“Till the End of the Line:” Loyalty, Identity, and Stigma in Captain America
*Big warning here for Endgame Spoilers, friends.*
Released less than two months ago on April 26, 2019, Avengers: Endgame has skyrocketed to second place on the list of the top grossing films. As of the writing of this article, Endgame has earned more than $2.7 billion at the box office, and is well on the way to displacing 2009’s Avatar for the top spot. The three-hour plus movie has received glowing reviews from fans and critics alike. The film effectively, if not satisfyingly, concludes the story lines of several Avengers we have come to know and love in the MCU’s first ten years. (I love you 3000, Iron Man).
I’ll admit, as a big fan of MCU Captain America and Steve Rogers in particular, I mostly wanted to see Steve happy and alive after Endgame. My reaction to the Endgame trailer earlier this year was “STEVE ROGERS GETS TO BE HAPPY AFTER ENDGAME OR I RIOT.” I think I can say, as fans, we were all stressed and frustrated after Infinity War. Steve’s loss of his best friend, Bucky, especially after literally rebelling against his country and compromising his values to rescue Bucky in Civil War, was emotional. Not to mention, we got very little Cap & Bucky screen time in Infinity War. As Baker-Whitelaw points out in the excellent article “How the Straight Agenda ruined Avengers, Endgame,” there may have been ulterior reasons to fridge Bucky via Thanos’s snap. Baker-Whitelaw argues that heternormativity, or the assumption that heterosexuality is normative and normal, led Endgame down a path of rewarding male characters with romances/nuclear families, while short-changing female characters, the idea of found family, and minimizing queer subtext. This may have been done to make the film more appealing to audiences opposed to queer rights both domestically and abroad.
Leaving the well-made points about heteronormativity aside for a moment, I love Peggy Carter as a character and I really wish we’d get an Agent Carter prequel. So, I don’t have a problem with Steve being a little selfish and using the time stone to go back to be with Peggy. The final scene in Avengers was impactful and beautiful. I felt, viscerally, Steve’s pain at seeing Peggy in he and Tony’s time travel trip back to the 1970s, and wondering what could have been. I do have problems with Peggy being a “reward” for Steve, however. Making Peggy a reward for Steve is anti-feminist and invalidates her own agential choices to move on with her life after losing Steve. All of that said, as an audience, I think we were short-changed on the Steve & Bucky friendship or relationship in ways that also detracted from some of the social commentary on stigma and relationships we can read in MCU Steve Rogers/Captain America’s story arc.
Despite the dismissive treatment of the Steve & Bucky relationship in Avengers: Endgame, the Captain America trilogy worked best when it centered the relationship in the plot. The value Steve placed on his relationship with Bucky both defined his character and fueled his motivation for rebellion. Whether you ship Stucky (Steve & Bucky) or Steggy (Steve & Peggy) (or both or neither!), it certainly felt out of character to see Steve give up any kind of relationship with Bucky to travel back in time to be with Peggy, especially after he worked so hard and even committed criminal and deviant acts to rescue Bucky in previous films.
Steve and Bucky’s relationship is also significant, however, because it illustrates many points Goffman made about stigma, identity, and relationships in his 1963 book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. The rest of this essay focuses on how and why Steve and Bucky and to some extent Steve and Peggy and Steve and Sam’s relationships can be understood in the context of Steve’s disabled identity.
Before I add in the sociological insights here, I think I need to add some personal context. Captain America was never my favorite character in the MCU. If you’d asked me a few years ago, I would have answered Tony Stark/Iron Man, mostly because Tony is Extra AF and Full O’Snark and never apologizes for his intelligence. But then, I started to suffer from a host of health issues. Long story short, I have more than one chronic health issue that make daily life unpredictable and difficult. Coming to terms with my invisible disability has been a journey that at times has been deeply frustrating and enlightening, often simultaneously. Through the process of symptom presentation, diagnosis, and struggle, I re-watched the Captain America Trilogy. And watching Steve Rogers struggle to serve his country touched a nerve. That feeling where all you want to do is live your life and fight for what you believe in, but due to circumstances beyond your control, you just cannot do it — well I sobbed for Steve, for me, for what I had hoped my life would continue to be. It was gross. I realized that I, like Steve, am disabled.
But how could I be disabled, I thought. I appear to be able-bodied and can function as an able-bodied person in most contexts. Like some people with an invisible disability, I benefit from able-bodied privilege and ableism, even if I do not want to receive those benefits. While we might most commonly associate disability with a specific condition such as blindness, deafness, or paralysis, the Americans with Disabilities Act legally defines a person with a disability as one who “has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity (https://adata.org/faq/what-definition-disability-under-ada, accessed 6–11–19).”
Before his transformation into Captain America by way of super-soldier serum injection and exposure to gamma radiation in a contraption that tumblr user virginagentlenerd dubbed ‘Howard Stark’s Hottie Machine,’ Steve Rogers suffered from a host of physical impairments including asthma, frequent colds, heart issues, and high blood pressure. Steve’s various health issues qualify as a disability; this status kept military service off limits despite his all-consuming desire to serve his country and fight bullies.
I want us to also consider, however, how social constructions about what bodies are ‘able’ or ‘disabled’ limited most others from valuing Steve. In Captain America: The First Avenger, Colonel Phillips is unable to see Steve’s intelligence, dedication, and tenacity as positive attributes. As such, he is shocked when Erskine chooses Steve over Hodge for the experiment. Steve’s creative thinking is shown in a pivotal scene when he is the first person in over 17 years to recover the flag from the pole at Camp Lehigh using brains over brawn. Colonel Phillips views Steve from the perspective of a soldier, and applying those ableist assumptions, he disregards any potential contribution Steve might make. He sees Steve only through the lens of what he and society label as a disability and as such stigmatizes him as deviant and non-normal. Colonel Phillips, representing society and normative expectations about what bodies are and should be able to do, disables Steve Rogers from serving by failing to consider the ways he might help. This act is also dehumanizing in that it strips Steve’s agency.
Every day we interact with the world based on assumptions we make in a split second. We have been taught through socialization to sort people we meet into groups based on attributes, often highly visible physical characteristics such as how we read gender, race, class, and ability status. These categories become a sort of shorthand, or basic script for interacting with people we don’t know on a personal level. Unfortunately, a product of this sorting, and continually reconstructed through the act, are biases. When bodies do not conform to what society has defined as “normal,” they are stigmatized and devalued as less than, like Colonel Phillips’s treatment of Steve. Goffman (1963) effectively shows us the social construction here throughout his definitive work by referring to those not stigmatized as “the normals.” The Normals, aka society, then views those who have a stigma as immoral and somehow inherently deviant.
From Goffman (1963: 2):
[A person to whom a stigma has been attached]…is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma, especially when its discrediting effect is very extensive; sometimes it is also called a failing, shortcoming, a handicap.”
Steve’s “spoiled identity (stigmatized identity)” are his various physical impairments/disabled status that The Normals use to categorize him as unfit for service. The social model of disability argues that it is not the impairment a person has that disables them; but rather it is the social reaction to the impairment that keeps an individual from full participation in society. In other words, it is the stigma society attaches to the identity that is disabling.
Most people will need adaptive technology at some point in their lives. Yet most do not consider people who need glasses to drive or older people who use hearing aids to be in the same category as a person who uses a wheelchair. As disability studies scholar Lennard Davis (1999: 502) argues, in a population dominated by aging Baby Boomers, perhaps it’s more constructive to think about people as “temporarily able-bodied.” If I am a person who has a physical impairment, but can use adaptive technologies, including social adaptations such as a flexible schedules or work-from-home arrangements that enable me to fully participate in ways we would expect of an average citizen, am I still disabled (Wendell 1996)? Thus, it is the label (and devaluing attached to it) that comes to represent the individual in the minds of others, not the person’s actual lived experience that disables.
Of course, Steve needing to become a super soldier to be valued and to serve his country is problematic from a disability rights perspective. Interestingly, Dr. Erskine does not focus on Steve’s physical body but his intellect, attitude, heart, and values. Steve’s identity as a stigmatized person and his experience as a marginalized person make him especially qualified in Dr. Erskine’s estimation. What disqualified Steve from service according to Colonel Phillips, qualifies him for Erskine. Steve is a hero long before his body changes. He is a hero because he puts others’ needs in front of his own and is willing to sacrifice himself in service to the greater good.
Ultimately, it is Steve’s experience as a socially disabled, marginalized person, that explain why his loyalty to Bucky overrides his sense of duty to his country. In Goffman’s terms, Bucky is one of a handful of people who recognizes Steve’s “actual social identity” and not just his “virtual social identity.” In other words, Bucky sees and values Steve as a fully realized individual, not only as a member of a stigmatized category. Steve trusts Bucky, even when he is being controlled by Hydra, in ways he cannot trust others after becoming Captain America. Because Bucky knows Steve, and loves him, not the role he plays as Cap.
Whether their relationship is platonic or romantic, Bucky is Steve’s family and Steve feels valued and loved for himself and not for the role he plays. I would argue that this is also why Steve loves Peggy. She knew, valued, and loved him before he became a Dorito. Sociologist Matthew Desmond (2008: 58) wrote that there are “…two ways to dehumanize. The first is to strip people of all virtue, the second is to cleanse them of all sin.” Bucky and Peggy do not see Steve as only his stigmatized identity; they see his virtue, and his sin. This insight may also explain Steve’s relationship with Sam Wilson. Even though Steve is well-known as Cap by the time he meets Sam, Sam treats him as an individual, even teasing him about his fame and abilities. Read this way, Steve and Sam’s friendship is critical commentary on the dehumanizing and depersonalizing aspects of celebrity culture.
At the end of the day, we all need to feel valued for who we are, not what we do. And when we find the people who appreciate us this way and allow us to be fully ourselves, you’re damn right (language!) we’ll follow them “‘til the end of the line.”