Superhero films have been omnipresent in the past few years and Marvel Entertainment in particular has been very prolific ever since it established a cinematic universe, starting with Iron Man in 2008. So far, all of these films have starred white men as the titular superheroes; the first Marvel film led by a person of color is scheduled to be released in 2018, while the first female-led film will not be released until 2019. As such, there are many representational issues in these films that potentially deserve our attention. For now, however, this article will focus on masculinity, specifically as presented in the character of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
In Winter Soldier, it is revealed that Captain America’s best friend Bucky Barnes, who everyone thought died during a special ops mission in World War II, is in fact still alive and now working for the Nazi organization HYDRA under the alias the Winter Soldier. However, Bucky does not remember his own name, or anything else for that matter. The final mission for Steve Rogers (Captain America) becomes not only to stop HYDRA from killing millions of people who pose a threat to their ideology, but also to save his best friend from his captors by attempting to trigger his memory.
This second film in the Captain America franchise shows us three different versions of the Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes and as a result, three contrasting representations of masculinity. First, we meet the Winter Soldier: a threatening, mysterious figure with a metal arm whose face is covered by a mask and goggles and who appears to be highly lethal. After the reveal that the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky Barnes, an entirely different version is shown on screen. This version is confused, vulnerable, and abused. Finally, a third version presents itself during a flashback scene going back to the 1930s, in which Bucky proves to be a caring and dependable friend. As such, I argue that Bucky Barnes not only becomes a literal cyborg due to his cybernetic limb, but also a metaphorical cyborg: a figure whose various identity aspects blur the boundaries between categories.
When the Winter Soldier is first introduced, it is quite clear he presents a threat. He goes after his target with single-minded relentlessness and determinacy, having a seemingly endless array of weapons at his disposal with which to go after his targets. Instead of running after them, he calmly walks towards his targets, as if to say, “you can’t run from me.” On the surface then, the Winter Soldier appears to be goal-oriented and determined, aggressive in his methods, and relentless in his execution. He seems to know exactly what he is doing and appears to be in complete control of any situation. In the scene on the bridge near the end of the second act, he even appears to be leading the other HYDRA agents in the attack on Captain America, Black Widow, and the Falcon.
These traits are all generally associated with dominant or hegemonic masculinity. Hegemony here refers to the concept developed by Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci argued that power relations do not necessarily sustain themselves through force, but through pervasive beliefs and morals that serve to uphold the status quo and the power of one particular group. Hegemonic masculinity, then, refers to the notion that at any given time, a society contains multiple masculinities, but only one is considered the desired version of masculinity. It should be noted that such an ideal is generally unattainable for most, if not all men. Having said that, characteristics such as toughness, self-reliance, leadership qualities, and aggression are considered both inherently masculine and integral to hegemonic masculinity. Since the Winter Soldier exhibits such traits, we could argue that this character conforms to masculine ideals.
However, after it is revealed that the Winter Soldier is actually Bucky Barnes, that picture changes quite dramatically. In a scene following the reveal, we don’t see a threat; instead, we see a vulnerable man, who asks how he knows Steve Rogers in a confused and almost child-like way. This scene, which takes place in a bank vault, turns the tables in a number of ways. First, the Winter Soldier is quite literally stripped of his menacing look: the goggles and mask are gone and he is half-naked, while the men around him are either wearing suits or combat gear. This does more than to simply indicate vulnerability on Bucky’s part; it also indicates a power imbalance between Bucky and HYDRA personnel. It tells us, as an audience, that Bucky is at the mercy of his handlers.
The location of this scene is also telling: the bank vault is meant to protect something valuable – in this case the Winter Soldier – while simultaneously locking him up. This only creates an even bigger power imbalance, as it dehumanizes Bucky. He is treated the way others would treat their valuable objects, but that is obviously no way to treat a human being. On top of this particular dehumanization, it also becomes clear that Bucky has been systematically abused by his captors. In a flashback, we see how he was captured by HYDRA’s Arnim Zola, who replaced Bucky’s arm with a cybernetic arm with the intention of turning Bucky into HYDRA’s weapon. When they had no need for him, they froze him in a cryo-tank, in what can be considered a mirror-image to Steve Rogers’ hibernation in the ice of the Arctic Ocean.
Back in the present, Bucky, in his confusion, attacks the technician who is repairing his cybernetic arm, to which the immediate response is that he’s held at gunpoint by the men in the vault. HYDRA’s leader, Alexander Pierce, is called in to remedy the situation. The implication is that Pierce has considerably control over the Winter Soldier, something the others apparently do not have. Pierce’s treatment of Bucky may indicate why. When Bucky fails to comply with Pierce’s order, Pierce backhands him across the face. Such a slap is heavily associated with domestic abuse and keeping a partner in check if they act out. A backhand slap is sometimes also called a “pimp slap”, further emphasizing the abusive implications of this kind of violence and the objectification of Bucky as a tool to be used by HYDRA whenever they need him. Moreover, there is a gendered dimension to this kind of abuse. Domestic abuse can and does happen to men, yet is still mostly associated with women as victims and men as perpetrators.This has to do with those popular and dominant notions of masculinity mentioned above. After all, if men are considered tough, assertive, and aggressive, how could they be victims? When men fail to live up to these standards, it thus creates a masculinity that is subordinated to the hegemonic ideal. Bucky’s representation as a victim in this scene is part of such a subordinated masculinity.
When the backhand doesn’t knock sense into Bucky, Pierce uses a different method. He tells Bucky, “Your work has been a gift to mankind. You shaped the century. And I need you to do it one more time.” This is reminiscent of abusers who try to rationalize their behavior. By telling Bucky that his work has been “a gift,” he is also arguing that the methods that led to that work – the abuse and the brainwashing – have been instrumental in accomplishing such a gift. The Winter Soldier’s work as an assassin is necessary and in order to do his job, he must comply and submit.
When this method fails too, Pierce orders to wipe the Winter Soldier’s memory. While this process is shown to be a very painful one, Bucky does not resist. Significantly, the people pushing him back in his chair are not armed men, but technicians who could easily be overpowered by Bucky. Yet, he does not struggle at all: the men are able to push him back with little to no resistance, even though Bucky must have been conditioned to fear this treatment. In fact, it’s quite clear he fears what’s coming, judging by his panicked breathing as he is restrained in his chair. From this we can conclude that Bucky knows resistance is futile and that submission to the abuse is the only way to survive. Such behavior is contrary to the ideals of hegemonic masculinity. After all, Bucky has no control over his own life or a sense of self. Submissiveness has generally been associated with women, who are, following this logic, not capable of being “inner-directed,” meaning that they are easily manipulated by others. Furthermore, Bucky’s loss of identity also complicates his relation to masculinity, as individualism is a concept heavily associated with masculinity. The Winter Soldier is not treated as an individual, but as a weapon and as something that can be molded to fit his users’ needs. His individuality, therefore, is completely erased and neglected.
The flashback scene, in which we see Bucky as he was before the war, is also instrumental in the construction of Bucky’s masculinity. In this scene, he is presented as a nurturer who takes care of Steve after the death of his mother. Such a role is usually associated with women. This scene taking place immediately after Steve’s mother’s funeral is also significant: it’s as if Bucky is now occupying the role that Sarah Rogers’ death left vacant. From this scene, we can conclude that Bucky Barnes was a nurturing and loving individual who took care of his friends and looked after them when they needed it. This stands in stark contrast to the relentless killing machine HYDRA turned him into, in both individual and gendered terms.
None of this necessarily changes Bucky’s gender, but it does affect his representation as a gendered character. The contrasting images of Bucky’s masculinity serve to create a character that cannot be easily defined in gendered terms. Of course, none of us are entirely masculine or entirely feminine, but the extreme juxtaposition between the Winter Soldier as a killing machine and Bucky Barnes as a victim of systematic abuse presents a specific duality in which Bucky continually and consistently blurs boundaries. After all, he carries this duality within him at all times. When we see him as a ruthless assassin, he is simultaneously a victim; when we see him strapped to a chair while his memories are being erased, he is still capable of extreme violence. On top of that, the original essence of him – the instinct to take care of others – is also still with him throughout, as shown in the climax of the film when he decides to save Steve.
Therefore, I would argue that Bucky Barnes is a cyborg, not just in a literal sense due to his cybernetic arm, but also in a metaphorical sense. In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” Donna Haraway defines cyborgs as creatures that cross boundaries and contain fusions of various elements. Furthermore, cyborgs are usually a product of militarism, which is exactly the case here, as the Winter Soldier was quite literally created by a militaristic group. The fractured state of Bucky’s identity as well as the contrasting aspects of his masculinity turn Bucky into a metaphorical and a literal cyborg. Haraway argues that while cyborgs can be complicit in oppressive regimes, they also carry within themselves the potential for resistance, precisely because they cannot be easily defined in binary terms. These boundary crossings should be embraced, as a cyborg world is one “in which people are…not afraid of permanently partial identities.” The narrative in Winter Soldier follows this pattern: at first, Bucky is (unknowingly) complicit in upholding HYDRA’s destructive plans, but in the end, it is his realization of his fractured state of mind that allows him to resist and flee. Therefore, his being a cyborg is what ultimately saves Bucky Barnes from the militaristic and oppressive regime that HYDRA represents.
Bucky Barnes’ identity contains multitudes; he cannot be pinned down easily by any one category. He is both victim and aggressor, he is both human and machine, he is both masculine and feminine, and perhaps most importantly, he occupies all the gray areas in between. His gendered representation and his cyborg-status mirror and complement each other, as both fail to create a binary character. The very fact of his existence gives rise to resistance in these films, for when binaries are broken down, so are the systems that uphold them.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Dir. Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Perf. Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford, and Scarlett Johansson. Marvel Studios, 2014. Film.
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