There’s nothing new about the consideration of male superheroes as icons of masculinity. Superman representing the pinnacle of wholesome, idealised masculine power, or The Hulk as an allegory for the angry, repressed male id. And these types of masculinity are not innate or inevitable. Masculinity, like all gender roles is a socially constructed performance. But performative masculinity has a tension to it that performative femininity does not, because performing itself is seen as innately unmasculine. You cannot learn to be a real man, you are or you are not. You can’t make one or learn to be one. Because our story about masculinity is that it just is. It is an ur state of being. The most natural way for a human to be. Steve Rogers came out of a bottle.
And Steve Rogers’s weapon is a shield. Steve does not attack, he defends. Steve Rogers is the only Avenger who does not thrust forward with a phallic weapon. From Loki’s staff to Clint’s arrows, Black Widow (who pairs so well with Steve because she is a phallic woman) has guns, Tony essentially is a giant penis (sorry, friends, that’s all I see), and of course no one would even pretend that Thor’s hammer isn’t Thor’s penis.
But Steve has a shield. And a shield isn’t particularly feminine. It is not a cup or a sheath or a hole. It is just anti-phallic.
And that is Steve. the non-phallic man. Because you can’t make a man in a machine. Only a strange kind of monster.
Steve Rogers did not begin as a man. Skinny Steve is a feminised man. A sissy. He fights against it - it’s a highly stigmatised way for a man to be - but he can’t win. He can’t win any fight. He is small, he is weak and sick. He starts trouble, but he needs to be rescued. He tries to pursue the most masculine thing he can, being a soldier, but as he stands there with his fluffy hair and child-body, his pretence at masculinity is rejected by the real men.
In the scene where he travels to the lab with Peggy in the taxi he is shown to be like Peggy. To be overlooked like her. Peggy is overlooked because she is a woman. Her body is wrong. So is Skinny Steve’s.
And you cannot fix a male body. When Steve comes out of the machine in that ridiculous money shot, with Cevan’s body at it’s most ridiculous and pumped and glorious, Steve is hyper masculine, but being shown to us in a feminine coded way. That slow pan up the body to a face that is gasping in pain - this is how visual culture shows us women.
But there is no shot of a woman’s body in the entire movie that comes close to this level of body fetishism. The closest thing being Peggy walking into the bar in the red dress - a mere wit-woo in comparison to Steve’s naked, sweat drenched O-face. All gender is drag. And that body Steve gets is drag. Even the shape of it, with it’s pumped up pecs is reminiscent of drag kings taping down their tits and drawing muscles in their place.
He is then placed in what may well be the most feminised environment available to a male body in the 1940s. Theatre. Despite the fact Steve was made to be a soldier, because there is only one of him, he is suddenly deemed to be without value, and his body, though created to be hyper-masculine is instantly feminised. Steve’s body is sent away to be an object for display, an object to be admired, fetishised and Steve’s body is used to sell, to make money. This is the use female bodies are put to. And, indeed, all the other bodies we see being displayed on the USO Tour are female.
The USO Tour shows us Steve Rogers learning how to be a man in his new male body. But he learns in in a feminised environment and he learns it in a feminised way. On the USO Tour Steve learns to be a man. We see this happening, almost like a coming of age sequence, or any training montage. But this is not the place to learn to be a man. You cannot learn to be a man wearing tights and displaying yourself for women and children. We see Steve seem to succeed. We see him become a confident performer. We see his body legitimised as he kisses babies and is pursued by women.
But the minute Steve takes this learned masculine performance to real men, to fighting men, it falls to pieces and they mock and shame him. Steve is not a man. He might have fooled women and children, but men declare him a fraud straight away. They demand dancing girls, call him feminised names, and even he, later, draws attention to his tights as a sign of his own dreadful failure to be the only thing he’s ever wanted to be, a real man.
Although, despite his scorn for his outfit as soon as real men point out to him how wrong he is to be dressed in bright colours and tight fabric, Steve, after a brief time in more masculine outfits: looser fabrics and more muted colours, returns to the bright, tight clothes of his USO tour almost exclusively. Captain America’s outfit - which changes over and over again - often seems to be fighting a battle between the iconic, original suit of the USO tour, which is overtly feminised - a male version of the chorus girl outfits - and finding a way to make Steve Rogers look more masculine without making him unrecognisable. The most masculine version so far is probably the Commander Rogers uniform, were the blue is sombre and the red is gone and the boots are brown. It is also the least iconic of his outfits.
The fetishistic nature of superhero outfits is also much discussed, but Steve Rogers is not Superman, Steve Rogers is a solider who dresses like a dancing girl. Steve Rogers is both. Hyper masculine and hyper feminine. This should not be possible and that is why, despite the patriotism and his discomforting ubermensch qualities he embodies he manages to be transgressive. He looks like a man, like a perfect man, but his shell is fragile - he can be penetrated and used, he is a body for use - and if you look too close Steve Rogers destroys what masculinity is supposed to be, what we pretend it is not.
This scene with Steve, emerging, from the machine is echoed in The Winter Soldier, in the scene where Bucky is held in the chair by Hydra. Again a shirtless man is being presented in a feminised way. Bucky with his long hair and big eyes, in pain, half naked in a room of men in suits. Bucky is Steve’s echo twin and Bucky is also a body for the use of men.
It should come as no surprise that a lot of people, women especially, saw that scene with Bucky being stripped and hit and abused by a group of disinterested men and said, oh, this is a rape scene. Especially as, in popular culture actual male rape scenes barely exist. Women who wanted a way to discuss rape without using bodies that look like their own found this scene, rightly, very important.
It’s also no surprise. given the fascinatingly feminised portrayal of performative masculinity exhibited by Steve Rogers that a lot of trashier Steve fic is about other people using him or asking him to perform, from exotic-dancing Steve, to Bucky hot for objectifying Steve, to Rumlow gas lighting Steve into doing things he wouldn’t. These tropes are not exclusive to Steve or the MCU, but there is a strong line in Steve being dressed up, filmed and photographed, in him being an object to display. And again, we see this cross to Bucky too.
The female response to Steve and Bucky is often, here is a body that is treated the way that mine is, but does not look like mine does. Which can have a lot of power for women to explore how their own bodies are restricted, taken from them and put to use by others. It’s powerful to see a male body that way, it’s also terrifying.
When Steve comes out of the super soldier maker, the reactions to his body are suspicion. This is not a real male body. Like the body of a steroid-hopped body-builder is not a real body. The male body should not ‘come out of a bottle’, it should just be.
Steve’s body, in that moment, demonstrates so much fear and anxiety about what a male body should not be. With his hyper-sexualised appearance, flushed, penetrated, gasping-orgasmically, shirtless, with smooth, shapely tits - this is almost grotesque. This is a male body that other people desire and would want to consume and use. This is a man who can be penetrated. And this is why they send him away. Steve Rogers is not Superman.
Steve Rogers represents what men most fear they truly are. Something useable, something fuckable. Which is why he is frightening, why he is important and why he is transgressive.