions why Erskine did not pick one of the other candidates, particularly one named “Hodge” who Peggy Carter, the supervisor of the unit, has just punched for insubordination and being a gross sexist douchebag.

Believe me, he really had it coming

Erskine points out that Hodge is a bully. Colonel Phillips does not feel that this is a problem considering the objective is to create super soldiers to kill Nazis. To prove a point to Dr. Erskine, Phillips takes a dummy grenade and throws it into the middle of the camp with a shouted warning. Everyone runs away from it—except Steve Rogers who throws himself onto the dummy grenade in an attempt to save everyone (and Peggy Carter who runs towards it as well). Erskine smiles. Phillips has just proven *his* point. Brawn isn’t the most important factor. What is most important is courage, selflessness, and heart. The night before the procedure that will turn Steve Rogers into Captain America, Dr. Erskine asks Steve to make him a promise. He makes him promise that he will remain who he is: “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” Steve asks why Erskine picked him. This is what Erskine says:


 Steve Rogers is a white, cisgender, (presumably) straight (presumably) Christian man born in the early 20th century and given the name Captain America. He wears the American flag as a uniform. For these reasons people who are not familiar with the character assume he’s a jingoistic right wing conservative who believes in the GOP version of “family values.” But that’s not Steve Rogers at all. In addition to all the things above, Steve Rogers is also the child of immigrants who grew up dirt poor during the depression in the most diverse city in America (incidentally in one of the gayest parts of New York). He was also an artist who attended art school and probably benefitted from the New Deal art works project. In this time and place, Steve Rogers would have been surrounded by progressives, socialists, and people of all races, religions, sexual orientations, and beliefs. Steve Rogers was truly Made In America and he is the best of us. Steve Rogers is not loyal to America the country. He is loyal to the spirit of America. He is loyal to the people. He holds us accountable to our promises and our ideals.

“Listen to me– all of you out there! You were told by this man– your hero– that America is the greatest country in the world! He told you that Americans were the greatest people– that America could be refined like silver, could have the impurities hammered out of it, and shine more brightly! He went on about how precious America was – how you needed to make sure it remained great! And he told you anything was justified to preserve that great treasure, that pearl of great price that is America!

Well, I say America is nothing! Without its ideals– its commitment to the freedom of all men, America is a piece of trash! A nation is nothing! A flag is a piece of cloth! I fought Adolf Hitler not because America was great, but because it was fragile! I knew that liberty could be snuffed out here as in Nazi Germany! As a people, we were no different than them! When I returned, I saw that you nearly did turn American into nothing! And the only reason you’re not less then nothing– is that it’s still possible for you to bring freedom back to America!”

–Captain America, “What If?” #44 (Peter Gillis, writer)

For 75 years Captain America has inspired generations of people to stand up for what they believe in. He is a champion of the little guy. He fights for those of us without power who are exploited by institutions of power and treated unfairly by unjust systems. Steve Rogers was not born with powers like Superman. Personal tragedy did not create him like it created Batman. Steve Rogers was a sickly kid with nothing who volunteered for a dangerous mad science procedure because he wanted to help people. He is the people’s hero.

Plenty of people have said that fans are overreacting. They point out that comic books do things like this all the time and within a year or two this whole story could likely be retconned (wiped away like it never happened). What is insulting about this is the implication that fans are ignorant of conventions of the medium. They are not. The fans who are upset understand this. This is not our first rodeo with Marvel and crazy storylines. I am personally still hoping M-Day gets retconned and that was an event from 2005! The fact that Hydra Cap might not even be a thing by next year is not the point. That is irrelevant. The fact that Marvel and Nick Spencer, the writer of this book, thinks that is okay to say that Captain America is Hydra and always has been is grossly inappropriate, offensive on many levels, and frankly bewildering in light of 75 years of opposing Hydra and what they stand for in thousands of issues.

Some reactions:

 

A really good piece by Jessica Plummer titled: "On Captain America #1, Antisemitism, and Publicity Stunts"

Nick Spencer, when not trolling fans and disregarding our feelings, says we should trust that he has a Plan and that eventually all this will make sense. Tom Brevoort, Marvel’s Executive Editor, says the same thing. Even Stan Lee himself, surprisingly, is apparently supportive of the story. Again, this ignores the fact that most fans are not at all interested in this explanation and do not care what the end game is. I have read the first issue and I did not like it. While you can argue that I am biased and predisposed to not liking the story based on my feelings about Captain America, as explained above, I did not dislike everything about the book. I thought Spencer had really interesting things to say about how hate groups and demagogues prey upon the poor, the disenfranchised, the socially vulnerable, and the disaffected in order to recruit them to their causes. As someone with a degree in sociology, I get this and I am glad to see this in popular culture.  However, other things in the book, aside from the “Hail Hydra” thing, really shocked me. And not in a good way.

Spencer and Brevoort have said that this is really Steve Rogers. He is not a Life Model Decoy, a Skrull imposter, brain switched or anything else. That makes Steve’s other actions in the book particularly horrifying. As someone said on Twitter, this is like revealing that 8 year old Bruce Wayne actually hired someone to murder his own parents. This is stuff that violates the core truth of the character.

The Core Truth of who Captain America is

The book implies that Steve is introduced to Hydra by his mother, Sarah Rogers, who is taken in by a female member who comes to her defense when her abusive husband attacks her. That might not be too implausible, at least on the surface, but are we to believe that Steve did not renounce them or leave when he realized they were an evil Nazis death cult? No, instead he thwarts their plans at every turn, defeats The Red Skull over and over, and even goes so far to give up his name and identity as Captain America and become Nomad when he discovers that a high ranking government official is secretly the leader of a terrorist organization? As the internet would say, “that sounds fake, but okay.”

Why, exactly, do we want people to sympathize with Nazi Hydra characters? Also, FYI, Steve Rogers really isn't a "lesser of the evils" kind of guy.

 The cynic in me says that this is basically a cash grab and stunt to boost sales of a new title. How do you get the entire country and many parts of the world talking about your book? How do you ensure that everyone knows about it and that it goes viral? You do this. Nick Spencer has said on Twitter that he thinks all this controversy and “discussion” are great. Even though it’s people expressing their shock, hurt, anger, fear and dismay. Forget that Captain America is a hero to millions of people. Forget that Captain America is a hero of marginalized people. Forget that Captain America is a hero to people who have been victimized and oppressed by real fascist regimes—including the real Nazis. Any publicity is good publicity, right?

When a friend posted the news on their Facebook page and tagged me in the post because they wanted to know my opinion as the biggest Cap fan they knew, it was the first I had heard about it. Just reading the headline had me flushed with anger and fighting tears. Maybe I care too much. Maybe I’m just a silly fangirl who needs to get a life. But I love Captain America. I love Steve Rogers. When I want to give up on this country because “America was never great” for any part of me (as a woman, a black person, a black woman, a member of the LGBTQ community), I think about Steve Rogers. He never gives up. He “can do this all day.” He fights for the future he wants to see. The future *I* want to see. When I wonder if I as a single person can make a difference, I think of Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers, who was dismissed and discounted by everyone, made his life count for something. His life is lived in service to other people and to causes larger than himself. When I think about how hard it is to live in a world full of pain and with seemingly insurmountable problems, I think of Steve Rogers. He always stands up. No matter how hard it is to do so. And maybe he gets knocked down, multiple times even, but he still tries to stand up. Because that is what you do. It is the lesson his mother taught him. When you stand up you give others the courage to do the same. If we all stand up, we can change the world. So, sorry Marvel, my Captain America is not Hydra nor has he ever been Hydra. My Captain America is not a perfect soldier, but he is a good man. #NotMyCap

 

A permanent reminder to myself 

Niala Terrell-Mason's picture
on May 30, 2016

Hey, I'm Niala! I'm black, bisexual, super liberal, a Unitarian Universalist (I'll wait while you Google that), and a long time fangirl. I love fan conventions, Marvel, Star Trek, fan fiction, Tumblr, Harry Potter, most of the shows that Fox cancels and books. I work in a public library and I am a grad student pursuing a masters of divinity in interfaith chaplaincy (aka someone who does religion for a living). I hope you think I'm funny.