This week, we’re returning to the topic of masculinity and how to be a good man in an era when what it means to be a man is changing. And to look at modern masculinity, we’re going to take a look at a character from the past. A man out of time, even; dropped from his time into the present day. It’s a surprisingly common trope in fiction – using a character from the past to comment on the cultural and social mores of the present. It often ties into a belief that previous generations had it right and that ours has lost its way, as well as providing comfortable, distinct sign posts and guides for behavior.
Ironically enough, however, this man from the past is a beacon for being a man today, rather than in his own time. I’m speaking of course of Steve Rogers, also known as Captain America.
For a man born in the 20s and raised in the 30s, Rogers is actually an excellent example of what non-toxic masculinity in the modern day.
The Moral Core of Non-Toxic Masculinity
Steve Rodgers is an interesting exercise in contrasts. By any stretch of the imagination, Rogers is someone who benefits from the traditional ideas of masculinity. He’s a bad-ass soldier, a leader of men, a 6’2 blonde ubermensch with abs like whoah and a butt like phwoar. His upper torso looks like a damn Dorito standing on its point.
But while it’s easy to think of Rogers as someone who looks like this:
we tend to forget that he’s spent most of his life looking like this:
… and that has informed everything about his character. He’s someone who was weak who gained power but still remembers what it was like to be weak. Pre-serum Rogers was someone who recognized that he was hardly the epitome of manly perfection. But rather than becoming a ball of resentment or looking for a magic fix that would let him become an “alpha” like his best friend Bucky, he simply kept trying to move forward. His greatest strengths were his moral core and the optimism that he’d make it through eventually, no matter how much work it’d take. He’d do what was right1 regardless of the consequences to him. Would standing up to a bully end with his getting a muddy hole stomped into his spine? Probably… but he had to do it anyway. You could knock him down, but he’d get right back up again because someone had to stand up to bullies and by God he was gonna be that someone. Would the military not take him because he was 90 lbs sopping wet? Fine, he’ll keep applying until he gets in… not because he’s trying to be a badass but because he wants to help people who can’t help themselves.
It’s that moral clarity that makes Rogers, even when he’s a scrawny weakling, so compelling. When he’s given what many people would see as the dream – a body that’s literally the peak of human performance – he maintains that moral stance. Instead of leaping at the chance to make up for lost time – wrecking shit, banging chicks etc. – he focuses on doing what he always intended to do in the first place: helping others in need.
The Purposes of Strength
Physical strength, a capacity for violence and the willingness to use it are among of the core tenets of toxic masculinity. Poke around forums and subreddits devoted to manliness and you’ll see the subject come up over and over again: threatening violent revenge against people who’ve wronged you, intimidating people in order to show how bad-ass you are, “bro, do you even lift?”
That is part of what makes Steve Rogers an interesting example of non-toxic masculinity. By all rights, he meets almost anyone’s definition of being an alpha male. He’s a physical beast of a man with a body like a Greek god. He’s the ultimate athlete, strong enough to rip doors off cars and shred logs with his bare hands.
His career, even purpose, is defined by violence. He’s a super-soldier, with the emphasis on “soldier”, having been at the forefront of America’s war against the Nazis in World War II. But what’s significant is that despite his capability to perform violence, Steve isn’t Ass-Kick McGee. He’s defined less by his strength and more by the way he uses it and why.
Steve Rogers isn’t a warrior so much as he is a guardian. His first instinct is to throw himself into harm’s way in order to save others, regardless of whether he’ll survive or not. He quite literally threw himself on a grenade in order to save his unit during basic training. When it became clear that the only way to save the US from the Red Skull’s super-weapon, he rode that sucker into the ground in order to make sure that nobody else would get hurt. In fact, it’s pretty significant that Cap’s’ signature weapon is a shield, an inherently defensive tool. Unlike Iron Man’s laser-ejaculating hands, Thor’s enchanted hammer with its long hard handle2, Hawkeye’s flying phalloi and Banner’s rampaging Id, Steve has a disc. It’s not lingam, it’s not a yoni. It doesn’t cut, it doesn’t thrust, it doesn’t penetrate, it blocks. It’s there to protect, not to destroy. And that shield is the symbol of Steve’s rejection of violence qua violence.
In fact, he’s far more likely to try to avoid fighting if it isn’t absolutely necessary. Much like Raleigh Becket, Steve prefers to fight when it’s actually important. Consider this moment in Captain America: Winter Soldier –
Knowing that he’s been betrayed, that he’s boxed in and that his life is in danger, he still tries to give his opponents an out. He doesn’t have any interest in hurting his opponents if he doesn’t absolutely have to. It’s only when they attack him that he responds. He gave them the choice, they chose not to take it and now it’s on.
Similarly, in The Avengers, his introduction to Tony Stark and Thor is to try to stop the fight, attempting to disarm the both of them rather than attacking directly. During the invasion of New York, Steve’s first orders are to protect and evacuate the civilians in the area. In the midst of an alien-fucking-invasion, his first instinct is to ensure the protection of the most vulnerable people around him.
Steve didn’t earn his body; it was given to him. But his strength isn’t the strength of his muscles, it’s the strength of his soul and his core. He was given that power and like a certain web-head, he understands that with great power comes great responsibility. And that responsibility is to help those who can’t help themselves, not to prove how butch he is by pounding some dude’s face into goo.
But it’s not Steve’s restraint or resistance to violence that makes him an example of positive masculinity. As a matter of fact, it’s an area where, in the terms of traditional, toxic masculinity, Steve falls far short of true manliness. Ready for it?
Sex Doesn’t Make The Man
Steve Rogers is a 98-year old virgin.
In fact, we know exactly how much sexual experience Steve’s had. We’ve seen all of it. He’s been kissed three times. Once by Private Lorraine, once by Peggy Carter and once by Natasha Romanova. And that’s… pretty much it.
And yet, nobody would question Cap’s status as a man, no? I mean, are you seriously going to look at someone who can quite literally command a god and say that because he’s never entered the holiest of holies (or ridden the baloney pony, for that matter) he’s less of a man for it? It’s almost as though his sexual experience has absolutely nothing to do with his masculinity…
Of course, it seems a little ridiculous that Captain fucking America couldn’t get a date, no? I mean, sure he’s got no game to speak of…
But come on, just look at him. He looks like Chris Evans! Except… Cap’s not interested in just getting his dick wet. In fact, in Winter Soldier, we learn that Steve’s been actively avoiding any intimate relationships. Natasha’s been trying to set him up with various women, and each time he’s refused – even when he’s assured that some of these women would love to date him. But that’s not what he wants. So what’s he waiting for?
The right partner.
It’s not that sex isn’t important to him, it’s that it’s not important for its own sake. It doesn’t define him. It doesn’t mean that he’s any less of a man because you can count the number of girlfriend’s he’s had on the fingers of one foot because it’s not a measure of his worth… and that’s something that’s been part of his personality since the beginning. Even back when he was Skinny Steve, he didn’t define himself by his lack of luck with the ladies. It was just a fact, like being blonde or living in Brooklyn.
But now that he’s got that body, he’s got the chance to make up for lost time, right?
Actually, let’s talk about that body for a moment.
Looks Vs. Personality
Sure, now that he has his post-serum bod and the prestige of being, y’know, Captain America, he could rack up lay after lay if that’s what he wanted. But despite the fact that his body looks like it should be carved out of marble, Steve Rogers is actually evidence of the appeal of personality over looks.
OK, let’s take a moment to stop laughing before we continue.
As absurd as it may sound, it’s Steve’s personality that makes him so appealing to women. Yes, the body certainly helps, nobody’s going to deny that. But at the end of the day, Steve came thisclose to getting his v-card punched by Peggy Carter3.
Before he became Studly Good Night.
See, while Steve may have a smoking body, he still has the personality he did when he was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn who was busy trying to defraud the US government. His body may not have been spectacular, but you couldn’t deny his heart, spirit or brains. And that’s exactly what appealed to Peggy. He was literally unfit for war, yet his sole goal was to find some way to serve his country… to the point of signing up for a potentially lethal medical experiment. But while he may have been a grunt, he didn’t define himself by his physicality. He was a problem-solver; give him an impossible task and he’ll find a way to come through… in often unexpected and unorthodox ways.
To Peggy, a woman who’s faced and overcome many barriers towards becoming a special agent of His Majesty’s Government, he’s a kindred spirt. He thinks outside the box, he sympathizes with the underdog and he never, ever gives up. And despite the fact that he’s been beaten and spit on, he has no callus on his soul. He’s not bitter about his lack of success – either in trying to become a soldier or with the ladies. He’s as genuine and good as he ever was. And when be became the manliest man of man town? He was still the same good person he was before. He didn’t become arrogant or cruel or conceited. He was the same kid from Brooklyn that caught her eye. Just a little taller. Even years down the line, Steve’s a good guy. Despite being a prime cut of beef, he’s careful and respectful around women. In Winter Soldier, he’s quick to recognize Sharon’s refusal of the use of his washing machine as a soft “no” and respects it. It’s that understanding and willingness to prioritize her comfort over his trying to get a date.
It’s significant that, in Agent Carter, we see that Peggy’s photo of Steve – the one she’s kept with her for years after his death – is of Rogers before he got swole. Big Steve may have been hot as a four-alarm fire, but it was Skinny Steve she fell in love with.
And while we’re on the subject of love…
The Need for Brotherhood
It’s significant that the other most important relationship in Steve Rogers’ life is his relationship with Bucky Barnes. In fact, the overall arc of Steve’s relationship with Bucky is one that is frequently reserved for romantic partners.
But as much as Tumblr may lurve #Stucky, it actually ends up making the same mistake that isolates so many men: it conflates emotional intimacy with romance and becomes part of why so many men are starved for an emotional connection with others. Ignoring the shipping aspect4 Steve’s deep bond with Bucky is another example of non-toxic masculinity. Steve doesn’t worry about how his relationship with Bucky might be perceived – either by the world at large, by his teammates5 or even by the fellow members of his platoon. They’re not bros, they’re brothers in every way but blood and Steve doesn’t give two shits how it might come across.
Ironically, it’s the fact that Cap’s a man out of time that allows for him to have this tight connection with his childhood friend – in the 1920s and 30s the idea of men having a close, even intimate relationship wasn’t seen as a sign that one or both of them might be queer. It was just part of how men related to the people who were important to them.
In fact, it could be argued that Steve Rogers’ most important relationship isn’t with Peggy Carter but James Buchanan Barnes – his best friend since childhood and the single most important person in Captain America’s life. When Steve hears that Bucky’s platoon is captured and presumed lost, he moves Heaven and Earth in order to get them back and is apparently willing to take on the United States government (as well as his former teammates in The Avengers) to help him out. Bucky was there for Steve when Steve’s mother died. He pulled Steve’s bacon out of the fire more times than either of them could count and was always trying to look out for his friend. And ultimately, it was that intense connection that made Captain America an actual hero instead of a USO touring attraction and shiller of war bonds.
That connection couldn’t exist under the tenets of toxic masculinity.
Steve Rogers may be a man from the past. But he stands as a sterling example of positive, modern masculinity – and a role model for those who want to be better men… even without the Super Soldier Serum6 .
- This, incidentally is why Captain America is a classic example of Neutral Good instead of Lawful Good. Dude’ll break the law if the law is unjust. [↩]
- Confirmed by Haley Atwell, BTW [↩]
- and believe me, I get the appeal of seeing oneself represented in one of Marvel’s biggest heroes [↩]
- which actually gets him in trouble in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War [↩]
- Or in the words of Sam Wilson: “I do what he does, only slower. [↩]