I love the MCU fandom, but there is a goodly portion of it that does not understand PTSD and trauma at all. They’re swimming around in this fandom about as aware of the workings of trauma as fish in the ocean are of the current international political climate, which is to say, not at all.
You can see this most obviously in the way some people write Bucky. He’s such a prime example that I’ll focus on him.
Bucky was not gonna come home the same man even “just” from WWII. Even by the time he gets captured by Hydra, he was probably never gonna be quite the same man again. He went into the war your average white cis guy with average white cis guy priorities for his day and age: making enough money to stay fed and housed, keeping his best friend out of trouble, and chasing after women. But in the War, Bucky’s day-to-day priorities had to completely change. In the war, he’s concerned with not dying, not being dismembered, not having a mental breakdown from the atrocities he’s witnessed, not letting his friends get killed or dismembered, staying constantly vigilant, and killing other men that look a lot like him and his friends in sometimes gruesome and horrific ways.
Bucky might come out of that still mostly the same guy. Bucky’s fellow soldiers would encourage him to keep his personality mostly the same; they encourage him to miss his best friend, miss the company of women, enjoy music and baseball, and stay funny and smart, for example. There is still positive reinforcement for all those aspects of Bucky’s self. But Bucky’s still had to adapt to a completely different environment, had to learn a completely different set of survival skills, and that won’t just go away when he leaves the War.
Your brain keeps records of behavioral patterns that kept you alive, kept you safe,
kept you loved. And brains are (unsurprisingly) unwilling to let go of those patterns once they’ve been learned. This is why we have special programs for veterans. This is why there are mental health professionals who specialize in working just with veterans. This is why PTSD as a concept was first popularized and mainstreamed to understand veterans. Because people who learn those kinds of survival skills often do not come home exactly the same people they were when they shipped out.
Then there’s the Hydra base where Steve rescues Bucky. In that Hydra base, Bucky was medically experimented upon, permanently physically altered, tortured for days, and reduced to nothing but a string of numbers and a name. Now, that ordeal may “only” have lasted a few days, a month, we don’t know. Not long compared to the total scope of his life, right? But brains learn how to adapt to new situations, they learn to do whatever it takes to survive, and again, once they’ve learned something that kept them alive during extremely traumatic near-death circumstances, brains are incredibly unwilling to just let go of that learning. Brains have been evolutionarily programmed through millions of millennia to know that any skill learned that kept us safe might be needed again at any moment.
What did Bucky learn from the Hydra testing? He maybe learned to submit because the cost of fighting anymore was death. He maybe learned that his body can be made into the enemy, that it can be a source of unbearable suffering. He maybe learned to dissociate with even greater severity than he did from the other atrocities of the war. He maybe learned to give up hope. He maybe learned helplessness.
Being rescued by Steve maybe countered some of that. Maybe.
But that’s not all. Bucky falls from the train, and that alone would be enough to permanently change him yet again. After that fall, he is not found for days, possibly even weeks, possibly while missing an entire limb and certainly while not adequately dressed for sleeping in freezing winds and snow. What does his brain learn from surviving that experience?
And then comes Hydra again. In being made into the Winter Soldier, Bucky is stripped of everything. Everything they can take from him, they do. He is utterly dehumanized and objectified. And this process goes on for years.
He was only maybe twenty-five, possibly twenty-seven, when he went into the War. He
was at War for maybe a year or more. One year out of 27 is a fair fraction of his life. Five years out of thirty is a much greater fraction. Only it’s not just five years Hydra has Bucky, is it? That’s maybe only the amount of time he’s conscious. They actually keep Bucky for more than 60 years.
For years, Bucky was utterly isolated with his abusers and torturers. He had no friends, no lovers, nothing to encourage any parts of him that are identifiable as a human being, much less as the individual known as Bucky. Everything identifiable as human was actively discouraged, punished, and sometimes physically cut out of him in horrific and brutal ways.
By the time we see Bucky in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky and Bucky’s brain have learned to adapt to the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves. He’s learned to comply with his own objectification. He’s learned to identify with his captors, his torturers, his abusers. He’s learned to follow their orders, even when doing so results in his own immediate physical suffering. He’s learned that thinking for himself or showing any independent thought will result in further physical abuse. He’s learned that human life is worthless and can be discarded if it causes inconvenience. He’s learned that violence is the only way to express anything he feels. He’s learned that nothing he does or is has any value except his violence.
And yet, people still write him bouncing back easily. Becoming pretty much exactly the person he was before the War.
I’ll tell you now: as someone who has PTSD, who has been abused, and who has been clinically trained in the psychology of trauma: Bucky is never going to be who he was before the War. He’s never going to be who he was before Hydra got him. He’s never going to be who he was before they made him into the Winter Soldier. THEY LITERALLY ALTERED HIS BRAIN AND BODY TOO MUCH FOR THAT.
This is not to say that recovery is impossible for him or for any other survivor. The human brain is astoundingly flexible, and almost anything it can learn can be unlearned or supplemented with different learning. That’s what good trauma therapy does: it replaces traumatic learning with new knowledge, new neural pathways, new possibilities. You can reclaim a lot of what you lose to trauma.
But often you do it in different ways. I look back on the person I was before my trauma, and he feels like a different person. I can feel empathy for him, but it’s honestly made easier by the fact that he’s so different from me now that he feels like a wholly different person. It’s like having empathy for a beloved family member rather than myself.
It will take Bucky years to function as anything like a normal human being. And even when he can do that, it will take him longer still to establish a new identity for himself, one that includes both Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier and doesn’t cut off either experience.
So Bucky? Not gonna be the same guy after all that. And it’s starting to really, really piss me off how much some people in this fandom do not grasp that. You can’t fucking write this character and not acknowledge the workings of trauma upon the mind and body. You can’t erase what he’s been through without making the actual survivors in this fandom feel bad, either. Because most of us? Can’t go back to who we were before, either. And many of us don’t want to.