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] Continue reading