Captain America, according to comic book lore, transforms from 98-pound-weakling Steve Rogers into a Nazi-fighting hunk after a massive injection of glowing blue chemicals. As superhero origin stories go, the change is fairly standard stuff. But on Tuesday, in an outpouring of tens of thousands of Tweets, a legion of fans clamored for the character to undergo an even more revolutionary metamorphosis, at least among denizens of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This time, Captain America would be made complete not with a swelling of the biceps, but of the heart: #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, as the hashtag that spread like wildfire went.
Jess Salerno, a student and fan of the Marvel films, created the tag that engulfed Twitter’s superhero imagination. “I feel like it sucks that people in the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] community don’t get the representation that they deserve,” she told Metro UK, “and it would be so amazing for something like Captain America or Marvel to be able to portray that.”
That Captain America might find himself in a same-sex relationship is not an idea unique to Twitter, with myriad romantic depictions of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes — Cap’s longtime friend and, as the Winter Soldier, antagonist — appearing on the blogging platform Tumblr. Nor is Salerno’s hashtag completely new; rather, it echoes the push to give “Frozen” heroine Elsa a girlfriend, a sentiment that Idina Menzel, the actress who voices the animated snow queen, recently announced she supports.
But not every Marvel fan swooned at the hypothetical relationship. With “Deadpool” perhaps being a notable exception, superhero blockbusters are much more likely to show violence than romance, and some voiced the opinion that focusing on Cap’s romantic preferences would feel extraneous. Others doubted that Captain America should be the hero who brings sexual diversity to the Marvel roster. Stan Lee, creator of several Marvel characters, told Newsarama in June that he prefers to see more traditional renditions of comic book heroes reflected on the big screen.
“I think the world has a place for gay superheroes, certainly,” Lee said. “But again, I don’t see any reason to change the sexual proclivities of a character once they’ve already been established. I have no problem with creating new, homosexual superheroes.”
Bradley Bond, an expert on the interplay between media and sexual identity at the University of San Diego, Calif., wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Captain America’s traditionally heterosexual depiction “throws a unique curve ball into the equation.”
“To have a character with such deep roots in American comic culture depicted as gay would plausibly have varying effects on audiences,” he said, “that may or may not align with the research published in the last few years on the influence of media depictions of LGBT characters more generally.”
The exact extent to which pop culture influences personal beliefs is tough to pin down, though media studies experts are confident it does play a role. In 2014, a pair of researchers at the University of Michigan had some 300 study participants listen to various versions of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” to see if the pop anthem would influence the way listeners perceive a genetic basis for homosexuality. They reported in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media that although the song did not directly change anyone’s opinions toward homosexuality, those who listened to the lyrics “evaluated gay rights policies with a heavier weight on genetic explanations of gay origins” compared with subjects who simply heard an instrumental version or nothing at all.
“This is evidence of classic media priming,” the authors wrote, “in which exposure to media content activates particular ideas that are more likely to be used when forming political judgments.”
Television and movies, too, can be even more powerful. After the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015, the Los Angeles Times argued that television was the formative medium for American acceptance of homosexuality, pointing to the moment when Ellen DeGeneres came out on ABC’s “Ellen” as a “watershed.” The Times also cited a 2012 Hollywood Reporter survey that found about 40 percent of people polled cited TV shows as an influence on the way they thought about same-sex marriage.
Even Vice President Joe Biden is an acolyte of pop culture’s reach. “I think ‘Will & Grace’ probably did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody’s ever done so far,” Biden remarked on “Meet the Press” in 2012.
“For heterosexual audiences, exposure to gay characters can increase endorsement of gay equality and reduce homophobia,” Bond told the Post. He cites the so-called intergroup contact theory, in which knowing someone from a stigmatized group is likely to lower barriers to acceptance. According to research Bond published in November, he said this holds particularly true for people who have fewer than three LGBT acquaintances in real life.
“If a heterosexual boy feels like he connects with Captain America in many ways, but Captain America happens to be gay,” Bond said, this theory suggests the “boy would be more likely to feel like gay men are equal to him and should be treated fairly.”
Compared with sitcoms — like Oscar Martinez on “The Office,” or Cam and Mitch on “Modern Family” — or the science fiction genre — producer J.J. Abrams announced in February an openly gay character is coming to the Star Wars franchise — superhero movies are not exactly a hotbed of diverse orientations. And it won’t be easy to get the typical Avengers fan to rethink corn-fed, hyper-masculine Captain America.
“Depicting a superhero as gay would also require a bit of cognitive rewiring on the part of the average viewer,” Bond said, “regardless of the viewer’s sexual orientation.” But that does not mean he thinks we should shy away from a Steve-Bucky romance. In Bond’s view, that cognitive difficulty “would be good for society in our ever-arduous attempt at breaking down stereotypes of gay men.”