Movies

Queer Coding Bucky Barnes: Why the MCU Should Put Up

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.

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.

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