Ableism, Sidekick Agency and Ageism
Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier, and the New Cold War
Welcome back to our intersectional look at how fandom, feminism, LGBTQ representation and other generational dog whistles are portrayed. Today we look at Bucky Barnes, onetime kid sidekick of Captain America, and both hero and antagonist in his own right with his own resonant internal and deeply personal struggle.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
Bucky Barnes is a long-time fan favorite, his story resonating across a variety of demographics. In particular, many women say they can relate to Bucky more than other male superheroes. The common theme between these fans is their ability to relate to Bucky’s loss of his physical and mental autonomy.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Bucky Barnes in The Marvel Cinematic Universe or more generally with the world of the Marvel comics imprint, the character of Bucky Barnes was created in 1941 by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby [ 1 ] and first appeared in Captain America Comics #1. Captain America, the alias of Steve Rogers, was an all-American super soldier who used his powers to fight the Axis during World War II. Meanwhile, Bucky began life as a plucky camp follower, a kid thrown into battle when he discovers Captain America’s secret identity. Granted his own costume, Bucky was a member of various kid superhero teams, thwarting various villainous schemes in the U.S. and abroad.
Captain America and the world he lives in have come back to the forefront of pop culture consciousness over the past several years as a result of the overwhelming success of movies featuring both Cap and his allies and enemies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, Marvel’s series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier explores many of the same themes that we will touch on today, as the MCU Bucky is a very close approximation of his comics counterpart, often experiencing nearly identical trauma (and the results of that trauma). However, the focus of this article is not the MCU’s version of Bucky but is instead on the versions of these characters as represented in the original comics.
Bucky originated as Captain America’s teen sidekick and appeared regularly alongside his mentor during the war years. Bucky was also featured in comics on his own alongside other heroic kids his own age in a comic called The Young Allies. Whereas Cap himself was originally designed as propaganda to inspire soldiers and those on the front, Bucky’s solo adventures were aimed at children, having more sanitized and home-front oriented stories [ 1 ]. Later, Bucky’s tragic death during a failed attempt to diffuse a missile was a constant source of pain for Steve Rogers and an example of what he saw as the cost of war: innocence and childhood destroyed. Wracked with constant guilt and shame that he had been unable to protect his teen sidekick, his inability to save Bucky’s life was one of his deepest regrets.
In 2004, Ed Brubaker decided there was more potential in the character’s story, triggering one of the most successful comic-book retcons (or “retroactive continuities”) of all time. Rather than dying after falling off the missile he had been trying to disarm, Bucky survives thanks to having received an incomplete version of the super soldier serum that gave Captain America his own superpowers. Also, like his mentor, Bucky is later frozen and put in stasis. Having fallen into frozen waters, Bucky’s body is preserved and then recovered.
Unlike Captain America, however, Bucky’s frozen body is discovered by the Red Room, a group of Soviet spies training brainwashed super soldiers. Due to the brain damage he sustained from the injury that caused his death in the original continuity, Bucky has no memory of who he is or of his life before the accident. The Red Room conditions and brainwashes him into the perfect operative. He is used as an assassin to destabilize Russia’s enemies and inflame Cold War tensions. Later it is revealed that the Red Room is working with the perennial Captain America nemesis, the Red Skull, and part of a new branch of the villainous organization HYDRA as they hunted for the Cosmic Cube. The Cosmic Cube is a device that can grant any wish for the person who holds it, including completely changing events in the past and future, as well as granting the user anything they desire.
Ultimately, the quest for the Cosmic Cube results in the restoration of Bucky’s lost memories. Steve recovers the Cube and wishes for Bucky to be whole again, thus returning his memories, though it doesn’t erase the physical and emotional trauma that Bucky experienced in his time with the Red Room. The entire plot line is a gripping suspense thriller, and a far-reaching plot that affects wars between nations. But it’s the personal struggle Bucky faces after he regains his memories that causes the character to resonate so strongly with readers.
Sometimes you’re never quite whole again
Bucky pays a hefty price for his modern resurrection. While he survives, he experiences violation at every level, both physically and mentally.
Bucky loses an arm in the fall and is later fitted with a neural implant that allows him to control an artificial arm grafted directly onto his body. Even when the arm is removed, an artificial socket remains attached. On several occasions, artists have depicted the damage caused by the implant and used removal of the arm as a way to try to pacify and control Bucky, both by his original handlers and then later when Bucky is a fugitive after it is revealed that he is the Winter Soldier, a fearsome criminal operative. Bucky submits to a trial out of guilt and shame [ 2 ] for his deeds, which still haunt him. The trial reveals all of the brainwashing and abuse he faced, highlighting Bucky’s identity as a victim and a prisoner of war rather than a person willing and aware of his actions.
This mechanical arm is both a physical mark of trauma and the most obvious symbol of his loss of autonomy. It is something that obviously eats at him, a constant reminder of his trauma. At one point he even asks Tony Stark to create a synthetic skin that will make his arm look and feel like flesh so he can feel more human, demonstrating how difficult the loss is for him. Ultimately, the driving conflict of Bucky’s character is one of reconciling the violence that he perpetrated against his will with the person he is perceived as and the person he wants to be.
Bucky both lives and struggles with a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, especially when he takes on the mantle of Captain America after Steve’s apparent death at the hands of Crossbones and the Red Skull, where his past as the Winter Soldier is leaked to the public by his enemies. He has never felt worthy of wearing Steve’s mantle, even though Steve chose him to provide him a positive, important role to inhabit. To have his past revealed, and to be pursued by both the U.S. and Russia as a criminal, hurts Bucky deeply, as it seemingly confirms all of Bucky’s fears about himself, especially when Steve is recovered alive.
Bucky, his trauma, and his struggle to cope
For anyone who has been on the receiving end of personal violence such as emotional or physical abuse, rape, or any other kind of assault, Bucky’s narrative hits all too close to home. For all his superhero trappings, Bucky is ultimately a character trying to recover from trauma. Survivors of all kinds can relate to his struggle, which encompasses physical damage, psychological impact, and the intersection between the two. Bucky, even when given a new role that allows him to make a real, positive impact as Captain America, never feels like he deserves this new role, or the trust that people put in him. Because he remembers the actions he committed as the Winter Soldier as well as his heroics working alongside Steve during World War II, Bucky doesn’t believe that he can really be a good person, feeling that he should have fought harder against the brainwashing that transformed him into a living weapon. His difficulties in processing what has happened to him, and his struggles in trying to find a new life in the aftermath, mirror the struggles of real people who deal with real-life versions of these problems every day.
While it’s never explicitly stated, Bucky shows various symptoms of PTSD and trauma throughout the comic. According to Veterans Affairs, 11-30 percent of all soldiers will experience varying degrees of PTSD in their lifetimes. Symptoms include reliving the event, where various triggers cause flashbacks to the trauma; avoiding situations that remind one of the event; having more negative beliefs and feelings, resulting in changes in perception, personality and the way they interact; and hyper arousal, which is when a person feels overly vigilant, overwhelmed and constantly on guard even when the situation doesn’t require it [ 3 ].
At various points, Bucky shows all these symptoms in nuanced and compelling ways. The most obvious of these is the way Bucky’s perception of himself changes from wartime to his time as the Winter Soldier. When Steve leaves the mantle of Captain America to Bucky after his death, Bucky is plagued by the memories of the Winter Soldier’s deeds, unable to let go and accept that he was a victim. “I keep trying to escape it, but I can’t,” Bucky says to himself. He struggles with his own characterization as the “lone wolf” the Winter Soldier was, finally telling himself to “stop it. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, you stupid selfish fool… this isn’t about you. You’re doing this for Steve [ 4 ].”
This quote encapsulates Bucky’s characterization as someone suffering from PTSD. Despite all the support and love from other people, Bucky still feels like a monster. In fact, when Steve first returns his memories with the Cosmic Cube, Bucky is so overwhelmed that he hides from Steve and the Avengers as he fights to come to terms to what happened to him.
While written by other writers, the Bucky of the World War II era is bright, bubbly, and youthful. Brubaker chose to make him a trained operative rather than just a kid who stumbled upon Captain America’s secret identity, but flashbacks show that Bucky was a goofy, joking kid despite everything that was asked of him on the battlefield. This is a drastic shift compared to the older Bucky we see as Captain America and then later as he returns to his identity as the Winter Soldier to undo some of the damage for which he feels responsible. It definitely shows the long-term trauma that Bucky bears and fits with the changes in personality and mood that one might see with PTSD and other trauma disorders.
Much has been said of “triggers,” or events that can cause a PTSD sufferer to have acute flashbacks of their trauma. In the world of comics this notion of triggers still exists, but instead is played a little more fantastically. In the Marvel Universe, Bucky has an implanted code word that is capable of reverting him back to his brainwashed personality of the Winter Soldier. Once he discovers this vulnerability Bucky is terrified, going so far as to having his mind altered in order to protect himself and others from being manipulated and hurt when he feels out of control. This is analogous to the terror of PTSD flashbacks, as sufferers often feel like they are reliving their traumatic experience, often harming themselves or others due to imaginary threats [ 5 ].
Flashbacks, along with hyper vigilance, another common symptom of PTSD, go hand and hand both for sufferers and for Bucky [ 5 ]. When he learns that his past and his mind can be exploited, he is desperate to fix it and keep others safe. After his apparent death, Bucky chooses to resume his identity as the Winter Soldier to work on undoing the harm he caused, using his knowledge to target his former handlers, in the process denying himself a chance at a more normal life.
The legacy of a hero
At his most interesting, Bucky is a character struggling with legacy, both his own and of others. When asked to take up the mantle of Captain America in the wake of Steve Rogers’ apparent death following the events of the first Civil War storyline, he doesn’t feel worthy of the respect and privilege it entails. The following quote from January 2011’s Captain America Volume 1, Issue 612 demonstrates this:
“I never asked — never wanted — to be Captain America. But that mask, those stars and stripes, that shield… they change you. I can see now the burden that Steve’s always carried. And it feels strange to admit I want that burden back… But underneath it all, what I really know is… I want to deserve it… somehow” [ 6 ].
At first, Bucky thinks that redemption lies in taking Steve’s role. While never quite comfortable with being asked to take on this mantle, Bucky respects that Steve asked specifically that Bucky should be the one to continue his work. However, when his identity is compromised, Bucky is brought to trial, forced to defend his innocence and victimhood publicly and repeatedly. Even when officially cleared of any legal wrongdoing, that feeling of having to justify himself lingers. This is victim blaming at its finest and most subtle. Bucky was forced, against his will, to commit horrible, violent acts; there is no way to deny that. Yet no matter what Bucky does or says, he carries the blame in the eyes of the wider public. This is made even more apparent and painful when, just as he is confirmed as not guilty, it is discovered that a trial in Russia has already found him guilty and that he is going to be extradited there for imprisonment.
This has always been what’s so powerful about Bucky. You see the true person, the guilt and pain and burden of what happened to him, but despite the complexities of his situation, society finds it easier to point fingers and blame him. These blind accusations echo for anyone who has ever been hurt in similar ways.
The guilt of the survivor
Bucky is a fictional character, regardless of his complexity, so the application of psychiatric diagnosis is limited. Still, Marvel authors have made it clear that Bucky is an exploration of a specific form of survivor’s guilt, a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have wrongly survived a traumatic event when others did not. In Bucky’s case, the guilt is intensified by memories of violent acts committed with his own hands. As he retains all the memories of his actions while brainwashed as the Winter Soldier, Bucky feels responsible that he wasn’t able to act differently, despite not being responsible for his actions. In fact, Bucky experienced brutal punishments and reprogramming at any sign of disobedience; his conditioning runs so deep that he once managed to escape his captors only to allow himself to be caught, having no other sense of purpose or self outside the Red Room. Because he is, ultimately, simply human and not a supernatural or alien being, he succumbs to these immeasurable pressures. Because the Red Room was the only thing he ever knew, the pressure to return is even more intense. It’s this “failure” that makes him such a relatable character, especially to those who feel guilt that they couldn’t do the impossible.
Many abused people struggle to leave their abusers, only to sometimes or even repeatedly return. It can take years or even decades for a person to even recognize the signs of abuse in their own lives and, for many reasons, people feel unable to leave their abuser even in the event that they do recognize these signs. Even in the midst of a superhero plot, these details make Bucky’s story grounded in real experience, a primary reason this story has so much resonance with vulnerable groups.
But Bucky is not just appealing because he suffers with trauma in a way many of us find all too relatable or because he is able to cope with his trauma by finding people who love and believe in him. Bucky gets to fulfill a fundamental fantasy for many who have suffered trauma: the chance to take revenge. In embracing his role as a superhero, Bucky is able to physically attack and destroy many of the people and organizations that hurt him, even as he carves out a space and a life for himself that is fulfilling and redeeming. Being a superhero and using the skills he gained against the abusers that initially empowered him, provides a platform for Bucky to take an active role in learning about what happened to him, punishing those who hurt him, and helping others who had been hurt in a similar way. Furthermore, this role surrounds him with people who care deeply for him, validating his trauma and believing that he can move forward and become a person who is worthy of the mantle of Captain America. For survivors, the desire to punish someone or something is natural, and often unattainable. Bucky Barnes may resonate not just because he is such a compelling example of abuse and trauma, but because he’s one hell of a revenge fantasy, too.
The expansion of Bucky’s character through the Marvel Cinematic Universe has only increased over time as he has had important roles in other Avengers movies and featuring heavily in 2021’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier show on Disney+. While diving into that show would merit an article all its own as the content far exceeds the scope of this writing, it’s worth highlighting the way the show itself is directly trying to grapple with some of these themes of trauma and recovery, including discussions of therapy, legacy and trauma, and how one can move through them towards a better and brighter future. Multiple episodes include Bucky in therapy, and a large driving force behind the emotional arc of the show is how Bucky, Sam and all the characters navigate the trauma of the Snap in Infinity War, as well as grappling with their own stories as victims, veterans, and survivors. The themes that have been subtext for so long are now being pulled out into full on regular text, further enriching Bucky Barnes as a character focused on recovery as much as trauma and adding yet another poignant chapter to his story.
- “Not without precedent – A confiscated German Gotha Go 242 glider in Russia, during the retreat from the Don in the winter of 1942-1943.” commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:German_Gotha_Go_242_glider_in_Russia_with_Italian_soldiers_c1942.jpg
- “The character’s grown so popular, he’s even headlined one of the Disney+ series, ‘Falcon and Winter Soldier’.” Stefano Chiacchiarini ’74. Shutterstock. shutterstock.com/image-photo/rome-italy-may-09-2021-damaged-1970861348
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- “Winter Soldier (Bucky Barnes) In Comics Powers, Enemies, History | Marvel.” Marvel, Marvel Entertainment. marvel.com/characters/winter-soldier-bucky-barnes/in-comics. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Brubaker, Ed, Mitch Breitweiser, and Jackson Guice. The Trial of Captain America. New York: Marvel, 2011. Print.
- “What Is PTSD?” VA.Gov | Veterans Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/basics/what-is-ptsd.asp. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Zub, Jim. “There Is No High Road: Part 5 – What We Do Best.” The Thunderbolts Volume 3 Issue 5. Marvel Comics, 2016.
- Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV, 4th Edition. American Psychiatric Publishing, 2000.
- Brubaker, Ed. “The Trial of Captain America Part 2.” Captain America Volume 1 Issue 612. Marvel Comics, 2011.