by Amanda Steele

It’s no secret to fans of the MCU, especially those involved in fandom, that Steve Rogers/Bucky Barnes is one of the most popular fan ships of recent years. In fact, a recent survey about shipping with over 17,000 participants has “Stucky” listed as the most popular current ship of any fandom. Of course, shipping is a separate entity outside of canon, and whether or not there is textual evidence in canon for a fan pairing is somewhat irrelevant to popularity. However, the Steve/Bucky ship has been one of those rare queer ships that has crossed over into general awareness with even large media outlets discussing the relationship and the subtext between the two characters in the films.
In the wake of Avengers: Endgame, one of the most controversial moments of the film was the last scene where Steve Rogers goes to the past to return the Infinity Stones and decides to stay there and marry Peggy Carter instead of returning to the future. The ending, at least for now, of Steve Roger’s story arc in the MCU left many fans unsatisfied for many reasons. One of the biggest reasons fans were upset was because of the lack of resolution to the Steve/Bucky story arc set up in the Captain America trilogy. Shipping aside, the canon friendship between the two has been a driving force of Steve’s actions throughout the MCU, especially in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. At the end of both movies, he drops the shield, literally, his Captain America identity, metaphorically, to save Bucky.
The ending of Endgame left many fans feeling like Marvel wanted to shut down the Bucky/Steve narrative for good. This conclusion left little room for even subtextual readings of the pairing and very firmly gave Steve Rogers a heterosexual love story. While many in-depth and well-written articles have explored this ending and how it does a disservice to Steve Rogers (and Peggy Carter, too), Bucky Barnes’ role in this narrative is often not talked about enough outside of fan circles.

Bucky’s fan popularity and the relationship to queer fandom

Bucky Barnes is a character that fans love. While he’s had a very small amount of screentime in the MCU, and very few lines of dialogue, he’s been a fan favorite from the jump, especially in transformative fandom. The character’s arc from hero to tortured, brainwashed victim/villain who is rescued by his best friend is one that is compelling and nuanced. Bucky is a character that fans have been reading as queer for years now, ever since Captain America: The First Avenger. His fan base is largely made up of women and people in the LGBT community.
Before talking more about whether this reading of the character was intentional or not, it’s necessary to break down how Bucky is queer coded in the MCU and what that means to LGBT viewers who read him as being one of their own.
According to Pink News, queer coding is “the practice of presenting characters as queer without their sexuality being explicitly stated.” Queer coding is a product of history: showing explicit queerness in film was once forbidden, and this was enforced through the Motion Picture Production Code. Without explicit queerness present in media,  many LGBT people developed the skill of picking up subtext to support queer readings of characters and relationships. Today, queer coding, subtext, and queer baiting are still common, especially in large blockbuster franchises like Marvel.

Bucky Barnes is a character who is queer coded in a variety of ways

The narrative of Bucky’s story is inherently a queer one. Here are just a few of the ways that rings true.
First of all, his relationship to Steve Rogers is often presented as one of distant longing. In The First Avenger, we see him watch jealousy as Steve becomes an object of female desire and begins a relationship with Peggy Carter. While some could argue this is just Bucky being jealous Steve is getting more attention now (or that Bucky wants Peggy’s attention for himself), the way Bucky appears pained and uncomfortable makes this reading less likely. Plus, he is supportive of Steve. To make a queer reading even more plausible, Bucky also comments on Steve’s new Captain America uniform with the arguably sexual, “But you’re keeping the outfit, right?”

Next, we see Bucky’ death become a motivating factor for Steve. Like so many female love interests, Bucky is effectively fridged to give Steve deeper stakes. This marks the beginning of Bucky being used to fill many romantic tropes in Steve’s arc and character development. While it’s shown that Steve has romantic feelings for Peggy, her presence in his life is peripheral after The First Avenger, largely because she is an old woman after Steve leaves the ice in the 2012. It is Bucky, not Peggy, who returns from the dead and from Steve’s past. It is Bucky that Steve risks it all to save in The Winter Soldier and then again in Civil War.
Fans have also pointed out many times that the scene at the end of The Winter Soldier on the helicarrier has many romantic overtones. Bucky Barnes is freed of his brainwashing by Steve saying, “I’m with you till the end of the line,” which can be read as romantic.
Everything about the scene is heartbreaking and clearly these two men mean a lot to each other. Fans have pointed out that the narrative allows these two characters to mean a lot to each other and to have their stories be connected, but they are rarely allowed to interact for longer than brief moments, especially in films following The Winter Soldier. Fans further note that many of Steve’s and Bucky’s most important moments, such as the first time they meet again in Wakanda after Bucky’s brain is healed, are not shown on film.
https://twitter.com/estherannaa/status/1013466081770524672
Outside of Steve’s narrative being driven by Bucky, there are other things about the character that read as queer to LGBT audiences. The biggest one is that Bucky goes outside of typical masculine hero roles. While he is often fighting by Steve’s side and clearly a capable, highly-trained soldier, he’s also frequently as the lover who seems genuinely saddened that he can’t have more time with Steve. In particular, fans read Bucky this way in his final Endgame scene. There is something seemingly sad and longing about him here.

Bucky’s comic origins speak to his queer identity

The list of ways that Bucky can be seen as queer can go on and on. Fans have even taken to noticing small, silly moments such as the way Bucky tends to stand or the way he smiles at Steve. Of course, some of these moments are just fans reading their interpretations into the story, but the picture all adds up in a way that a queer coded reading makes a lot of sense.
Even if we look at Bucky’s origin, it’s clear that the MCU’s Bucky Barnes is a combination of the comics’ Bucky, as well as a character named Arnie Roth. In the comics, Arnie was a childhood friend of Captain America who would protect Steve from bullies. The character eventually came out as one of Marvel’s first gay characters. The connection is abundantly clear.
Whether or not Marvel intended for Bucky to be read as gay is besides the point, although given the Arnie Roth connection, it’s hard to believe they had no awareness that it could be a possibility. Whether the queer coding in the films was intentional or not, the evidence speaks for itself. Plus, the author is dead. Once a work is released, the audience truly has the final say on how stories are interpreted.

Bucky Barnes deserves more than the MCU gives him

With the addition of a side moment where a nameless character, played by Joe Russo, mentions having a boyfriend in Endgame, fans are more ready than ever for an explicitly queer character in the MCU. This issue has been talked about for a long time and characters such as Valkyrie have been said to be bisexual, even though this has never been shown on screen; in fact, a scene confirming her sexuality was actually cut from Thor: Ragnarok. The fact this almost was included but was then taken out points to the fact the MCU has struggled to get with the times when it comes to LGBT representation.
The Russos and Kevin Feige have teased that a current MCU character will come out as gay and fans have started speculating. Of course, what these creators actually said is a bit hard to pin down, and it’s more likely that a character in a future movie like The Eternals will be the first to really come out in the MCU. The fact that Feige and the Russos are hinting and teasing at a reveal like this understandably has fans’ hopes up, and there will justified backlash if this character turns out to be just a minor one.
If Marvel was doing its own stories justice, they would have Bucky come out in the MCU, as well as other characters such as Valkyrie. Even if they do let this character come out, which seems highly unlikely, the move would still have its own issues. By allowing Marvel to determine once and for all who can be read as queer and who can’t, it lets them control the narrative and make sure that less stereotypically read as queer characters, like Captain America, aren’t sanctioned by the franchise for fanon interpretations.

No more excuses for the lack of LGBT representation

While for years Marvel/Disney have used China and other homophobic international markets as an excuse for not including LGBT characters, this excuse is running out. Now that they’ve acquired FOX, which already has a fairly explicit LGBT character in Deadpool (which was actually banned in China) and a canon lesbian couple in Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Yukio from Deadpool 2, they don’t have many excuses left. While films might be censored in certain countries, that’s not a good enough excuse to keep LGBT people from the MCU. Clearly, Marvel is getting enough pressure from fans to finally put their money where their mouth is and include canon queer characters.
Whether or not they let Bucky identify as queer, he will always be a character whose queer coding is so overt that he deserves better than the treatment he’s been given. Marvel seems almost scared of his inherent queerness in the MCU, and he has had very few scenes over the years. With the upcoming The Falcon and The Winter Soldier series on Disney+, it would be great if Marvel would explore Bucky’s queer identity in a meaningful way, although this seems unlikely. At the very least, hopefully the character will be given more of his due.
Regardless of his MCU future, fans will surely continue to see and discuss the queer narrative of Bucky Barnes.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Let me guess, this is one of those articles where if one differs from the author’s views by even 1%, the comments will be deleted faster than a Trump-critical post on Breitbart, isn’t it?

  2. You know what might possibly be unhealthy? Insisting that any male friendship MUST be either latently or explicitly homosexual.
    Mike

  3. I despise Stucky and if I could snap my fingers and make it go away I would. Bucky and Natasha were and ARE lovers. Turning straight men gay so you can masturbate to it IS NOT supporting the LGBT community. It’s no different than straight men watching lesbian porn.

  4. At this point I simply shrug my shoulders. For years Bucky was actually dead and in my opinion bringing him back, making him older, turning him basically into the Terminator, ran counter to who the original character was. So sure, do what ever you want. The Bucky Barnes I like is still dead and he died a noble death in war.
    Still I have to wonder, why not create new characters, why keep retreading the old ones. If you want a gay Iceman simply make a new character with the same ability and make him gay, don’t take an old one and give him a new paint job.If everyone out there in the comic book world is ready and hungry for more LGBT characters then make some and see if they stick. Her sexual preferences didn’t make me like Batwoman any less, it was the story arc with Mr. Bones that turned me off of the character. If there has always been something there beneath the surface then go for it. Kitty and Illyana comes to mind. But putting Steve and Bucky together is like putting Kirk and Spock together: fun as a fanfic but no more than that. And as far as coding goes… if you look hard enough you can see what you want to see, when you want to see it.

  5. @Beverly – I’d agree with you in the comics. Bucky has been show to be in an explicitly sexual relationship with Black Widow. But for the MCU, they have not, and thus, all options are on the table.

  6. Really, Stucky isn’t that different than the Bruce and Damien slash-fiction. I guess those frat-boy types who want to see comics where the Scarlet Witch eats out Emma Frost and then rails her with a strap-on over a long series of double-page spreads are the epitome of woke in this brave new world. A Wonder Woman / Donna Troy courtship movie sounds awesome, too.

  7. Absolutely idiotic that two men cannot have an extremely close and even loving relationship without it being turned into a homosexual love fest. There’s absolutely zero that I’ve seen any of the movies that would lead me to believe that either of them are even remotely gay, queer or otherwise. Steve was smitten with Peggy from the moment he met her, and pursued her through his entire life. How could him going back and actually living his life with the love of his life be a controversial ending. It was one of the sweetest moments of the movie.

  8. Marvel isn’t going to be explicit about any character being gay if it wants its movies released in China or India, which are very crucial markets these days — probably more crucial than the U.S.
    Homosexuality, along with nudity and sex scenes, are taboo in China and India. Human sexuality has disappeared from the multiplex, and a big reason is the studios wanting to please censors in those countries.

  9. It could be that people are picking up on the actors complex sexuality and androgyny That makes him extremely attractive to all sexes. He is almost too pretty. It seems the authors hard evidence is the fact that Bucky comments on Captain America‘s costume. I think he’s making fun of him. Bucky is clearly a handsome, charming guy who is only thinking about girls and that Steve will have all the women to him self when he’s gone to war. He’s also clearly overprotective of his frail, sickly friend.
    I love Stucky as much as the next guy and it looks like I’ll just have to go on with my fantasies.

  10. EXCELLENT ARTICLE, THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
    I’ve been saying for ages that I feel like now, post-Endgame (and nonsensical Steve ending), they really may show Bucky as having been unrequited love… if they decide to actually follow through and make him textually gay
    just going to leave this here for the people who claim there’s no subtext in the movies https://twitter.com/CharCubed/status/1085731769738035200
    just because they don’t know how to notice it (or they refuse to), doesn’t mean it’s not there

  11. “just because they don’t know how to notice it (or they refuse to), doesn’t mean it’s not there”
    Or that it might not be there at all. Sorry if I’m miss-understanding, but are you suggesting that if a person does not see the same thing you do he’s not smart or sophisticated enough to see it?

  12. I’ve found that many fans, particularly the middle-aged male ones, have trouble accepting that any character is gay unless it’s very explicitly spelled out.
    Unless the character is holding a big neon sign saying “I AM GAY,” these fans refuse to believe it’s so. No matter how much is said between the lines, as with Arnie Roth in the early ’80s.

  13. George: At issue is understanding of “gay coding”. I believe GC exists to avoid trouble with homophobes while informing those inside the code community. Homophobes generally are straight males, right?
    So, if GC was sufficient to indicate to straight males that someone is gay, GC would have failed in it’s primary purpose, right?
    While I am here: the comment from “A Song From Under the Floorboards says” cracked me up. I think anything that makes me laugh is worth saying, but as a statement of equivilancy the comment is erroneous. It conflates depictions of explicit sexual activity with depictions of romantic involvement. I don’t think the “Stucky” supporters need to see Cap and Bucky 69ing, they just want to see explicit indications of the two being in love.
    And the idea that Disney/Marvel are more interested in international market access than in forwarding gay inclusion is the answer to all this hubbub! Too many people these days seem to believe that big corporations should prioritize “social justice” over profits. Corporations are capitalists in search of profit. “social justice”progress is NOT their primary concern. It is foolish to expect profiteers to sacrifice profits.
    Over and out…

  14. George: I’m well past middle age, I’m ancient and I have no trouble with a gay character. I’ve seen incredible progress in my life toward how gay men are portrayed in the media and I’m glad for that. If you had seen some of the stuff I saw on mainstream TV back when I was growing up… It’d make you shudder. However if there is coding going on then in my opinion it devalues the story, it proclaims that the author doesn’t have enough confidence in his story and characters to tell the entire story. Also my objection to changing the orientation of a character is rooted in my fondness for continuity. I can’t accept the idea that if I go back through all of the Iceman appearances there is a basis for him suddenly being gay. I know those issues, read most of them and there wasn’t a hint. If you say there is gay coding I’m missing then I disagree. For there to be gay coding the author would have had to intend there to be gay coding, and unless I hear it from him personally I will find it hard to believe.

  15. Film critic Matt Singer wrote an interesting column about the state of fandom. He noted that franchises are now intended to run forever, which means characters will be continually updated for new generations. But what if you like the way characters used to be, and don’t want them changed to reflect our modern world?
    Singer believes this leads to anger, then hatred — at least among people who cling to youth-oriented pop culture, like superheroes and Star Wars, even when it’s no longer intended for them.
    For this reason, Singer — a longtime movie buff and comic-book geek — no longer identifies as a “fan.” That word has taken on very toxic and negative connotations, thanks to a vocal minority that doesn’t want to live in the 21st century.

  16. Mark: I’m pushing 60. I think we older fans should step aside and let young people enjoy the nerd culture that is being created for them. Nobody is going to confiscate our old comics, old movies and old TV shows. We can still enjoy those, while hopefully developing some other interests.
    I don’t recall fans of the ’60s and ’70s calling for a return to comics as they were in the ’40s and ’50s. It’s hypocritical for aging Boomers and Gen X’ers to impose their version of the “good old days” on today’s younger and more diverse consumers.
    As for continuity: as Frank Miller pointed out, it’s silly to worry about continuity in a 60-year series where the protagonist is still under 30. He could have been talking about Spider-Man, but that applies to most other series by changing “still under 30” to “still under 40.” At some point, you have to accept that these things are fairy tales.

  17. George: What do you mean step aside? Stop talking, posting, going to comic book stores? I don’t know what the author of this article meant do when it was posted, But I’m sure that if it were met with only silence and no discussion at all that didn’t encompass all points of view there would disappointment.

  18. My point is this: for decades, writers (comics, TV, movies,…) have been able to tell good stories without any reference to gender or politics. In the last few years both subjects are everywhere and more often than not get in the way of telling a proper story. scenario has been replaced by rant, Plot has been replaced by shock and logic has been replaced by “feelings”. Why did it all go wrong? Can’t we go back to proper storytelling please?

  19. “What do you mean step aside?”
    I mean grow up and realize that not everything has to be for you. Different people have different tastes. Get used to it.

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