by Amanda Steele
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier comes on the heels of Disney’s first-ever MCU series, Wandavision, and the show has been met with pretty mixed reactions in regard to things like plot, themes, and character development. As some critics point out, the series seems to struggle to juggle it’s many plotlines, and, even worse, it is struggling to handle issues of race in a consistent, relevant manner.
There’s much to be written about the handling of Sam Wilson’s character, and it’s troubling that he seems to be becoming more of a secondary character in a series that should rightfully focus on his journey to becoming Captain America. There are many talented writers of color talking about these issues, including the show’s major missteps with the representation of Asian characters, that have much more to say on the topic than a white lesbian writer like myself ever could.
But, for me and many other LGBT+ fans, the series is also bringing up another major representation issue across the MCU, and it’s the overall jarring lack of any queer representation. Kevin Fiege has promised to rectify this finally, but it still hasn’t happened. While there are characters like Valkyrie, who is finally supposed to be canonically queer, they haven’t “come out” on-screen yet as many films have been pushed back in production due to COVID-19.
While hopefully the MCU really will follow through on actual queer representation in meaningful ways, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier has fans and critics alike talking about queerbaiting yet again, and it’s all centered around Bucky Barnes. Two years ago, I wrote a piece about Bucky’s queer coding and how the MCU should follow through on it, and yet, here we are yet again with no real change but the same discussion.
Steve/Bucky and That Endgame Ending
The queer coding for the character has been notably viewed by fans and media outlets for years, and much of this analysis centered around Bucky’s intense relationship with Steve Rogers. Fans called for Marvel/Disney to #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, and many people have read both of these characters as bisexual or queer. But, the MCU decided to take a firm position in regard to the idea that Steve Rogers could be canonically queer when they set him back to the 1950s to live with Peggy Carter.
This character ending wasn’t universally well-liked for multiple reasons, including the fact that it seemed to erase Peggy’s autonomy and independence, it sent Steve back to the Jim Crow era when Sam was one of his best friends, and it is very inconsistent with the rules of time travel set forth in Avengers: Endgame. There’s even going to be a Loki series centered around Loki answering for his time-traveling crimes, but isn’t what Steve did worse?
However, one of the biggest reasons fans were upset with this ending centered around what Anthony Oliveira wrote is “narratological strategies for foreclosing queer readings from within text.”
fascinated by narratological strategies for foreclosing queer readings from within text, & sidestepping critique by then downloading moral fault to the viewer for daring to indulge those readings. it's a tidy game if you can stick the landing.
— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) April 29, 2019
Given that so much of Steve Rogers’ narrative arc centered around him saving and bringing Bucky back over and over, Endgame’s decision to not resolve that relationship in any meaningful way but to instead bring back Peggy, whose story with Steve had been wrapped up in Captain America: Civil War, felt deliberate. Endgame didn’t even address Steve losing Bucky in front of his own eyes, and Sam Wilson out of his view, in the Thanos snap. Instead, the creators made the focus of his post-blip grief Peggy Carter, who had already died in old age years prior to the events of Endgame. Many fans felt it was an attempt to squash the subtextual queer readings of Steve and Bucky as a couple.
Yet, despite this ending that assured Steve a white picket fence ending in a heterosexual marriage and focused on erasing found family narratives, fans and reviewers are still reading Bucky Barnes as queer.
Who Is The Audience And Is It Queerbaiting?
While in many ways, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier seemed to try and make Bucky more appealing to your typical action audience of straight men by making him appear less soft and more stereotypically masculine, the subtext was already there. In fact, fans were so primed to think of Bucky as potentially queer that people started wondering if Bucky would be made canonically bi after just the first episode because of a line about pictures with tigers on dating apps.
But the question remains as to whether Disney actually means for Bucky’s queer coding to be read as such or if they want to erase this reading altogether. There’s no denying Disney has an awful track record when it comes to LGBT+ representation, and the ending of Endgame makes it seem like they were at least on some level trying to remove this queer coding. However, they can’t seem to help but bait fans a little.
In the second episode, Sam and Bucky are seen rolling around in the grass together as they crash land. It’s a moment that fans of shipping loved, but is it queerbaiting? That’s a hard question to answer. On the one hand, queerbaiting doesn’t always have to be completely intentional, but it’s also worth asking who the intended audience of the show is.
If The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is made and meant for a more conservative or mainstream straight audience, this moment starts to come off more as a joke making fun of the idea that these two masculine men could be interested in one another in a homoromantic or homosexual way.
And, queerbaiting and queer coding also rely heavily on fans doing the work of reading queerness into characters. Fans attribute more credit than is often due and therefore popular, mainstream blockbusters and television shows gain a dedicated following while refusing to actually give any meaningful representation if any at all.
Will Bucky Ever Be Canonically Bisexual?
Up to this point, Bucky has not been confirmed in any way to be bisexual or queer in either any Marvel film or in the series. Malcolm Spellman, the lead writer of the series, told fans to “just keep watching,” in regards to questions about Bucky’s sexuality. But, halfway into the series, there has been no canon queerness. It’s also worth noting that his quote in and of itself could be interpreted as queerbaiting. In this day and age, a character not being straight doesn’t need to be a big secret or reveal. And, as fans of Supernatural know, it’s not good enough anymore to just “reveal” an LGBT+ character at the last minute.
It remains to be seen as to whether or not the MCU will actually follow through on any queer coding and subtext related to Bucky, but, if they do, it needs to be well-done and not just a throwaway moment. In Supernatural, Castiel was revealed to be in love with Dean Winchester only to then be dragged away to hell and never shown again in the narrative. (He was saved from hell, but he never appeared on screen again).
This moment of unrequited love was handled very poorly, so the MCU should at least take note of how this kind of barest morsel of representation will no longer cut it. While in real life, bisexual people don’t have to date the opposite gender or prove their sexuality, a corporation like Disney, which has yet to give any real representation, does need to do more than just give a throwaway line. That is, if they even decide to do that with Bucky when they could very easily and very likely not make him bi+ at all. So, while real queer people can look and act in a myriad of ways, instances of representation from a place like the MCU can’t just do the bare minimum and expect it to be enough anymore.
The fact that Bucky, as well as Sam, have barely been allowed to acknowledge the impact of Steve leaving to the past on an emotional level doesn’t bode well for a queer relationship of any kind being shown. Bucky has expressed anger at Steve’s legacy being ruined and explained that the shield is an important symbol, but the series seems reluctant to explore the fact that it’s Steve himself that Bucky is really missing, not Captain America. This leaves Bucky’s emotional arc in the series hard to really pin down because it always feels like there is a lot that’s left unsaid.
Gay Is Okay – As Long As It’s Villainous
And maybe most upsetting of all is that the only truly potentially queer moment centering Bucky so far in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier wasn’t antagonistic flirting with Sam Wilson or talking about Steve Rogers, it was a joke alluding to Bucky as a completely submissive object by Zemo that is said while Zemo is pretending Bucky is under his control.
In this way, Bucky is once again cast into a weirdly sexualized role as Zemo touches him in a predatory way and offers him up as a pet to a powerful criminal woman named Selby while creepily caressing Bucky’s face. This moment has some people asking why this “joke” about control, and possibly assault, is allowed but following through on a potentially beautiful relationship between Steve and Bucky, or Sam and Bucky, isn’t allowed.
Sometimes I just can’t understand what the MCU is doing with Bucky, but they cannot seem to resist objectifying him under this weird male gaze/dominance thing, even in this new bro world. But they sure don’t want to meaningfully explore why it’s traumatic or emotional? https://t.co/gL7JwTIfGv
— Rotem Rusak (@Moondancer1626) April 5, 2021
This moment was further upsetting because of the fact that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is retconning Bucky’s victimhood as the Winter Soldier. While in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky is very much shown to be a brainwashed, tortured victim who is under total HYDRA control, the series seems to be placing more agency on him as a potential villain with others around him calling him a “psychopath’s pet” and referring to HYDRA as if Bucky was choosing to be part of their group as opposed to being a weapon with no bodily autonomy.
And, Zemo himself is just another villain character who is flamboyant in a way that leaves fans asking: is he gay or European? Which speaks to tropes of othering people with accents as well as the long history of queer coding villains being in film.
Enough Is Enough
Overall, it seems like the MCU just can’t decide whether or not it wants Bucky Barnes to be read as queer and whether they want him to be seen as a victim or a villain. With only three episodes of the series remaining, it seems unlikely that a canonically bisexual/queer Bucky Barnes could be handled in any meaningful way given all the other storylines and characters that need to be addressed.
Fans are tired of background moments such as the brief kiss in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or the Gay Joe Russo moment in Avengers: Endgame being passed as meaningful LGBT+ rep. So, if, and it’s a big if, the series actually makes Bucky canonically queer, they will still need to answer to how they do it and stop trying to get props for the bare minimum.