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Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (now streaming on Disney+) portrayed a wholesome friendship between the show’s titular characters. In addition to fighting side by side, we also got to see Sam and Bucky rolling in a field, brush their knees during therapy, fix a boat together and enjoy a family cookout. Naturally, fans shipped them together and speculated if the characters were gay (or bisexual) and secretly in love with each other.

Of course, Marvel movies and shows do not feature any explicit queer content (perhaps with the recent exception of Loki’s “coming out”). Given that queer representation is still pretty rare, Marvel suggesting a deeper subtext to a close friendship but not following up on it is a classic case of queerbaiting. While the cast and crew of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have mostly been vague about fan interpretations of the “SamBucky” ship, Anthony Mackie shot down all speculations of a possible romance between the main characters.

In an interview with Variety, he said, “So many things are twisted and convoluted. There are so many things that people latch on to with their own devices to make themselves relevant and rational. The idea of two guys being friends and loving each other in 2021 is a problem because of the exploitation of homosexuality. It used to be guys can be friends, we can hang out, and it was cool. You would always meet your friends at the bar, you know. You can’t do that anymore because something as pure and beautiful as homosexuality has been exploited by people who are trying to rationalize themselves.” Mackie added, “So something that’s always been very important to me is showing a sensitive masculine figure. There’s nothing more masculine than being a superhero and flying around and beating people up. But there’s nothing more sensitive than having emotional conversations and a kindred spirit friendship with someone that you care about and love.”

Photo Courtesy of Disney+

It’s a quote that sparked immediate outrage and bewilderment. Firstly, Mackie seems to have missed the point when he suggests that fans interpreting Sam and Bucky as gay and in love is an “exploitation of homosexuality.” If anything, homosexuality is exploited by capitalist corporations profiting off Pride Month, the tokenization of queer identities, and Hollywood’s own history of queerbaiting audiences.

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Secondly, it drowns out his other rather relevant point about portraying emotional masculinity (as opposed to toxic masculinity) on screen. Male characters do not need to be “gay” to showcase their emotional and sensitive sides. Of course, there’s another long history of gay men being perceived as too “effeminate” and “unmanly” and being the target of hate crimes as a result.

While several fans took to trolling Mackie on Twitter, a few pointed out that the interview questions were framed in a way to set Mackie up for a fall. Earlier on, Mackie says that he “doesn’t get into the fandom stuff” and he just “lets it be”, suggesting he doesn’t pay much attention to how fans reinterpret the characters he portrays. The interviewer then tells him about how the fans perceive Sam and Bucky’s “evolving friendship” and asks Mackie to comment on it as an actor. In this light, Mackie’s response, although poorly worded, makes better sense, as he talks about portraying “masculine” superheroes in a more emotional light, and that doesn’t necessarily need to have an additional queer dimension. In fact, in his acting career, Mackie has explored themes of queerness in an episode of Black Mirror.

Some fans have also pointed out how this isn’t the first time that Variety has targeted a Black actor in a similar way (case in point being John Boyega, who played Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy), that led to their words being taken out of context and the double standards involved in holding actors responsible for not endorsing a queer interpretation, while film companies and corporations can deliberately queerbait audiences to subscribe to their shows.

Either way, the controversy points to a greater need to not take a statement at its face value without critically engaging with the context first and opens up larger debates on the lack of adequate queer representation in mainstream media. 

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