Why Captain America is (not) Perfect

[Content note: racism, white supremacy, misogyny, ableism, disablism, elimination of disabled people, whitewashing, anti-semitism, holocaust, genocide, homophobia]

Seen this comic recently?

Captain America, fauxgressivism, progressivism, diversity in comics,

Captain America, Nazi, Naziism,

Captain America, Nazi, Naziism

Credit: Tony Wilson and Andrew Bridgman at Dorkly

Probably you have. It’s been making the rounds on tumblr/literally everywhere else. I’ve seen it on my dash a couple dozen times. And it makes me super-uncomfortable.

Until yesterday, though, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t quite articulate why I didn’t like it, and once I figured it out… well, I had other shit to do. A lot of social-justice type people were reblogging it, and I really didn’t want to get in an argument. Despite popular belief, I don’t look for fights.

A few days ago, I dipped my toe in the water. I saw the comic on my dash, and I reblogged it with a note saying: “Yes, but why does smashing the nazi ideal have to involve a white dude?”

Immediate response: “^ Go back and read the comic this time.”

Ah, the internet.

A couple more reblogs, and I got this explanation:

“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.

But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.” (the entire tumblr exchange here)

In the past couple days, I’ve gotten four people pushing back on my point that Captain America’s whiteness does not make him perfect.  This doesn’t sound like a lot – but on my tumblr? – it’s a lot. My significant other, who was reblogging my Captain America posts (with added commentary) got his second anon message ever… from someone insisting that Captain America must be white.

I think there’s something going on here.

****

(Note: I am aware that there have been non-white Captain Americas. But this comic is pretty clearly talking about the Steve Rogers’ Captain America, and that’s what I’ll be addressing here!)

Look, I like Captain America. I like Captain America a lot. The Winter Soldier is still my favorite post-Avengers movie in the Marvel franchise, and I want ten more Captain America/the Falcon romantic-action-comedies right now (THEY BELONG TOGETHER).I think white, blond, Chris Evans is great as Captain America. I like Captain America, and if you do too, that’s great.

But this comic arguing that Captain America’s race makes him “perfect” (to quote the title “Why Captain America is Perfect”) is pretty fucked up.

And there’s a reason we like it so much. There’s a reason it’s got nearly 50,000 notes on tumblr. We just love the idea that Captain America’s Aryan-ness, his whiteness, his massive well of privilege, are progressive. We love the idea of unproblematic whiteness. We will twist ourselves in knots to try to explain why he must be white, why he is PERFECT because he is white.

(Let’s not forget that the name of this comic is “Why Captain America is Perfect”)

Diversity in comics is a big time problem. A lot of progressive/ social justice oriented folks are very aware of this issue. Even people who aren’t progressive are aware. And when you’re someone who cares a lot about representation (or feels like you *should* care about representation), and one of your favorite things is superhero narratives… that can feel pretty uncomfortable.  It’s hard to just *enjoy* the medium. You have to ask yourself tough questions about why you love the heroes you love.

Then a comic like this comes along, and BAM. It erases all those tough questions. It puts a bandaid on the problem. Captain America isn’t a problematic figure. He’s a progressive one. And in fact, all of his privileges make him *more* progressive, not less.

It’s the surface explanation that provides the answer we most want – this thing you like is entirely good.

It’s the easy answer. And you can be comfortable again.

***

And I’ll say it again: no one is a bad person for liking Captain America. I like Captain America! I don’t even necessarily have a problem with him being the Big White Superhero, except inasmuch as I have a problem with the fact that *so many* superheroes are white, cis, straight dudes (especially the superheroes who get movies. Where is my goddamn black widow movie?).

I’m just saying, generally, the moment when something with the veneer of social justice makes you feel comfortable with privilege? That’s the moment you should run screaming for the woods.

Sam Wilson, Sam Wilson running, Sam Wilson Come On, Come On, The winter Soldier, Captain America: The Winter Soldier

So let’s debunk this notion of Captain America as “the most perfectly conceived” superhero, shall we?

The implication of the comic above is that Captain America’s creators deliberately made him a white, extra-aryan dude with blond hair and blue eyes so he could be the perfect nazi ideal. This whole thing would be super-ironic and super-progressive, since it would show that Aryans don’t have to be nazis.

His whiteness, his Aryanness were all, in the comic’s worldview, “perfectly conceived” – a deliberate choice on the part of the creators. Which makes it sound like all the creators sat around the table, trying to think of the perfect rejoinder to Naziism. Ethiopian jew? No. Disabled woman? No. Queer, effeminate man? Nope! White man. That’s the one.

Miranda Priestly, Groundbreaking, groundbreaking, devil wears prada, meryl streep

I don’t have a time machine, but trust me on this: the creators of Captain America did not sit down and go “jeez, we’d love to have a black woman as Captain America, but we really need someone who will scare Hitler. It’s gotta be a white blond dude.”

Captain America was not invented five minutes ago. It was the 1940s (1941, to be precise). It was mainstream comics. The creators were not surveying a bevvy of options and picking the Best One. He was a white dude because That Is What You Did.

Shall we be even more precise? Let’s take a look at the mainstream superheroes created in the 1930s and 1940s: Doctor Occult (white man), Superman (white man), Zatara (white man), Namor (white man), Batman (white man), Blue Beatle (white dude), the Human Torch (white man), the Flash (white dude), Hawkman (white dude), Johnny  Thunder (white dude), The Spectre (white man), Hourman (white guy), Captain Marvel (white guy), Black Marvel (a white man with native american powers… wow), Catwoman – hey, a white woman!, Black Canary (white woman), Aquaman (white dude), Mister Terrific (white dude), Superboy (white dude), the Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude), Green Arrow (white dude).

Oh, hey, look at all those white people. It’s almost like… all…the…superheroes…were…white.

Even better: Shield (white dude), Fighting Yank (white dude) and Captain America were ALL characters created during WWII. They were all patriotic american fighters who fought nazis. And they were all white men.

super yank, yankee, superheroes,

Super Yank!

The Shield

Captain America, Naziism, Diversity in Comics, Representation

Captain America

Wow, it’s almost like Captain America was less the “perfectly conceived” opponent for the Nazis so much as he was literally everyone’s default idea of what an American hero looked like.

To make the point even further: Captain America was created nearly THIRTY YEARS before mainstream comics would even *touch* a black superhero (1966: Black Panther). Let me express some skepticism at the idea that a white Captain America was some kind of grandiose choice, as opposed to the default.

So let’s all SIT THE FUCK DOWN and stop acting like this was a decision made in a vacuum. Let’s all SIT. DOWN. and stop thinking Captain America: The White Dude was a brilliant progressive choice as opposed to what literally everyone working in mainstream comics was doing.

***

Now, let’s address this weird-ass idea that Steve Rogers HAS to be a white aryan, because white aryans are the only people Nazis respect/ are afraid of.

Llama nope gif, Llama nope, Nope, Nope  gif

Okay, first off: why are we catering to what Nazis respect? Because I feel like that never ends well.

“The Nazi ideal of the perfect man is a white man. Sure, having a black man be Captain America would be awesome, (Or hell, a native american/Indian) But the problem of having a POC Captain America fighting Nazis is the fact that the Aryan master race consider […] POCs to be racially inferior to them. A POC Captain America to Third Reich wouldn’t inspire fear, just the belief they could defeat him…not that could ever happen.

But by having a white, blonde, blue-eyed Captain America? The Nazis are doubting themselves. Here is a man going through and destroying your war machines, and he’s the perfect description that Hitler enforced that should be a soldier on their side. White Captain America is a middle-finger to the Nazis.”

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

Distinguished readers, apparently there were no white, blond, blue-eyed aryans fighting against the nazis. At all. Because if there had been – if the people destroying the nazis were white, blond, blue-eyed aryans – the nazis would have been doubting themselves.

Excuse me whilst the many, many, many white aryans in France, England and the United States sob with laughter.

Uh, yeah, a WHOLE LOT of aryans who were the “perfect description that Hitler enforced” opposed the Nazis. And the Nazis were well aware of that fact. For some reason, the idea that Not All Aryans agreed with them did not shake the nazis to their core.

(#NotAllAryans)

Look at the real world for a millisecond. Do the thousands of white anti-racist activists scare the KKK? Do they make the KKK reconsider their motives? Are white supremacists shaken to their core by the fact that lots of white people hate them? Do the thousands of straight people who support queer rights scare the Westboro Baptist Church? Did the confederates lay down their arms when they realized white people opposed slavery?

… no.

Trust me on this, Nazis were not that scared of white people.

Now, you know who Nazis WERE scared of? Jews.

Hitler: “The struggle for world domination will be fought entirely between us, between Germans and Jews.  All else is facade and illusion.  Behind England stands Israel, and behind France, and behind the United States.  Even when we have driven the Jew out of Germany, he remains our world enemy.”

“Unless we expel the Jewish people soon, they will have judaized our people within a very short time.”

Disabled people, who Hitler (and the Nazis) thought were a drain on the economy, and would destroy the Aryan race: “is not only the decline in population which is a cause for serious concern but equally the increasingly evident genetic composition of our people. Whereas the hereditarily healthy families have for the most part adopted a policy of having only one or two children, countless numbers of inferiors and those suffering from hereditary conditions are reproducing unrestrainedly while their sick and asocial offspring burden the community.”

Gay people: “Homosexuality was classed as a “degenerate form of behaviour” in Nazi Germany that threatened the nation’s “disciplined masculinity” (…) ‘The Amendment to the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases”defined homosexuals as “asocial” and a threat to the moral purity of the Third Reich.” 

etc.

NON-Aryans were much scarier to the Nazis than Aryans. NON-Aryans – Jews, people of color, homosexuals, disabled people – were the real enemies, the one who could take down the third reich just by existing.

So the idea that Captain America has to be white in order to “intimidate” the Nazis?

LOL, no.

***

Moreover – and there’s no way this can be said enough – these are FICTIONAL nazis were talking about. Captain America is a work. of. fiction. The Nazis could be intimidated by whomever the writers goddamn wanted them to be intimidated by. Unicorns! Kangaroos! Little girls in green dresses! THIS IS FICTION.

One of the other objections to my argument that Captain America/Steve Rogers does not NEED to be white  to be “perfect” was that Captain America must be white, because white americans in the 1940s were bigots.

Steinpratt’s response to this anon was pretty much perfect:

there’s also something else I should’ve pushed back on: This assumption that the most important thing in a story about a SUPER-SOLDIER who PUNCHES HITLER IN THE FACE is that bigotry is accurately represented. Why is it okay to have fantastical stories about a hero, but not okay to imagine that that hero could be black, or gay, or Roma? Why can’t the hero America looks up to be someone OTHER than a white man?

Which isn’t to say that there’s no place for honest examination of bigotry in stories… but that’s not what Steve Rogers being white does. It’s not a commentary on American racism. It’s never really addressed at all. So claiming that Steve Rogers had to be white so people could look up to him is doubly cheap, because you’re at once relying on the fact of American bigotry to justify your boring choices AND refusing to actually display that bigotry on the page. You want it to just be an unspoken assumption. That’s messed up. (my bolded) 

Professor McGonagall Gif, McGonagall BOOM gif, McGonagall, Professor McGonagall

(full disclosure: Steinpratt is the Aforementioned Significant Other)

Heart Eyes Motherfucker gif, heart eyes motherfucker gif

FICTION, people. It’s not written in stone.

***

Why do we cling so hard to the idea that Steve Rogers as Captain America *must* be a white guy? Why is it so important to us that his whiteness be “perfect”? Why do so many socially aware, progressive-type people love that comic?

One part of it is definitely fauxgressive guilt, the relief of being able to enjoy deeply privileged hero who has “progressive” rather than oppressive privilege. White supremacy is a hell of a drug.

And people – some progressive, some not – like to be able to counter discussions of diversity in comics with arguments like “well, but Captain America HAS TO be white.” It’s an easy way to shut down a discussion. And even when you believe in that discussion – even when you believe that diversity in comics is important (as most of the people who messaged me did) – that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to engage in that conversation and all the discomfort and examination it entails.Unproblematic whiteness is a hell of a drug, even for those of us who should know better.

We like the easy solution.

Also? Fighting oppression is always extra special when a white dude does it.

This comic falls right in line with the thinking that white able-bodied men are the most important allies, because they’re the most respected outside social justice spaces.

It falls right in line with lionizing white dudes who “get it” because it’s sooooo much harder for white dudes to get it, because they’re not oppressed.

It falls right in line with the idea that white men are the most *objective* social justice activists, because they have the least stake in activism.

Progressivism is always more special when a white guy is doing it.

And we will fight people who try to point out how problematic that is. We will fight anything that points out we’re just reaffirming the same gendered, racialized hierarchies that social justice is supposed to be fighting *against*. Who cares if we’re saying Captain America is perfect because he’s a white aryan dude? 

Yeah, just say that to yourself a couple times. Doesn’t sound that great, does it?

This comic lets us lionize a white dude FOR BEING WHITE – and lets us feel good about it. Because it’s progressive.
And that’s fucked up.

You want to lionize a hyper-privileged white dude? Fine, but don’t act like his whiteness is some kind of progressive triumph.

You want to like Captain America? Go for it. You can like Captain America. You can think he’s great. I certainly do. And I don’t have any interest in changing Steve Rogers’ race or gender at this point.

But don’t try to justify Captain America’s white male aryanness as some kind of progressive coup. It’s not a progressive coup. It’s not social justice-y. It’s not spitting in the face of naziism. It is the product of white male supremacy, both in the 1940s and today.

Trust me, white men already dominate the superhero roster. They don’t also need us to come up with bullshit reasons to justify their dominance as being “progressive” or “perfect.”

Sam Wilson, Falcon, Shut the Hell Up, Man, Shut the Hell Up, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Sam Wilson Shut the hell up,