I Want to Have Sex Like… Steve Rogers (in Captain America: The Winter Soldier)
Exploration of sexuality and sexual fantasy via pop culture, that’s this series. The familiar seems like a good place to start, with an analysis of a few works of fiction as to why they managed to punch me in the gut and go “yes, like that would be nice.” In this post, that’ll be Steve Rogers, person first, superhero second, and what we see of him and his relationships in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).
Needless to say, spoilers ahoy!
Short on time and want to get the gist? Skip to the heading “Fantasy material”.
Diving into the media
The first time I encountered the words “demisexual” and “asexual” was as tags on Archive of Our Own,1 perhaps due to characters who could be read as being asexual, such as Sherlock Holmes, in popular media. Steve Rogers has been tagged demisexual, several times. While it’s good that was explored, I do not believe it matches his canon (official) characterisation.
As TV tropes mentions in its article on asexuality,2 it’s unusual to see a movie that acknowledges sex, with characters that are to some extent asexual. In the first movie, Steve seems to be your regular Chaste Hero3 (clueless about sex). In the second movie, he’s more of a Celibate Hero4 (not having sex by choice), but it’s not his sexual behaviour so much as the way it’s treated that got my attention. In part because he’s a very clear role model, and this is a well-received action movie, watched by a mainstream audience.
Captain America Movies
The first Captain America was a sweet flick about a guy named Steve Rogers who comes into his masculinity and sexuality late. His basic decency is emphasised as his best trait. He was teased, he was kissed, he was confused about fondueing5, asked a girl out and then hybernated in Arctic ice for 70 years.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good action movie, but also has good characterisations and relationships. Steve Rogers is portrayed as ambivalent about sex while acclimating to the 21st century. He spends the most screentime with Natasha, Black Widow, and they keep a banter-filled camaraderie going. The emotional support isn’t offered by a love interest but by new friend and fellow veteran Sam Wilson, later Falcon. And then… well, if ever there was a star-crossed bromance it’s between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier.
The overall message I took away from it? Friends are important, and you have sex if you want to.
While we dive into the details, I’ll be ignoring virtually all action sequences and diving into Steve’s personal relationships, both romantic and platonic.
Yentaing and doubts
“You do anything fun, Saturday night?” asks Natasha while they’re prepping to jump off the plane, at the start of the movie. “No, all the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead, so. No, not really,” answers Steve. “You know, if you asked Kristen out from Statistics, she’d probably say yes.” “It’s why I don’t ask.” “Too shy or too scared?” “Too busy.”
This little scene shows that Steve is conscious of the fact he’s attractive, and chooses not to go down that road. He’s missing his friends and he’s focusing on work. It also shows that his colleagues, or at least Natasha, expect him to start a love life and gives him advice, serious or in jest. His refusal is remarkable, in that turning down girls is usually a cliché used in romance stories to show a guy’s in love and loyal to his (unrequited) crush. He also deflects suggestions about “that nurse across the hall” and “Lillian, with the lip piercing”.
While on the run, Natasha and Steve pretend to be a couple in a mall. On an escalator Natasha turns to Steve, “Kiss me, […] public displays of affection make people very uncomfortable.” “Yes they do,” answers Steve emphatically, but is kissed without another word to hide their faces. The exchange after, “Are you still uncomfortable?” “’s not exactly the word I would use,” leaves in the middle whether it was agreeable to Steve. Subtext says he gets a boner. “Was I your first kiss since 1945?” she asks him later, which he denies, implying he’s at least kissed a few others, and his current abstinence is by choice. “Nobody special?” she asks him later. “Believe it or not, it’s kinda hard to find someone with shared life experience,” he answers, in other words, having things in common is kind of important.
Steve does, in fact, ask out the nurse from across the hall. He offers her the use of his washing machine in exchange for a coffee date. She turns him down but follows up his his “I’ll keep my distance” with an ambiguous “hopefully not too far.” She is revealed to be Agent 13 from SHIELD, whom he freezes out later, returning her “Captain Rogers” with a cold “neighbour” when they pass in the hallway. She stands up to Sitwell for him and sides with other SHIELD agents against HYDRA later. At the end of the movie, Natasha encourages him to ask her out again, which he doesn’t commit to, though he asks for her name. It seems to say he’s now open to the possibility.
Steve Rogers is the most open when he goes to speak to a former love interest. He visits a now ancient Peggy Carter at the start, whom he calls his “best girl” and says “knowing you founded SHIELD is half the reason I stay.” He tells her, “For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore.” Implying that he’s off-balance about his life as a whole, and that his work’s not enough of an anchor. She advises him that, “the world is changed, but none of us can go back. All we can do is our best, and sometimes the best we can do is to start over,” before her amnesia’s revealed.
How to rebuild a life
Immediately after Peggy, Steve doesn’t go in search of sex or alcohol, but goes against cliché again and seeks out emotional support in the shape of Sam Wilson. The veterans got talking while jogging in the opening scene, sympathising that beds back home are too soft. At the VA, they agree that a purpose for life is hard to find and Sam ending with the advise Steve “Seriously, you could do whatever you want to do, what makes you happy.” Then almost an hour of the movie goes by before Steve and Natasha show up at Sam’s house, looking for a place to hide. Breakfast the next day, Sam throws in his lot with them, reveals he flew with a set of metal wings while he served abroad and they become a trio. When Steve protests he just got out of the war, he says “Dude, Captain America needs my help. There’s no better reason to get back in.”
Steve and Natasha
The two characters with the most screentime in general and together is Steve and Natasha, especially in the first half of the movie. It simply makes me happy to see two characters of opposite genders manage a realistic professional relationship and a friendship with real emotional depth that’s allowed to be front and center in a movie. They start out as brothers-in-arms on a mission, until Steve finds out Natasha had additional orders and he walks out on her. They reunite when Fury’s dead in a morgue and they need to find out who did it together.
Around the middle of the movie, there are two particular scenes of interest for Natasha and Steve. One’s in a car, where it’s shown stuff like their fake kiss does not need to be taboo, “Was I your first kiss since 1945?” teases Natasha. At the same time, it really is a friendhip, “Who do you want me to be?” asks Natasha, and Steve answers, “How about a friend?” This right after a discussion about their philosophical differences.
When they’re patching themselves up at Sam’s place, Natasha opens up about her doubts about SHIELD. There’s also a clear progression from Steve’s trust issues, discussed in the car, to his declaration that he trusts her in this second scene. This, together with Sam’s support, makes them a solid team, later joined by Fury and Maria Hill.
Blast from the past
Steve wallows over the display of his friend Bucky Barnes in among the Captain America paraphernalia in the museum, while its audioclip proclaims they were “inseperable on both schoolyard and battlefield”. After a confrontation in the streets of Washington, Steve recognised Bucky and is shaken up enough to let himself be arrested. Bucky keeps insisting he knows the guy from somewhere while he’s prepared by the villains to be mindwiped. This leads, in the final confrontation to Steve refusing to fight his friend, until he nearly drowns but Bucky finally saves him. It’s left open-ended what’ll happen to this relationship.
Other points of interest
Bucky’s the Winter Soldier, a walking weapon who’s been objectified, brainwashed and experimented on, kept in stasis between missions, to the point where it’s very creepy. It’s a stark contrast to the good guys, who manage to treat everyone, male and female, with some measure of respect. It highlights to me the lack of sexual objectification of the characters in the movie, though it is used once. The sleazy politician who turns out to be a Hydra goon brags about banging some girl who’s 23, handsome, job irrelevant.
The line that makes me want subtract points from the movie is “I’m 95, I’m not dead,” from Steve. He says it in the car scene where Natasha questions him about his previous experience. It can be read as a retort, but it implies very clearly that one is to have some measure of (past) sexual activity to be “not dead”… not really cool when you’re not sexually active and very much alive.
The aspects of this movie eligible for fantasy material may differ from what you’re used to… so here goes, let’s see if I can explain it properly.
The Marvel Movie Universe belongs to the Joss Whedon school of feminism6: everybody has emotions and everybody kicks ass. The first is important because these emotions make it possible to get invested in the characters, and for a demisexual because that’s how attraction starts. The second’s important because it makes the story a space where I can be powerful, respected and safe.
This movie lets Steve progress from someone who’s focusing on work rather than a personal life for someone who’s possibly ready for dating. He takes two steps for that to happen. He regains the feeling he’s fighting the good fight. He makes two friends, one who offers emotional support and one who’s a comrad. It’s a good emotional environment, the kind I want to have when starting to date or be in a relationship. What’s less real, but great material for fantasy: the reunion between Bucky and Steve would be epic, and it’s a great to think their friendship can be revived.
Steve seems to have dabbled in sex, or at least kissing, but refuses it for the duration of the movie. He’s conscious about who’s attracted to him and makes choices to approach people or not. This awareness and deliberation is something I like and identify with. I would want that freedom and not be expected to say yes.
I like what the movie does for the audience – the main character can and does say both yes and no the possibility of dating… Meaning both occur and both are alright. Even better do I like the fact that it’s discussed between friends from opposite genders, meaning communication happens, which leads to good places. That felt real, and desirable.
The movie shows there are other headspaces to be in about dating other than heartbreak, lovestruck and ambivalent about a relationship. It’s possible to be single. It’s possible to be avoiding dating and sex while single. It’s also possible to be tentative or even open about the possibility while single. It’s possible to be talk about it with friends. It’s possible to awkwardly ask a person out for coffee rather than go from “I like you” to “sex scene!” Which is great, because if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there’s a 1001 headspaces among those people that do not have sex, for various combinations of various reasons.
So here’s the fantasy material this movie provides… it provides a place I’d want to be, an emotional environment I’d want to have, provides the freedom for the doubts and the choices I’d want to have, and shows there’s a process to it, which overall means, I’d want to have sex like Steve Rogers. This while keeping in mind all characters appear to be hetero and sexual, so. We’ll have to look elsewhere for more fantasy material.
The links to sources in a neat list:
- Archive of Our Own, asexual Captain America fic.
- TVtropes page on asexuality.
- TVtropes page on the Chaste Hero.
- TVtropes page on the Celibate Hero.
- A clip from Captain America: The First Avenger about fonduing.
- Joss Whedon’s speech at Equality Now. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYaczoJMRhs