Assassins, Outlaws, and Narratives of Autonomy and Vulnerability

sad bucky

Sometimes emotional impact comes at you from sources you don’t expect. For example, did I ever tell you about how that cowboy game by the people who made GTA came out of nowhere and made me cry, introducing me to a protagonist who swiftly became one of my favourite characters? No? Okay, well, let’s talk about that.

Late last year, my housemate brought home Red Dead Redemption 2 (winning the local trivia contest in the process, but that’s an extremely powerful story for another day), and the game–and its player-character, gunslinger Arthur Morgan–quickly stole the hearts of everyone in the house. A natural response to a new interest in this digital age was to peek into social media’s fandom spaces to see what was there, and when I did, I was met with a wave of adoration for Arthur as a character. This took some different forms for different people, of course, but spending enough time following discussions about the game I soon recognised a recurring pattern: a lot of people were drawn to him on a personal level, and not only enjoyed him as a protagonist/thought he was cool/thought he was a bit hunky, people empathised with him in ways that many of them (myself included) found pleasantly surprising. And I thought “hey, this feels… a little familiar.”

It wasn’t until conversations about Bucky Barnes—alias The Winter Soldier—began to resurface in the wake of Avengers: Endgame that the neurons connected. Bucky was, and is, an immensely popular character, particularly after his appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the heyday of the fandom interest in that movie, a whole string of posts, tags, and conversations popped up observing that maybe so many people, especially people who weren’t (cis) dudes, were latching onto this character because something about his narrative, his construction of identity, and the things that happen to him, felt familiar on a strangely personal level. So what exactly was at the heart of this?

It would be easy enough to say this is another case of “fangirls like handsome gun man” (and hey, there’s nothing wrong with liking the handsome gun man, we’re all out here just trying to drag some enjoyment out of the media hellscape), but that feels in this case like a superficial take that misses a core part of the appeal of these characters. Women (and fans raised, socialised, and/or otherwise socially perceived as women/girls; a distinction I want to make because I know a lot of NB and trans folks who like these characters too) don’t just like these fictional men, they connected with them, on a level that I feel has a few similarities worth talking about. Again, “handsome gun man” is a superficial take: both Arthur and Bucky are presented on surface level as traditionally masculine images of cool-factor, but have personal narratives (and sometimes place in the narrative) about autonomy and vulnerability, themes that are usually associated with the feminine.

[There will be spoilers for both stories within, and, as a content warning, some discussion of abuse and violence]

rdr2 morgan

Do I empathise with him? Am I attracted to him? Do I just want that shirt? These are the big questions we have to ask ourselves

A few clarifications first: when I talk about fans and fandom spaces, for these purposes I’m mostly referring to discussions observed on places like Tumblr, a little bit on Twitter, and in personal conversations I’ve had with my own circle of friends. These observations obviously don’t reflect every member of these user bases, or even, for example, every user who happens to like Bucky, but I bring them up because they’re discussions I’ve seen repeated and shared enough times that it speaks to their emotional impact with a lot of people. Where I can find individual posts that demonstrate the point I’ll link them, but these observations are mostly more nebulous and also stem from months and sometimes years’ worth of online discussion, a lot of which is now difficult to track down thanks to the sinkhole that is the scrolling social media feed. It’s not a rock-solid methodology, but if you’ve moved in these spaces, you’ll probably know what I’m talking about in a broad sense. Also, when I talk about “traditionally masculine” and “traditionally feminine” I mean that in the social, archetypal sense—these are not all gender-specific traits I’m discussing, but they are traits that have been gendered in media and in society, hence the “traditionally” I’m gluing in front of those descriptors.

So, let’s get autoethnographic for a sec: I’m a lady, so why do I like these characters? I’ve recently come to the realisation that I have a soft spot for (and often can relate to) characters motivated by loyalty, either to a cause, an idea, or an individual—all the better if their identity is forged around this loyalty. Often, these characters also get arcs that interrogate this dedication, which I find fascinating even if they sometimes have tragic results. Loyal second-in-commands, flawed and dedicated knights, and characters who refer to themselves or are referred to as “human weapons” are generally the way to go (do I connect with this narrative because I’m a lady? It’s hard to say, with personal taste, but bear with me).

A few examples would be Sayaka (whose dedication to helping people sends her toppling into knightly ideals that eventually see her becoming a monster), a good portion of the Utena cast but particularly Anthy, Nanami, and Juri (whose narratives are inextricably entwined with their inextricably entwined-ness to people who are no good for them, i.e. Akio, Touga, and Shiori), and a good portion of the Fate cast (Shirou stands out for his arc’s interrogation of loyalty to heroic ideals, but for this post maybe the best example is Maiya, a child soldier turned assassin). While I’m here, I have a lot of feelings about how Gamora and Nebula are under- and misused in the MCU. Riza Hawkeye is a recent on-brand addition to this list, though she stands out as one of the few whose unwavering loyalty doesn’t lead to something terrible (where was that “I’m under orders not to die” energy in Fate/Zero, Urobochi? Huh?).


This isn’t a post about Riza Hawkeye, but please, have a picture of Riza Hawkeye

This isn’t necessarily a gendered collection of tropes, but there might be something to be said about how this character and narrative type does crop up quite often in female characters. We can get to that in due time. Long story short, I sat down to watch CP play Red Dead 2, minding my own business, and the game proceeded to blindside me with protagonist built from all these traits I enjoyed so much (he’s also got an intriguing an endearing splash of “forced by circumstance to be tough but is actually a big softie with deep romantic notions and a heart of gold”, which will also always get me… but we’ll get to that later). Arthur’s role in the gang is one of dedication and loyalty: these crooks are his family, and he will do anything he needs to to protect them, and he will do anything he needs to to follow the leadership of gang leader Dutch, who is also his adoptive mentor and parental figure… at least, this is where he begins. As the narrative unfolds and unravels towards the foregone conclusion of the gang falling apart, a process that involves Dutch becoming steadily more ruthless and horrible, Arthur’s loyalty is thrown into question and thus, in a way, his entire identity is too.

The power-imbalanced dynamic between these two is a topic of conversation I’ve seen pop up more than once, with plenty of analysis going into the manipulation tactics Dutch uses to encourage that much-prized “faith”, and how Arthur manufactures his behaviour around them, as well as ways we can see that he’s constructed his sense of self around them. It’s a fairly clear demonstration of the way being in an abusive relationship (romantic, familial, or otherwise) can mould a person’s actions, in terms of exaggerated deference, self-deprecating language and poor self-image, and a selective blindness to the flaws of the more powerful party. Again, these traits aren’t gendered (and their gender-stereotyping can lead to real problems for real people in these situations) but they are often aligned with feminine narratives and the narrative roles most traditionally given to female characters, particularly that notion of basing identity and self-worth around what you can do for other people.

When your sense of self is based around a relationship of deep power imbalance, what’s left of you when you try to break away from that? This question is taken to an extreme in Bucky’s case, whose identity as The Winter Soldier is quite literally based around what he can do for other people, since he’s had his own sense of self erased and overwritten by his handlers. He has been the brainwashed assassin for so long, defined by this position as the weapon of choice for this band of awful people, that his idea of who he is begins to fall to pieces when he meets and reconnects with Steve.

Bucky captured in Civil War

Let him out!!

(Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d had a whole arc about his search for his true identity, following on from the end of The Winter Soldier? Where the lines between The Winter Soldier, tool of HYDRA, and Bucky Barnes, human being, were blurred in increasingly interesting ways? Where he managed, with a support network, to build a new sense of self and make steps towards autonomy and healing? Wouldn’t it have been nice??? I digress).

Bucky’s narrative is about being stripped of all autonomy. This is obviously the clearest in The Winter Soldier, demonstrated painfully well in the scene where he’s stripped of his weapons and clothes (and most of that masculine cool-factor we mentioned before), addressed as an object, slapped in the face, and subjected to torture that erases his memories and any sense of personal motivation. This scene was a big part of the argument in those early posts that suggested that Bucky’s popularity with a female (or, socialised/perceived as female) audience stemmed from the resonance of this theme: women and other marginalised folks, after all, are routinely faced with a lack of bodily autonomy and personal agency.

This is true for real life in all sorts of ways both abstract and physical—we’re often encouraged and socialised to value ourselves based on how much we can support others, and you don’t have to wander far in our current media climate to run into companies, lawmakers, and callous individuals who are keen to reduce women to their bodily functions with little regard for the human being attached.

But it’s also true of the roles ladies most often occupy in fiction. Another suggestion for this feminine affinity with Bucky was that, for all intents and purposes, he fills the Damsel in Distress role in Steve’s story. He even gets fridged—both in that he dies to advance Steve’s plot, and that he is literally placed in cold storage. The imagery and literary codes connecting Bucky to the traditionally feminine role could not be clearer, and indeed are clearest in The Winter Soldier, where there isn’t an “official” love interest (Peggy; Sharon) to distract from the fact that Steve’s whole arc across multiple movies centres around protecting Bucky.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Look at those big, sad blue eyes

(Wouldn’t it have been nice to see that through to its natural conclusion in Endgame? Have the two of them get some narrative closure together as the culmination of their arc across their entire portion of the franchise? Where Bucky’s importance was acknowledged and it was acknowledged that no happy ending of Steve’s would be complete without his closest companion and person who has motivated him all this time? Wouldn’t that have been nice????)

Again, Bucky’s status as a brainwashed super-soldier is an extreme version of this narrative of autonomy and vulnerability, so Arthur’s doesn’t quite compare directly. But the same components are there: his is a story about identity as tied to power imbalance, about increased lack of control over his life, his situation, and even his body as he gets sicker and sicker towards the end of the game. He is unmistakably (and deliberately) vulnerable in a way that male protagonists don’t always get to be, and his arc is about that increased vulnerability and how he (and the player, guiding him) deals with it and the last scraps of choice and agency he has in the world.

To drive the Winter Soldier comparison home, there’s even a scene with similar building blocks to Bucky’s “reprogramming” when Arthur gets kidnapped by a rival gang in the middle of the main story: he ends up stripped of his weapons and his clothes, talked to as though he’s a weapon himself that can be traded around to whoever wants to use it, and beaten up and tortured. He manages to escape (rather than being recused, which would have aligned him even further with that traditionally feminine position), but the whole thing is far from the traditionally masculine vision of “badass”. It was deeply stressful in a way that I realised felt familiar; it was playing into fears about violence and the forced removal of power and agency that, well, women kind of live with every day as part of the way society’s constructed.

Admittedly, there is something that feels uncomfortable about saying “the traditional feminine narrative is about lack of autonomy and about being brutalised by the world”, but I think there’s also something to that (in the same way that, say, it feels uncomfortable saying “the traditional queer narrative is about Otherness and feeling out of place in the norm”. It’s true, historically speaking, even if we can do much better and should also be seeking narratives that aren’t this). And I definitely think there’s something to this connection between these male characters and the deep resonance they’ve had with a lot of audience members who have lived as women. Again, while they appear at first glance to be masculine power fantasies, they have a mix of the traditionally masculine and the traditionally feminine within their traits and their positions in the narrative.


Look at those big sad blue eyes

There is a softness to Arthur (that player choices can enhance, but are still built-in regardless) in his demeanour, his artistic hobbies, the way he doesn’t scoff at traditionally feminine things, and the way he relates to the women around him, all of which makes him all the richer and all the more pleasantly surprising as the protagonist of an action adventure. He clearly connects on a deep level with Sadie, a victim of violent attack herself, and the widow Charlotte quite happily brings him into her life and home despite him being a near stranger who, by that point in the narrative, is deep in the business of being a dangerous, wanted outlaw.

There is something that feels safe about him, which feels like it should be paradoxical to his status as a gruff gunslinging action protagonist. In the same way there’s something that feels soft and safe about Bucky, especially as he appears in Civil War, politely buying fruit from a market and retreating into the safety of his hoodie so the world doesn’t come after him.

There is a sense of understanding, obviously enhanced by the fact that, well, these are fictional men that we would never really run into, but if we did, there is a feeling of connection there: they know what it’s like to be objectified, to be used, to be moulded around their loyalty to people who are no good for them, to be hurt… and so we understand each other, however abstractly, and we understand that they wouldn’t do that to us.

While we’re talking about the heartfelt appeal of these characters, I think it’s a point of interest that there’s also, in both cases, a distinct lack of sexuality and aggression here. Once again, the emotional heart of the Captain America movies is the relationship between Steve and Bucky, and there’s no denying that, whether you read it as a romantic or platonic relationship—there are attempts to play Bucky off as flirtatious, but that is mostly relegated to a long-lost past by the time Civil War rolls around, and it becomes clear that what he’s most invested in is this connection with Cap rather than pursuing any women. Arthur is clearly capable of strong romantic attraction, as seen with his heartache over his ex-fiancée (and, on that note, very domestic aspirations, which are usually considered feminine), but despite the bawdiness of the Western setting he’s in he seems to have a general aversion to sex. You could even say this might be linked to trauma (the guy boned once that we know of and it didn’t end happily for anyone involved), which, once again, isn’t something we often see in male heroes, who are presumed to be hot-blooded and raring to go by default.

Even the optional bathhouse scenes where the player can call in a pretty lady to help out are almost hilariously non-sexual, with Arthur peppering them with delightfully awkward small talk and generally being goofy and polite to offset the sexy overtones of the whole business. Which, to get personal again, I appreciate the hell out of, not just because it presents an alternate vision of masculinity that doesn’t hinge on how many ladies a man is climbing into bed with, but because I recognise that, and can thus rub my proverbial filthy little ace hands all over this, which really just adds another unexpected but delightful layer to my empathy for the guy.

And look, I don’t want to overanalyse the Cowboy Scrubbing Minigame, but it plays so much more into what we think of as feminine sensual fantasy rather than masculine power fantasy. As scenes where the big tough hero gets his kit off go, it’s a far cry from, say, some of the swaggery shirtless scenes from the superheroes that Bucky shares a universe with. It’s not part of a display of strength or prowess or sculpted muscle. It’s soft, candle-lit, with an emphasis on comfort and nurturing (press X to tenderly wash his hair!). Again, I don’t want to overthink it, but they didn’t have to put that in, in the same way they didn’t have to give us a shot of his broad, smooth, bare back, draped in candlelight and softly trailing rivulets of water. But they did.

It’s important to note that this is all a matter of personal taste. Is the reason that I’m drawn to both these characters because I’m a woman and I connect with their experiences? Is it because they fulfil a fantasy that writers don’t often quite get when trying to create male characters that female audiences/audiences attracted to men will be drawn to? Is it because I’m pleasantly surprised and fascinated to see these narratives about autonomy, agency, and vulnerability given to badass male main characters, placed in a heroic framework? Is it because the Hurt/Comfort potential embedded in them is off the damn charts? Look, maybe so, or maybe not—maybe some people just think they’re neat, and their resonance with the characters comes from a different emotional place. But I think this connection is worth talking about, for its intriguing intricacies but also for its success. People love these characters with an emotional force that stands out (and, if Arthur follows in Bucky’s footsteps, will stand the test of time).

Yes, The Winter Soldier striding through smoking wreckage after flipping over a truck with his bare hands while his chilling, badass, industrial theme music plays is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen, but you know what else is the coolest shit I’ve ever seen? Heroic badass men being given narratives and traits that reflect and resonate with the marginalised rather than sticking to the same tried and true codes of traditional masculine power.

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Filed under Fun with Isms

6 responses to “Assassins, Outlaws, and Narratives of Autonomy and Vulnerability

  1. On point as always. I’ve seen discussions of this on tumblr before, but it’s always interesting to talk about it more. 😀

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