Marvel, I just want to talk about queerbaiting

Rebecca Sykes tries to get to the bottom of the MCU's lack of queer characters, despite their persistent hinting

Rebecca Sykes
7th April 2021
Credit: IMDb
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is great, but constantly falls into the vice of queerbaiting; the active choice to refrain from embracing and validating LGBTQ+ whilst using hints to get more views and money.

After teasing in the media of the first LGBTQ+ character in the MCU, a director’s cameo in Avengers: Endgame (2019) talking about his dead husband for 10 seconds was not substantial representation. Digital Spy’s report on Endgame’s openly gay character had a byline of ‘And it isn’t who you think’ above a photo of Sebastian Stan's Bucky Barnes with Chris Evans' Steve Rogers, clearly drawing on the popular and hopeful assumption Bucky will be canonically LGBTQ+. Bucky has long been viewed by fans as bisexual, only to be further encouraged by subtext and subtle hints in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (FATWS).

Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok (2017), Credit: IMDb

In 2018, Kevin Feige (MCU Executive Producer) responded to The Playlist’s question about the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in the MCU by suggesting the characters are “both ones you’ve seen and ones you haven’t seen”. Who does he mean? When will they arrive? Is he counting Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie as bisexual? The character was confirmed by Thompson on Twitter as bisexual, yet canonically, a scene confirming it was deleted.

Or, was Feige talking about Billy Maximoff from WandaVision (2021)? Billy has a same-sex relationship in the comics, but in the MCU he was only a child and disappeared from existence. The casual MCU viewer would be clueless of any LGBTQ+ representation.

The casual MCU viewer would be clueless of any LGBTQ+ representation

To fulfill Feige’s promise, there could be a scene confirming Bucky as bisexual. It wouldn’t be difficult after the early episodes of FATWS’ queerbaiting, or after Bucky filling the role usually reserved for female love interests in the Captain America trilogy. “I’m with you ‘til the end of the line” was repeatedly exchanged between Steve and Bucky, being so powerful in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) that it stopped a mind-controlled Bucky. In fairness, it might just be a really strong friendship. So strong, that a forced kiss between Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and Steve was awkwardly added after Steve’s ex and Sharon's aunt, Peggy's funeral in Captain America: Civil War (2016). Steve also left Bucky to time travel in Endgame, attempting to distance the characters from a queer response and emotional intensity.

Steve and Bucky together even through war, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Credit: IMDb

During Bucky’s date with Leah (Miki Ishikawa) in episode one, he jokes “A lot of weird pictures- I mean, tiger photos?” about online dating. Profile photos involving tigers was a specifically male trend in the 2010s causing the emergence of blogs such as Tinder Guys with Tigers, with Tinder posting a statement in 2017 urging users to stop. It’s too specific a reference for it not to be queerbaiting, but it’s still not confirmation of his sexuality (as hoped by some fans) as it’s too subtle.

After insinuating Bucky’s profile was set to women and men, the second episode dives into queerbaiting with Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Bucky rolling around together tightly in a field and Bucky ending on top of Sam, and a couples’ therapy session where their thighs absolutely have to be encased together whilst they gazed into each other’s eyes. The couples' therapy session serves to get to the heart of the episode, and is a clear example of queerbaiting. Plus, Bucky’s line, delivered heart-shatteringly well, of “If he was wrong about you, he was wrong about me” drives home the connection he had and lost with Steve.

A plutonic friendship or something more? Anthony Mackie and Sebastian Stan in TFATWS, Credit: IMDb

Bucky is inherently queer coded in the MCU, so much so FATWS series creator, Malcolm Spellman, was asked about Bucky’s sexuality by NME only to respond, “I’m not diving down rabbit holes, but just keep watching”. I’m watching and sadly guessing that’s the new definition of queerbaiting and almost a definitive no.

I love FATWS and Bucky Barnes, whether canonically bisexual or not, is my favourite character. I hope Spellman and his writers (who are all cisgender, heterosexual men) can prove me wrong and provide a better payoff with more substantial representation. Either way, I’m glad to join the discussion of Bucky’s queer narrative. Only time will tell if Marvel joins me.

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