A History Lesson From the Captain America Fandom -The Toast

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When I first saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I walked out with my head spinning. As my friends and I discussed the movie (it would take a couple more viewings for me to distinguish all the fight sequences), one of my friends asked, “How would he not be incredibly racist if he was from the 1940s?”

My gut reaction, garnered from my years-long academic interest in World War II and volunteering at the local Veterans’ Affairs hospital in my hometown, was a solid no. But the more I thought of the generation of American history Steve Rogers came from – the “Greatest Generation,” which Nick Fury references in the film – the more I realized that I had very little actual comprehension of the gritty details of a “man out of time.” I decided I would have to do my own research, though I struggled to find out where to begin.

In any case, I became engaged with fandom on Tumblr, discussing the name of the third movie, debating different ships (relationship pairings) in the movie, and reading funny fanfiction like this:

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credit: actualmenacebuckybarnes (read the rest, you won’t be sorry)

But while doing so, I found that throughout Tumblr, people were asking and answering the same question my friend had posed. I was finding historical breakdowns of Steve Rogers’ reality, both before and after being frozen in the ice.

Have you ever seen the research capacity of fandom? It’s incredible. Turns out he had Snickers and Hershey’s in the 1940s but he’d be pretty alarmed to find the kind of apples he used to eat are extinct and chickens are now three times as big. Turns out his sex education would be better than the kind in schools now, and that living through the Great Depression might put him into a state of grim nostalgia regarding the failures of the current banking system. Turns out Steve Rogers lived in a queer neighborhood, six blocks from an “artsy queer house,” and he wouldn’t say “under God” during the pledge of allegiance.

Abby B., the creator of the Historically Accurate Steve Tumblr, regularly writes, reblogs, and adds to these historical discussions. She created the blog because she was frustrated with the idea of Steve’s conservatism and bigotry floating around in fandom discourse, and was inspired by the article by Steven Atwell on the makeup of Steve Rogers’ ideologies and belief system. Having an academic background in history, Abby debunks these theories using sources such as the New York Public Library, the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Collection, etc. 

Abby brought up the idea of “the past being less liberal or less progressive shows up everywhere, not just in fandom.” She said this on the blog, but reiterated, “history doesn’t move in a straight line…it cycles back on itself, and things that were once unthinkable become thinkable again.” She cited the idea of interracial marriage, which was uncommon but legal and acceptable during the Colonial period, “only to be made illegal as part of institutionalized racism and segregation as slavery became more and more profitable,” before being declared legal again thanks to Loving v. Virginia. Tumblr user mswyrr cites the medical journal DSM, noting that while homosexuality was taken out in 1973, it was only put in 1947, years after Steve became a Capsicle. 

Tumblr’s users skew younger, which makes me wonder if their (all right, our) interest and fascination stem from the fact that Millennials, in their teens and twenties, have little connection with the “Greatest Generation,” who, like Steve at 95, would be in their nineties or hundreds, if alive. The references Steve writes in his little notebook in the beginning of the film had highlighted this empty space in cultural understanding – seeing that list, I realized I couldn’t easily think of a pre-1945 reference Steve and I would have in common, at least not one I see in my daily life. The current conversation on culture and politics is shaped and dominated by Baby Boomers, the Greatest Generation’s influence in these everyday aspects of American life being quieter, less visible.  

Marvel has explored these ideas several times when unfreezing Steve Rogers in earlier decades. Mark Waid’s “Man Out of Time” focuses on the 21st Century much as fandom does: through Steve’s politics. 

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But Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t go explicitly into historical notions, establishing Cap’s politics in subtler ways. In Steve’s interaction with Sam Wilson, where he immediately rejects the “good old days,” citing better food and vaccines, which makes sense considering Steve’s sickly childhood was during the Great Depression, but acts as a breath of fresh air against the way Baby Boomers take on a moral authority stance as they put their 1950s childhoods on pedestals.

This left an empty space for fandom to fill: How Captain America would exist in this newly connected and socialized world. Abby covers some of this on her blogs, answering questions from fans about how Steve might react to certain things in the future, including companies like Lyft and Uber, but in spaces like Twitter, there are accounts called “Official Bucky” or “Official Falcon,” that create a living version of the character.  One of my favorites, @official_capn, demonstrates a forthright liberalism

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In a recent article in Vulture, Abraham Riesman explored the idea of Captain America as a bigoted jerk being compelling. But fandom is very much drawn to this moral, progressive, and a demonstratively kind Cap:

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Why? In the movie, Steve Rogers reads as easily likeable but unassuming, disinterested in trading on his fame or power by hiding at his own exhibit and most interested in taking down bullies. He demonstrates leadership qualities not in a showy, charismatic way, the way politicians would do after the Nixon vs. Kennedy debates were broadcast, but in a speech-giving way, akin to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside radio chats (which Steve Rogers was listening to both before and after he entered the war). In terms of political figures, he’s very much a product of his time, but definitely an exception during this one. 

While Captain America is fiction, fandom seeks out parallels among the real. One of my favorite posts about Captain America was this piece of fanart, about Captain America reading Kurt Vonnegut’s strange, lovely novels:

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Credit: sairobee

The line between Kurt Vonnegut and Steve Rogers works well, considering Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five is about a WWII soldier becoming “unstuck in time.” 

Seeking out these real figures, sorting out these historical details, and mapping progressive politics lends a special aspect to being part of the Captain America fandom – a better understanding of the past through the tangible connection of Steve Rogers.

Sulagna Misra writes about the weird things that pop into her head when she's not paying attention. She's on Twitter so she can not pay attention more effectively.

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