Friday, May 27, 2016

No, Don't Give Captain America a Boyfriend

Okay, I'll concede: the phallic symbols are already there
This week, the #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend hashtag achieved sufficient mass on social media that even a square like me noticed. I don’t frequent fan boards, visit comic cons, or otherwise participate in fan culture. I largely stopped following comic books in the late 1990s, when time constraints forced me to choose between keeping backstories straight, and my college education. Yet this week, this fan-driven fringe movement crossed into the mainstream.

The logic goes, Marvel Comics’ Captain America and his longtime sidekick, Bucky Barnes, show such chemistry together (far more than Cap and obligatory love interest Sharon Carter) that they should have a romantic relationship. Besides contradicting longstanding comics canon, this logic has drawn much-needed criticism. It basically asserts that the boys in eighth-grade Phys Ed were right, and two men cannot be emotionally open to one another without being “gay.”

Which is a huge step backward for everybody, of course. While some might applaud the essential mainstream arrival of “the love that dare not speak its name,” the reasoning is basically restrictive, declaring male emotions are the exclusive province of gay men. Smarter critics than I have observed this. My complaint is even more fundamental than that: it asserts that all emotional openness is romantic, or rather, sexual.

Fans have tried to manufacture romantic undertones for other same-sex pairings, including Finn and Poe in Star Wars, and Doctors House and Wilson on House. But fans love pairing off beloved characters—“shipping,” in fan parlance.They’ve tried hooking up Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Alex and Justin Russo from The Wizards of Waverly Place, Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural, Dipper and Mabel from Gravity Falls, and others.

For those playing the home game, those last four fan ships are all siblings. Admittedly, the creative teams behind them have given fans the cues they’ve become accustomed to seeing as precursors to romantic relationships; but that’s the problem. We’ve reached sufficient sexual saturation in popular culture that we cannot imagine fictional siblings getting along without reading love-story subtext into their relationships. We look for sex where there’s none.

Thus, the fan push to drive Cap and Bucky together, at least on-screen, doesn’t represent a triumph for LGBT liberty. It represents a failure of our baseline for human interaction. It isn’t that it makes emotions “gay,” though it does that too; rather, the most important point is that it makes emotions sexual. All psychological closeness between two people, regardless of genital orientation, thus becomes a nascent sexual encounter.

Years ago, my prim mother complained about the trend toward sexual “liberation.” When we don’t govern our sexual impulses, she warned, we risk them governing us. And if we don’t place limitations upon our sexual desires, then we start seeing sex everywhere, unmoored from the basics of creating human communities. As youths do, I laughed my mother’s concerns off. How Victorian an attitude, seeing threats in unashamed expressions of sexuality!

Now I’m witnessing my mother’s predictions coming true. The cues we’ve grown to associate with sexual desire include emotional openness, trust, comfort in one another’s presence, and no fear of casual physical contact. If Anna and Elsa fight for one another’s bodily and psychological freedom, then they must want to sleep together, the logic goes. But these aren’t sexual traits, they’re the group underpinnings that bind human societies together.

This is how they originally drew Bucky: as a kid.
For those not offended enough by the fan ship
This isn’t hay. Cultures where people don’t feel free to communicate across racial, gender, or family lines, like Iran and Russia, are economically stagnant. If we create a culture where two women cannot trust one another without outsiders thrusting them into bed together, we undercut the systems that make American society vibrant. If we make people fearful to communicate, and feel, openly, society risks going backward, not forward.

This controversy somewhat represents the medium. The hashtag has emphasized the cinematic Captain America, and movies elicit reactions from the gut, or lower. In seventy-five years, there’s been no meaningful push to give Cap a boyfriend in the comics. Perhaps this reflects that the comics’ Bucky, unlike the movies’, was originally a kid sidekick. (Until recently, he also had that rarest of superpowers: he actually stayed dead for decades.)

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t recommend actual gay people repress themselves; research demonstrates how harmful that is. Healthy openness to natural sexuality benefits us individually, which strengthens our culture. But we all, individually and collectively, need healthy non-sexual relationships, unconstrained by gender. We’d resent strangers throwing us into bed with our best friends. Fictional characters should receive the same basic dignity.

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